Chapter 7: Leading in Tumultuous Times: The Importance of Mission in Times of Real Change
Posted on February 01, 2021Download as a PDF
Download as a PDF
The 2019-2020 academic year will figure prominently in the histories of our universities and colleges. Early in the morning of October 28, 2019, I awoke in the President’s home located near our University to the heavy presence of smoke in the air. Looking from my yard toward our campus atop the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles, the unthinkable was suddenly very real.
The 2019-2020 academic year will figure prominently in the histories of our universities and colleges. Early in the morning of October 28, 2019, I awoke in the President’s home located near our University to the heavy presence of smoke in the air. Looking from my yard toward our campus atop the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles, the unthinkable was suddenly very real. Flames were racing up the mountain toward the campus. As would be the case at colleges and universities across the country, we enacted our emergency response plan, evacuated our students, and thanks to incredibly responsible students, dedicated staff, and heroic firefighters who protected the perimeters of our campus (and their fastidious fire prevention efforts throughout the year), all members of our community safely evacuated and all major structures were spared. Students were welcomed at our downtown campus, which primarily houses our adult degree and online programs, graduate programs, and a number of nursing programs.
As in any crisis, once the immediate safety of the community is assured, the challenge of meeting particular aspects of the crisis consumes the community. In this case, how would we continue operations with an additional 1,400 students at our downtown campus? How would we find classroom space, lab space, meeting space, office space, housing, and dining space? How could we continue operations to ensure our students could finish the semester successfully? The following days were indeed challenging, and yet in less than a week, operations were fully in place, and our students completed the semester successfully and on time.
Fast forward to spring 2020. Both of our campuses were functioning as planned. The 1,400 students displaced by fire in the fall had returned to their home campus and were immersed once again in their classes, their co-curricular activities, and the other social gatherings and traditions of a liberal arts college. Students at our downtown campus were enjoying more space and were fully engaged in their own academic programs. The semester felt like a relief after the stress of the fall term. On March 13th, students were happy to leave on spring break and looked forward to their return and the fast pace of April and May. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and everything changed overnight—again.
As presidents and leadership teams across our colleges and universities work to address this current crisis, we populate webinars; read the plethora of articles that come across our devices; advocate to our local, state, and federal representatives; meet with our Board of Trustees; and do our best to plan for a short-term future that is opaque at best while trying to keep our eyes on the longer term and confront the looming challenges related to affordability, public skepticism, and shifting demographics in much of the country.
We stand at a critical moment in higher education.
We stand at a critical moment in higher education. We all can agree that the status quo is the surest path to oblivion, and yet we all know that changing culture, changing practices, and changing policies in communities that value shared governance, transparency, and thoughtful consideration that frequently moves at a slower pace than we might wish, is difficult.
So how do we lead through difficult challenges? How do we inspire, facilitate, and enact change? How do we develop an innovative muscle in institutions that tend to cling to tradition and norms that span our histories?
This year of extraordinary (unprecedented, unique, unimaginable: it appears we are running out of adjectives…) challenges, a year in which the only certainty is change and the need to adapt quickly, to innovate boldly, to think differently, this year just may offer us a way forward as we prepare for an unknown or at least unclear future. So how do we take advantage of this moment to move us forward in sustainable ways? How do we, as presidents, lead this charge?
The 2019-2020 academic year has truly pushed my University to re-envision our operations at what was an unimaginably accelerated pace. We opened the academic year committed to creating our next strategic plan. On the heels of a year of budget reductions, people understood that there is much at stake for private colleges and universities across the country. The demographic cliff on the horizon is real and requires our serious attention. We were engaged in interesting conversations, but this year changed the tone.
As we grappled with the necessity of rapid change in the fall and spring, I learned that the quickest way forward is actually by way of the past. At Mount Saint Mary’s, we have gone back to our roots to contemplate both the present and the future. Our University was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, courageous and visionary women whose vision has always been "to respond to the needs of our time.”1 Across their history, the Sisters of St. Joseph have always entered into the complexities of the moment to advocate for social justice and to provide needed services, including healthcare and education. The Sisters of St. Joseph founded Mount Saint Mary’s to respond to the needs of women who lacked access to higher education in Los Angeles in the 1920s. They then created the first Bachelor of Nursing Program on the west coast and the first women’s leadership program west of the Mississippi River to address unmet needs in the community—strong, well-trained health-care professionals and resilient, confident women ready to serve as leaders in their communities. The Sisters’ adept ability to respond to evolving societal needs in real time and the clarity of their commitment to finding new ways to serve and to live have to inform our approach to education. We must be willing to let go of old models and, as our founders remind us, to see with “new eyes.”2
Sustainable change, the kind of change that comes from a community invested in its future, must be mission-driven and must reflect the values that define the University.
As important, however, needed change must come out of the University mission. Sustainable change, the kind of change that comes from a community invested in its future, must be mission-driven and must reflect the values that define the University. We have all seen strategic plans that take root and move an institution forward in compelling ways, and we have seen plans that sit on a shelf. The former creates a path forward within the context of the mission and values of the University, a mission embraced by its members; the latter is a top-down kind of approach that spoke to the goals of some but not to the heart of all.
At Mount Saint Mary’s, our founders ensured that innovation and creativity make up part of our DNA. And across our history, it is a shared understanding of the responsibility placed in our hands that galvanized the community to respond effectively. The creation of a graduate school, a college for post-traditional students, and the acquisition of an additional campus all came from a commitment to respond through mission to the evolving needs of our greater Los Angeles community. This is not easy, of course. There are many in our university communities who fear change and who try hard to keep things as they know them. And yet, I believe that a call to mission brings those needed leaders and first followers to the fore. As we wrestle with access and affordability, financial pressures on our families and our bottom line, accreditation, increased concerns about the mental health of our students, and this current crisis, we must go back to our mission and our identity as an institution.
When I arrived at Mount Saint Mary’s nine years ago, I was struck by the deep commitment to mission that permeates our campuses. The faculty and staff speak articulately about what we do and why we do it. They are deeply invested. As we grapple with the challenges of this time, I have asked our community to commit with me to the entrepreneurial spirit of our founders, to trust that the way forward is indeed forward and not stuck in the present. And in return, our community has taught me to be more candid about the future, both its possibilities and its threats. They have taught me to trust them with the reality of our challenges, to let them help drive innovation—even though it is not always at the pace I might desire. They have reminded me that authentic community is a value we hold dearly, and shared governance requires authentic sharing—on all of our parts. They have reminded me that communication is my most precious tool as president and that the way forward is best when informed by all.
This year, with a fire and a global pandemic, and now a call to true inclusive excellence that goes beyond words and grapples with systemic racism, particularly targeted at the Black community, has been challenging. And yet, I imagine that many others have experienced what I have at Mount Saint Mary’s. Our faculty and staff responded as our founders before them to the needs of this time. In the wake of a fire, our faculty and staff figured out how to house, educate, support, and care for 1,400 additional students on a campus built for far fewer. Outdoor art studios, temporary laboratories in meeting halls, tents, expanded al fresco dining, creative scheduling, partnering with a local hotel, pop-up rehearsal spaces for music students, and enhanced remote learning—our faculty and staff found ingenious ways to meet the needs of our students because, as they shared with me, our students needed a different model and it was their responsibility to adjust and find new ways to ensure their success. And when the pandemic shuttered our campuses, our faculty, many of whom had not embraced remote learning as a part of the liberal arts experience, moved quickly to respond once again. They attended workshops, assisted each other, and within a few days moved their traditional face-to-face courses to a remote modality.I believe that this year higher education has learned a critical lesson: we have discovered that we can change; that we can find creative ways to meet our students’ needs.
I believe that we are at a new “crucible moment”3 in higher education. And I believe that this year higher education has learned a critical lesson: we have discovered that we can change; that we can find creative ways to meet our students’ needs. As we prepare for this fall, our communities are working together in ways that would have astounded many among us a few years back. Something has shifted in our cultures and in our psyches. We are open to what this moment asks of us in ways that defy the stereotypes attributed to higher education. We are seeing with new eyes, and it is a community vision of innovation that will ensure the quality of experience we seek to provide our students and each other.
And as we now turn in response to the pandemic of racism, I am hopeful. If we are to confront systemic racism within our communities on and off campus, we must be willing to examine our systems, structures, curricula, and attitudes, and we must commit ourselves to true change where it is needed. This will not be easy work, but I believe we are up to the task. The mission and the ideals that formed my institution demand a future worthy of the generations of students who will come. I imagine yours do as well. Innovation is in our roots. That’s how we all got here. We came out of a vision of something good, something worthy. We were founded to transform lives through education. We can’t shy away from this challenge. It’s too important.
1“Our History.” Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, 2020, csjcarondelet.org/our-history.
2 Congregational Chapter, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, 2013.
3 The National Task Force on Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement. A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future. Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2016