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Professional Opinion

Higher ed transitions require a positive outlook

A new president faces higher ed challenges by focusing on what’s working
University Business, September 2016
Elizabeth L. Paul is president of Capital University in Ohio.
Elizabeth L. Paul is president of Capital University in Ohio.

I became president of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, in July. A long-established private university proud of its mission and compelled to deliver the kind of education our community and world desperately need, Capital was on the cusp of something great.

The university is in transition—in a good way—and that likely is the new normal given the dynamic challenges facing many higher ed institutions now.

Surely, administrators today must enter the field with eyes wide open and be nimble on their feet. The intensifying drumbeat of challenge and even despair facing increasing numbers of higher ed institutions triggers justified alertness to signs of institutional weakness and financial softening.

Leaders are naturally inclined to transition with the mindset of a diagnostician looking for problems to solve, weaknesses to strengthen and broken systems to fix—actions that are necessary for achieving a sustainable path.

It’s unintentional, but the negativity and anxiety cast by that approach are very real, and it misses the opportunity to build relationships and momentum by acknowledging what’s working—by lifting up and building on what’s good.

Mindful of this challenge, in approaching my new responsibilities at Capital, I have drawn on my early roots in community development for transition guidance.

How shall I transition to a new higher education community, exercising sharp attention to risk factors while at the same time identifying and encouraging the positive energy that is critical to enacting institutional change and advancement?

Accentuating the positive

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer had it right in their 1944 tune, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” Borrowing from community development approaches like asset mapping and appreciative inquiry, leaders can “latch on to the affirmative” so as to “eliminate the negative.”

Asset mapping guides community leaders in leveraging their transition to explore untapped potential and unseen connections. Seeking the talents of community members, iconic triumphs and accomplishments, virtues of the institutional culture, and signs of care and commitment reconnects the learning community with the mission that fuels the organization’s past, present and future.

Paired with asset mapping, appreciative inquiry tempers the instinct to focus on what’s not working by redirecting our energy to uncover the institution’s positive potential. Community members are inspired to reflect on that which gives the institution life and meaning.

In the process, we build buy-in and trust by amplifying community strengths, and by discovering anew the magnetic core that drew everyone into a common purpose in the first place. We also unleash creative and innovative thinking about new mission-driven possibilities and opportunities.

Holding the organization’s strengths and opportunities firmly in mind emboldens us to look more confidently at weaknesses, challenges and threats. The reflective discussions emphasize local investment and determination, and build the capacity for tackling challenges collaboratively with creativity and resolve.

Championing inclusion, innovation

Like most longstanding private institutions, the traditional undergraduate experience has been at the heart of the Capital education for many years and will continue as a core focus. But demographics are shifting.

Re-careering and the need for lifelong learning are common, and the knowledge-based, freelance and global economies fuel demand for new skills and competencies.

Transition is the new normal. So our relevance will reside in our conviction about our purpose, our eagerness to embrace what is unknown and our ability to draw strength from what is different.

“We” will always be stronger than “me.” Whether exploring new modes of delivery, redefining the concept of a “traditional” student or re-establishing the boundaries of our markets, leaders of transition champion inclusion and innovation throughout their organizations to keep them alive. And they must do so while honoring the values and attributes upon which the organization was built.

I joined Capital because we share a deep sense of mission, passion and purpose. I’m proud to lead it as it evolves, partners and discovers new approaches to meet the needs of its students, communities near and far, and an ever-transitioning world.

Elizabeth L. Paul is president of Capital University in Ohio.

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