Monday, May 19, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 28 A Wonderful Job

New President Interview -- Part 28  A Wonderful Job

Q: Very often one hears complaints about the workplace.  In a large organization such the College how do you make it such a wonderful place to work? 

A: With multiple stakeholders, the College has multiple authorities to answer to.  Sometimes the requirements of one, conflict with the requirements of another.  As a public institution partially funded by taxes we need to answer to the needs of entire community.  We have accreditation agencies looking over individual programs while the entire college has accreditation from the Higher Learning Council.  For example the nursing and radiology programs are accredited by their professional organizations. Employers depend on as outside organization endorsing the College degrees and certificates.   The taxing body over sees our budget and for them the bottom line is the money.  The accreditation agency wants our graduates to get an education that enables them to get a job or continue in a four year college or university. 

The two most important factors affecting how people feel about the workplace are power and money.  If people feel powerless to work within or change the system, they are unhappy.  If they are underpaid or programs are underfunded, they are unhappy.  People have to be empowered to work toward change that will improve the individual and the institution. People need to be listened to and heard.  Very often the people closest to the end users know more about how to improve the organization than the administrator in the central office.  Bean counters know beans, but not students.  I am in favor of being frugal, but not losing sight of the reason the College exists.  Not every decision should be based on the dollars. Decisions should be based on what is good for the students and communities we serve.

Outside of situations of crisis, or danger to health and safety leaders should not be barking orders.  Supervisors need to direct because they have knowledge outside of what people in their department have.  Policies and work conditions need to be based on consensus, not fiat.

Q: What makes one college succeed and another fail to deal with work place unrest?  

When the upper leadership detaches itself from understanding basic human
behaviors, feelings and motivations of people in the organization, the atmosphere becomes toxic. By “toxic” I mean that people are more concerned about keeping their job and not rocking the boat rather than trying to make the organization better and helping the students.  When people work as a team, are appreciated, and allowed to make mistakes, the organization can grow and thrive. No matter how carefully the rules are crafted, sometimes people need to change, adapt, and even bend the rules.  (Of course if the rules can’t be followed, they need to be changed.)

If upper management wants to get rid of unrest, first they need to listen more than talk.  Sometimes directed listening diffuses a problem without the need to issue directives.  The best leaders know how to listen, read people and anticipate the future. Leaders who bark orders are similar to dictators who rule by force.

Q: What are the pressures of funding on college and universities?

Columbia University in the City of New York recently completed a $6.1 billion fund raising campaign.  This was the largest campaign in Ivy League history.[1] Some of the money is for new buildings, some for endowment, and some for specific programs.  Even though Columbia’s endowment grew significantly with their campaign to a value of about $8.2 billion, it is still much smaller than Harvard’s $32 billion, Yale’s $21 billion, Stanford’s $19 billion, and Princeton’s $18 billion.  To our College this sounds like an astronomical amount.  We have a yearly budget of $280 million and an endowment of less than $1 million. Their endowments allow them more economic flexibility than colleges without endowments.

Funding is always a delicate balance of income and expenditures.  Income comes from tuition, fees, tax support, investments, and grants. As a public college we answer to community and to the state legislature even when their messages conflict.  We do not have total control over any of the sources.

While we want to keep our costs for students low, we know that to recruit and keep the best faculty and staff we need to pay decent salaries. We also need to offer benefits and rewards that are appropriate to keeping our people working as a team.

Many of my colleagues in other universities report demoralizing program cuts.  They see the administration demanding budget cuts without concern for the welfare of the students. We see states wanting more graduates while forgetting that greater numbers does no service to the community.  If we don’t have quality graduates then the value of the degree is worthless.  We could easily manipulate the numbers of graduates by lowering standards and requirements.  That would be a disservice to our students and the community. 

Q: You are sometimes critical of the media.  We are professional communicators.  What is your position on communication skills?

With all due respect the general for-profit media is in the business of selling copies or getting people to view their web sites.  Their business is selling information.   There are investigative reporters who try to go beyond the daily news reports, but just look at the promotion of these reports on TV before they air.  Sometimes the stations spend more time on the promotion and teasers, then the whole story.  They are going to choose stories that are most appealing to the intended audience.  Now this is not bad.  It is something we have to teach students to be aware of.  Journalists write newspaper and TV stories while scholars and those wanting to be scholars write for scholarly publications.

Communication skills are essential in every field.  Listening, learning, reading, are an important as saying and writing. One must master the language and vocabulary of the general world so that people take you seriously and respect your authority.  The language and vocabulary in your profession or academic discipline are important to help communicate with a precision and expertise.  Communication also includes the ability to read and understand texts, academic publications, and everyday human communications. Mastery of communication includes all types of media such as print, electronic, visual, and non-print media. One must be able to write and express one’s self to the general public and colleagues.

Critical thinking is a skill that involves gathering data and information from multiple sources to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate. The information gathered interacts with previous knowledge and experience and enables executive decisions or indicates when to seek help.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-eight of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] For the full story see the Spring 2014  issue of Columbia Magazine. “The Evolving University” an interview with Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger (  and  “Going Places” (

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