Friday Letter, 12-16-16

This is the last Friday Letter of 2016. I write this letter with joy and I hope to share with you the reasons.

In November I attended a seminar for “experienced” presidents at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. There were 16 of us. Six of the presidents were from the United States, ten were from other parts of the world. Every type of institution was present: research universities, professional schools, community colleges, trade schools, health care schools, engineering schools. All sizes were present, from 1,800 students to 35,000 students. There were private and public, undergrad and grad. I don’t think they could have planned a better diversity of participants.

The seminar revolved around topics that affect presidents. We talked about governing boards, executive teams, crisis management, communication, and student success. At the first introductory dinner, we were asked to state the biggest challenge at our campus. The other campuses talked about resources, the economy, intrusive governing boards, campus climate, losing their accreditation, Brexit. There were issues at every campus that needed to be addressed, but the one I put forward had to do more with me personally than with our campus. My challenge was to make sure that I am the most effective president I can be, at Cascadia, until I retire. My colleagues laughed at me on Day One.

We spent the next two days in rich conversations.

I learned about their struggles with their governing boards. They seemed to revolve around role expectations and trust. Those things are very clear on our campus and our Trustees and I have an excellent relationship. They also trust you, the employees, and see your good work.

I learned that my colleagues were struggling with evaluating their leadership teams, holding them accountable, and letting people go. While it seems that our staff and executive team may always be in flux, I have learned by being at Cascadia that you never stop building your team, you never stop investing in them, and you approach everything from a learning-centered perspective.

I learned that the basic building blocks of a successful campus are: Communication, Transparency, Distributed Leadership, a Culture of Assessment, and a Culture of longitudinal and progressive Change. I know I can point to these building blocks on our campus. While some people may want more of one or another, we attempt to balance these things to keep our shared governance model alive. Most other places, I learned, have not been as successful at this as we have.

I learned that most presidents stay between 5-8 years. They feel at that time they have contributed what they can and need to pass the reigns. But I don’t like to fit into the norm. While I was considered for another opportunity at another campus 2 years ago, the process of going through that dance and the 3 days at Harvard confirmed something for me. I want to be the exceptional president. I want to nurture this campus and break the norms. I want to see this campus thrive. And I want to be here for a very long time. But thinking about retirement (18 years from now) can be daunting. So I learned to view my leadership role in 6 year increments.

I asked myself this question: Why would I want to put the systems, trust, climate, and culture that I’ve worked so hard to build with you into the hands of another? And, why would I want to repeat that process again somewhere else? I think the answers are clear.

I have tried hard to serve Cascadia to the best of my ability for my first six-year block. And I am so excited about the next six-year block. I am excited to have our Trustees. I am excited to have a learning-centered culture. I am excited to have a small amount of resources and fiscal stability. I am excited that we pursue a campus that believes in Pluralism. I am excited about the doors opening with UWB. I am excited about healthy relationships with our unions. I am excited about our continuous improvements to the academic model. I am excited to know and work with you.

My goal is to approach this next 6 year block with an eye for how we will complete our Strategic Plan (there are 6 years left), when and how we will build our next building (hopefully within 6 years), how we will create more resources through grants and our Foundation, and how we will maintain a productive work environment so our students can succeed. I also know that we have a higher employee turn-over rate due to our size and limited promotional opportunities. I would hope that I could bring the stability needed to see our mission through. And I hope that most of you will want to stick along for the ride.

Not every leader is perfect. I know I’ve made mistakes but I try to hold true to the Cascadia model of listening and reflection so as to learn from those mistakes or change course as necessary. I know I also have to make hard decisions that don’t please everyone. But my goal has always been to be fair, just, and transparent.

At the end of the third day, as I shared all of the above with my colleagues through these discussions, each of them commented how they wish they could have what we have here at Cascadia. The larger institutions sought a more intimate environment where the presidents could know their employees. The institutions facing budget cuts wanted simply to hold steady. And they wanted an environment where they could talk through their challenges and come to resolution in a productive manner. We have that. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

On Day Three, they encouraged me to do everything I could to succeed at my goal. They weren’t laughing anymore. And I wish I could give them the good fortune I have here at Cascadia, but the job is not up for grabs.

As 2016 comes to a close, I hope you’ll be able to find the joy of your job and this place.

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