Leadership & Governance

How One President Manages Change and Gets People on Board

A. Gabriel Esteban, Seton Hall University

July 28, 2015

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza

For college presidents today, the question is not whether they must lead change on their campuses but how they can best manage it, says A. Gabriel Esteban, president of Seton Hall University, in New Jersey. Colleges are still responding to the aftermath of the recession and its effects on the middle class, he says. And they are facing significant demographic shifts that make the market for students increasingly competitive.




Mr. Esteban talks about how he works to get people on board with new strategies and how he has sought to change the direction of the Roman Catholic university while preserving its core mission.



SARA HEBEL: Hi. I'm here with Gabriel Esteban, the president of Seton Hall University. Thanks for being here.

A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Thank you. Good morning, Sara.

SARA HEBEL: We have many college presidents who come through here talking about the importance now of managing change as a leader. Why is that something that's so important these days? And what does it mean?

A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Yeah, I think in most organizations — it's not just higher ed — but there's always a reluctance — inertia, I guess — associated with most institutions. And that inertia makes it difficult to change, so to speak. But we forget sometimes that the world has evolved significantly since the Great Recession. In higher ed, especially if you look at our region, the Northeast, for example, not only are you dealing with the aftermaths of the economic recession, which I think impacted a lot of middle-class families, but you're also seeing some significant demographic shifts which have been well chronicled.

And it's ultra competitive in the Northeast, just because of the sheer number of higher-education institutions. So it's not a matter of whether or not you should be changing, it's a matter of how do you manage that change so people are on board and are willing to go with you as you shift strategies and so on.

SARA HEBEL: So when you decide that you need to move the inertia and make a change, shift a campus, where do you start?

A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Yeah, I think it all starts with getting people involved in that whole process. In our case, we started with our strategic planning process, where we involved the university community. So everyone had some say in terms of what we might be looking at for the future. So everyone understood where we were coming from and everyone understood why there are reasons that we may need to change, so to speak. So once you get that buy-in, that goes a long way. Then you have to constantly communicate — set guideposts, for example — so you can move forward, that everyone knows that you're moving forward.

In our case, after we had that initial — once we got approval from the board — when I became president we started town-hall meetings once a year. And I actively meet with small groups of faculty, staff — randomly selected groups of six to eight people — every two, three weeks. And we talk about some of the things we're working on, how it fits towards long-term goals, and open the floor to questions. So these sessions might last an hour, an hour and a half. I think the longest was two hours. And I really don't know what questions are going to come up. And I found town-hall meetings also involve allowing people to ask questions. So people feel involved in that whole process, and that helps move things, as you implement the changes.

And changing an institution, or changing the direction of a university, it's almost like steering a ship, a large ship. But once you move it in a certain direction, it makes it easier to move it forward.

SARA HEBEL: Let's talk about enrollment. That's one big area that you've been trying to make some changes in. How does it play out in that front?

A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Yeah. One of the things. When I was asked to take over enrollment management as provost in 2009, one of the first things we did was we looked at the profile of student we are attracting to Seton Hall. And we realized that in the quest to become a stronger academic institution the focus had been so much on the average SAT, among other things, and so on. But if you look at it from a pedagogical standpoint, what you really wanted to do was look at your core — the middle student, so to speak — then try and move that slightly forward, so to speak. So our strategy started to look at what types of students are in our core population and how do we attract them, how do we retain them, and so on.

So since Fall 2009 our SAT average has gone up, counting this fall, probably 95 points, which is significant over a six-year period. And five of the largest classes we've had since 1982 have happened the last six years. So this fall we're projecting our undergrad population to be up close to 15 percent over Fall 2009, which is unusual in the environment we're competing in, so to speak.

At the same time, one of the things we're committed to do is make sure that we serve a diverse population. And diverse meaning not just in terms of ethnicity. But also roughly 30 percent of our freshmen are still first generation and roughly 29 percent, 28 percent of our undergrads are Pell eligible. And we monitor that from year to year.

We also look at geographic diversity. And the percentage of New Jersey students has steadily declined, actually. From when we started, I think it may be close to 10 percentage points less. So it's that constant push and identifying segments of students who do well in a Seton Hall environment.

And I think one of the things we try and tell our recruiters and tell the board is we want students who are hungry, students who want to be at Seton Hall and prove that they belong, which is a very different mind-set versus some of the things that they deserve to be at Seton Hall because of A, B, C. So we'd rather have someone who wants to roll up their sleeves and work.

SARA HEBEL: That leads me to my question about your mission as a Catholic institution. That also has been changing in today's environment. How do you see that piece of your identity evolving?

A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Yeah, it's a key piece of who we are. Early on one of the challenges we had is we're a diocesan university. There are only nine diocesan colleges or universities in the U.S. And what's a diocesan university was the obvious question. And if you're not Catholic, it's not a typical question you get to ask. It's not like you're a Jesuit institution or you're at La Salle, you're affiliated with one of the religious orders.

So that was one thing. So one of the early questions was, what do we do? Do we downplay the Catholic? But our mission statement is clear. So you always go back to the mission. The very first line says Seton Hall is a major Catholic university. So that started to drive a lot of the things who we are.

So we started to look at things which stress our Catholic mission and our identity. So we started the first, and I think it's still the only, department of Catholic studies on the East Coast. And we received an apostolic blessing from Saint Francis. I think we were the first, probably the only one, which received such a blessing. We also started some traditions. Like now we have a tree lighting ceremony which draws about 2,000 students, alumni and just visitors to campus every year. So we started to emphasize that.

At the same time, what's interesting is we have quite a few students of diverse religious beliefs. And in chatting with them, they say that the reason why they like Seton Hall — it's a place where they can be spiritual, which is a fascinating answer because they're not Christians. But they feel safe to be spiritual at Seton Hall. So that's important to us. Being a Catholic institution and making a commitment to that has strengthened who we are. Because when we recruit, people know coming in this is who we are, these are the values which we value, and so on.

SARA HEBEL: Thank you very much for being here with us today.

A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Well, thank you.


Sara Hebel is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle. She directs a team of editors and reporters who cover broad trends in higher education and the people who grapple with them. Follow her on Twitter @shebel, or email her at sara.hebel@chronicle.com