Presidents Share What’s Worked

June 18, 2017

Steven C. Bahls

President, Augustana College (Ill.)

College administrators trying to establish their own favored programs too often try to obtain faculty buy-in after the fact. Far more likely to succeed is doing the hard work of creating alignment with the faculty at the front end.

Creating such alignment is an iterative process that begins with respectful discussions around shared values. While this process takes longer, it ensures that the programs are supported and implemented in a timely way.

When I became a college president 14 years ago, I had a very different view. Early on, I drafted a strategic plan on my own and then sought faculty buy-in. I circulated the plan to the faculty and held sparsely attended open forums. I made some minor changes based on relatively few faculty comments and declared that I had faculty buy-in. I could not have been more wrong. The real discussion of the plan with the faculty took place after the board had adopted it, delaying full implementation for years.

Shared governance, I have learned, involves more than simply consulting with faculty and then cajoling their support. Instead, effective shared governance involves discussion with faculty early and often in the process of developing new programs. It entails providing faculty with understandable information that enables them to participate responsibly. It entails administrators educating the faculty about financial and market realities. It entails the faculty educating the administration about what it takes to develop, implement, and assess strong programs. And it entails the hard work of building trust and creating a shared vision for outstanding student outcomes. That in turn helps the institution develop the financial and human-resources capacities needed to establish the best programs and help students succeed.

Alignment between the faculty, the board, and the administration nourishes a culture focused on mission. It moves shared governance from consultation to shared responsibility and shared accountability.


 Ana Mari Cauce

President, University of Washington

A year ago, the University of Washington launched the Population Health Initiative, a multi-decade undertaking to help people live healthier and more fulfilling lives. The initiative was conceived as a way to leverage not only the university’s research and programmatic strengths, but also to create spaces and opportunities for collaboration between the university and the many organizations in the Puget Sound region — and around the world — that support human health, environmental resilience, and social and economic equity.

For a mission this ambitious and wide-ranging to succeed requires sustained buy-in and engagement from every college, school, campus, and department as well as from our key external partners. It also requires us to look at our own practices, since, as a community of more than 100,000, a focus on health and well-being begins at home.

Establishing that kind of broad-based and committed engagement cannot happen from the top down or after the fact. Although we officially started the program a year ago, our Board of Regents and faculty-senate leadership were part of discussions that began well before. Involvement by leaders in schools and colleges, as well as faculty senate and student government, was crucial in the development of the effort.

An executive council with faculty, student, and staff representatives from across the university has played a critical role in determining strategic directions and broadening engagement. One reason the Population Health Initiative has generated so much enthusiasm on campus is that it is an opportunity to amplify the ground-breaking work that people are already passionate about and to ensure that our ideas and discoveries get out into the world where they can have the greatest possible impact. 


Donald J. Farish

President, Roger Williams University

On a college campus, change cannot be imposed from above. Rather, change requires buy-in by the faculty, and buy-in only occurs if there is a mechanism to recognize the work of faculty in adopting the proposed change and if the faculty see the change being proposed as logical and reasonable.

On my campus, we wanted to greatly expand the opportunities for students to engage in project-based learning. We identified a few faculty who relished the idea of being on the leading edge of change and worked with them as they created interdisciplinary student teams. These teams, made up of students in the faculty member’s course, would take on a project for which a nonprofit organization in the community had requested assistance, and propose a solution.

Using classroom theory, students worked directly with their community partners, redesigned their recommendations when community partners’ expectations changed, met deadlines, learned negotiation skills with students from other disciplines, prepared reports, made oral presentations, and in general gained experience in their academic discipline even before they graduated.

Students in the initial handful of these community-based projects spoke very positively of their experience, and many of the initial faculty did the same. The result was growing enthusiasm from other students to have similar opportunities in their academic departments, and faculty who may initially have been hesitant soon were joining in, thereby adding new academic disciplines and increasing the number of projects we were able to undertake.

Six years later, we average 50 projects each year, drawn from 35 participating academic programs, involving almost 70 faculty, and enrolling about 400 students annually.

During the most recent faculty contract negotiations, we were also successful in building in formal recognition for faculty undertaking these projects as a valued item in their retention, tenure, and promotion files.

Faculty buy-in, a recognition system, and a good idea are the elements necessary to effect change on a college campus.


Christopher Howard

President, Robert Morris University

I often say that to be a successful leader, you have to earn three Ph.D.s: A Ph.D. in yourself, a Ph.D. in the world around you, and a Ph.D. in leadership itself. That "Ph.D. in the world around you," or being contextually aware, is critically important to execute significant change in higher education.

For example, I previously was president of Hampden-Sydney College, a liberal-arts institution where the faculty have a much different governance model than at Robert Morris University, which is larger, professionally focused, and has unionized faculty. So you need to understand the rules of the game before you can do anything. At Hampden-Sydney, changing the name of the "Economics and Commerce" department to "Economics and Business" required far more faculty buy-in than we needed at Robert Morris to change the name of our master’s program in "Information Security and Assurance" to "Cyber Security and Information Assurance."

Every college and university is consensus-driven, but that doesn’t mean you should try to get everyone on board before moving forward with a new program. If you try to convince everyone to do something, you’ll never get anything done. At RMU we’ve been able to launch a corporate leadership-development program by identifying and engaging a handful of faculty who are eager to craft curriculum customized to match the needs of corporate partners. This is a nimble program we wanted to get off the ground quickly. That would be impossible if we had to get consent from all quarters. Often you need to seek the appropriate level of consensus, not the maximum level.

Finally, don’t forget that meaningful change doesn’t have to come from the president’s office. Faculty and staff often have transformational ideas that have been overlooked or never received the resources needed to reach their potential. A president can generate a lot of goodwill by bringing to full flower ideas and programs that already have grass-roots support.


Maria Klawe

President, Harvey Mudd College

When I became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006, my first priority was to lead a strategic-planning process. Harvey Mudd has a tradition of strong faculty governance, and I wanted to lead a process that would engage faculty members, as well as the larger college community, and produce a strategic vision that all constituencies could embrace.

The crucial elements of our process were inclusion and transparency. From the first step to the final vision document, we tried to be as participatory and as transparent as possible. For example, we began by surveying every member of the faculty, as well as students, staff, alumni, and trustees, to gather input on what topics and issues should be dealt with in our strategic planning. We organized the responses into themed categories, sent our lists to the entire community, and gathered feedback on both topics and themes.

Steering committees for each theme, composed of members from all college constituencies, led workshops during one week set aside for institutional reflection. We canceled classes to allow faculty and students to participate fully and to hear the keynote speakers who commenced each workshop. Discussions were designed for maximum engagement and transparency, with trained moderators who ensured participants equal time and opportunity to contribute thoughts and ideas. Scribes took notes that were broadcast in real time and posted later for the community to provide further feedback.

Six overarching themes emerged from our discussions, and through an iterative process of drafting, presenting to the community, and incorporating feedback, we developed a final, unifying document. Having created the vision themselves, college constituents embraced it widely and took action to fulfill it. For example, one of the six themes of the vision is "Unsurpassed Excellence and Diversity at All Levels," and community buy-in has enabled Harvey Mudd to significantly increase diversity in our students, faculty, staff, and board of trustees. We are still using the six key themes and corresponding goals, over 10 years later, to guide the college’s direction.


Kathleen McCartney

President, Smith College

By virtue of their role, effective presidents — those that are change leaders — necessarily play a key leadership role in institution building. A new program may arise from a committee, a strategic plan, or a president’s idea of what is best for the institution. Regardless of the source, a president should own the decision to move it forward with solid arguments and transparency. In order to do this, there must be meaningful outreach to the faculty and other stakeholders.

In tandem, effective presidents must have a strong belief in the collective wisdom of a community. When I started our strategic-planning process at Smith, I was committed to a grass-roots approach. I issued a call for the best creative thinking from each and every member of our community — staff, students, and faculty alike — an approach that yielded 190 proposals; I added my own to the mix. I called upon our Committee on Mission and Priorities to help me evaluate the proposals. Small working groups and a faculty retreat followed. Open discussions led to multiple refinements, eventually resulting in a final plan that enjoys wide support and is guiding programming going forward.

Presidents need to learn to follow, too. In fact, I am heartened by the fact that I am not the only person leading change. For example, a year into my presidency, 40 faculty members presented me with a proposal for a Design Thinking Initiative. The proposal was endorsed by faculty across the disciplines, from engineering to dance. In this instance, I viewed my role as a supporter of a group that had written a compelling proposal about an important curricular innovation. Shared governance is the key to the kind of continuous learning that distinguishes the best colleges.


Christopher Puto

President, Spring Hill College

When I began my term two years ago as the college’s first lay president in its 187-year history, the campus was emerging from a particularly stressful time. At commencement, the student speaker described me as "the third president" during his four years of study. Everyone (faculty, staff, alumni) agreed that the college was ready for "something," but there was little agreement on what that "something" was. We needed a compelling vision for the future, a strategic plan that articulated a unified set of achievable goals, and corresponding actions that would bring this to fruition.

My first formal action as president was to designate the elected chair of the faculty as an ex-officio member of the college senior leadership team — the presidential cabinet. The chair of the faculty was privy to the same confidential financial and operating data as the other senior college leaders and shared equally in all executive discussions.

The second major action was to create a strategic-planning steering committee co-chaired by an elected senior faculty member and an elected member of the college staff. The steering committee took responsibility for oversight of the process. They organized 50 small-group planning units who then executed a collegewide situation analysis: What did we do well? What did we not do well? What should we not be doing? What should we be doing that we are not? Who are our primary constituents for each group, and who are the primary competitors?

We agreed on a vision for the future, created 10 overarching five-to-seven-year strategic goals, and created a dashboard for tracking progress and success. The situation analysis, plan development, and trustee approval consumed the first year, and we are now completing the first year of plan implementation. The steering committee now serves as a sounding board for goal modification, as appropriate, and as the provider of constructive feedback as results are reported or impediments are identified.

This process is based on transparency, trust, and mutual respect, all focused on a common goal. It could not have happened without full faculty engagement.