USA Funds Symposium: How Do We Move an Institution From What It Currently Is to What It Ought to Be?

Two universities: One is a blank canvas; the other has a 109-year history. Two university presidents are trying to move those institutions in new directions.

During the 2013 USA Funds® Symposium, Adena Williams Loston, president of St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, and Daniel Kaufman, president of Georgia Gwinnett College near Atlanta, shared their stories of promoting institutional change.

St. Philip’s College: Good to Great

Loston reported that, when she arrived on campus in 2007, the college — which is both a Historically Black College and a Hispanic Serving Institution — was in the midst of celebrating the 109th anniversary of its founding as a sewing school for recently freed slaves.   
Loston said she arrived with respect for the institution and its values. “They managed to thrive and survive before Adena arrived,” she said.

But Loston also discovered a host of issues that had to be addressed. 

“We had many islands of excellence and silos of prominence,” she reported. “We had six different advising models. We had several people in charge of advising, with no one plan for advising for St. Philip’s College. There were nine people who actually claimed they were responsible for facilities. Pick an operational area, and on any given day, I’d have different people showing up in my office claiming they were in charge of this.”

Loston says she launched her agenda for institutional change by sharing the details of her employment contract with members of the campus community. “As I shared what was expected of me, I also shared what was expected of the campus community to ensure we accomplish the goals and objectives that were elements of my contract,” she said.
In the coming months, she launched the institution’s annual strategic planning process based on the bestselling book, “Good to Great,” with the goal of determining how to move the institution “to the next level.”
She invited to the first planning session all administrators who managed a budget or could influence allocation of resources, a group of more than 80.  
They kicked off the process by identifying through appreciative inquiry methods the institution’s successes and by celebrating its history and achievements. Then the college leaders moved on to work toward collective agreement on reaffirming the institution’s vision, mission and values, and to re-establish its former tagline, “A Point of Pride in the Community.” They began talking about new directions, discussing “provocative propositions” and benchmarking.

The campus leaders refined the strategic direction in the months that followed, and according to Loston, established an annual strategic planning process.

“We set ourselves on a course that became an annual process,” Loston said, “where we continued to engage all the leaders in moving us through the process of constantly evaluating where we were and using data going through the cycle of learning.”
Each May the college conducts a Good to Great celebration to highlight its accomplishments and kick off the strategic planning process for the following year. Loston also reported that the college has embedded the principles of the national Baldridge Performance Excellence Program in all of its practices.
In January a group of statewide examiners from Texas Quality Foundation visited the college to consider it for recognition of its performance excellence.

Georgia Gwinnett College: Starting From Scratch

When Daniel Kaufman accepted a new job in 2005, it was to establish the first new public college in Georgia in 100 years. He had 11 months to open the doors to the new college.

“We started with a clean slate,” Kaufman said. “We had the opportunity to reinvent public higher education so it makes sense for the 21st century, not the 17th century.”

Among the differences with other postsecondary institutions that have resulted from that orientation are the following:

Innovation and tradition. “Because of our unique position, we decided we wanted to be a wellspring of innovation in higher education,” Kaufman said. “We wanted to institutionalize the culture of innovation, to ingrain the notion that change is the norm. The only tradition we have is we have no traditions.”

Instructional technology. “Our charter is to innovate in technology,” he said. “But it’s not all about information technology, not about the gizmo. It’s about using the gizmo to enhance student learning, so we can reach out to where our students are, not necessarily where we are.” Kaufman noted that, while 40 percent of the college’s students work 30 hours a week or more, the college does not offer a single online course. Instead, it streams lessons to students who can’t come to class.

Class size. “We started with the notion that this college is going to be about students, so we built all of our classrooms for no more than 25 people,” Kaufman reported. Gateway courses for freshmen are limited to 20 students.

Faculty-student engagement. “Teaching and student engagement are our top priority,” Kaufman said. Faculty are expected to take attendance. Each faculty member is provided a cell phone, with the number published in the syllabus, and faculty are expected to respond to student calls. Each faculty member is assigned 28 freshmen to mentor each year.

Tenure. “We asked ourselves, ‘If tenure didn’t exist, would we invent it?’ The answer is no, so we don’t have tenure,” Kaufman said, noting that Georgia Gwinnett is the only school in the University System of Georgia that doesn’t offer tenure.

Organization. “We don’t have academic departments, which means we don’t pay for department chairs, department chair offices, and department chair secretaries,” Kaufman reported. “We can use those resources in other ways.”

He noted that faculty are not assigned offices by discipline, “so we have a history professor next to a computer scientist next to a biologist. They actually talk to each other.” Kaufman noted the college employs one vice president for both academic and student affairs, putting responsibility for student development with one person. “This shows that we’re trying to eliminate silos, so they’re all committed to one thing, and that’s student success. That’s what we’re in business for,” he said.

Curriculum. Kaufman said, “We deliberately restrict the number of programs we have. We have 12 majors, and are about to add nursing as the 13th. We don’t have a Chinese menu of course offerings. We focus on a practical liberal arts education.”

Student success. Kaufman reported the institution invests heavily in student support services. He noted that the college offers a “tic-tac-toe” of tutoring services: TIC for tutoring in the classroom, TAC for tutoring around campus, and TOE for tutoring online.

He also cited an immersion program that combines learning support with freshman English. Kaufman said retention rates for freshman classes at the open admissions college are on par with those for the state’s universities and that retention rates for minority students are comparable to those for white students.

“We transform higher education, and we transform lives,” he concluded. “We do it one student and one community at a time. And by doing that, we can change America for 2040. ”

The presentation from this session is available from the USA Funds website.​