Higher education client showcase: Transforming a College Culture

In our continued quest to ensure our clients are able to help each other through challenging times, we are sharing periodic client showcases. In the below discussion with Baker Tilly client Dan Carey, President Emeritus of Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, Dan discusses the challenges and successes of transforming a private liberal arts college’s culture to meet the challenges of today’s market.  Dan also served as president of Benedictine College, and while the situation there was different from Edgewood, he found the same strategies applied to refocus the institution on what was critical to meet key mission and margin goals.

Although higher education institutions find themselves at different places strategically and financially, they all share the common need to have a leader who ensures focus and values timeliness in critical decision-making.

In his ten years as president at Edgewood, Dan realized opportunities to build new programs, expand and improve the campus physical footprint, and enhance the approach to academic program delivery by adding online graduate programs and differentiating unique undergraduate offerings.  In Dan’s words, “It was a great time to command.” The healthy state of the college afforded the opportunity for growth, expansion, and refinement. Despite the institution’s positive fiscal position, it faced challenges similar to many others, including retention rate, intense regional competition for students, the need to prove the value of a college education, and return on investment (ROI).

Benedictine College also faced challenges relative to student retention and academic differentiation. However, unlike his presidency at Edgewood, this tenure involved a greater level of effort to resolve a negative fiscal position.

So, what’s the process? How do you even begin to tackle these challenges and opportunities? According to Dan, it’s a healthy mixture of focus, feedback, accountability, and culture.

Focus

First and foremost, the focus must be on the student and how the institution serves its students uniquely. A question to ask is:  what is it that you specifically can and will differentiate about your institution in the marketplace?  During his time at Edgewood, Dan created a culture focused on the mission of the college – its students.  He found that by supporting them, challenging them, loving them, and encouraging them, they were more likely to complete their four-year programs, graduate, and go on to tell others how great their college experience was. This kind of word-of-mouth marketing created a much needed pipeline of prospects.

A key part of successfully focusing on students is to hire and train faculty, staff, and administrators for the mission and reward for performance. He suggests finding the people who are really aligned with the culture and rewarding them accordingly.  Revenue, and therefore your bottom line, will grow and develop as you start to focus on the students. “It’s all about keeping your focus on the students,” Dan says.

Feedback

The feedback process to be used is dependent on the level of urgency (i.e., what is the status of the institution and how urgent is the remedy?). Given that courageous decisions must be made, and might be unpopular, it is the responsibility of the president to make sure that he or she has the right people involved in conversations to ensure transparency when those decisions are made.   Dan encourages current presidents to identify the institution’s “influencers” and engage them in discussions about the realities facing the institution. This also allows for a transparent dialogue about options and the required changes. “It has to be bottom up. It has to start with the faculty and staff, rather than the president simply handing down decisions from the top,” says Dan. Ideally, with the support of key influencers, a critical mass of others can be convinced to “buy in” and support the direction required.

Understanding that one institution cannot possibly be all things to all people will help in making critical decisions.  A word of advice earned through years in two very different situations is to “not wait to make vital decisions,” even if those decisions are reductions to staff. In the case of Edgewood, Dan relied on key advisors, including his financial team at Baker Tilly, to give him the information needed to inform critical decisions. In reality, everyone is looking to their leaders to make the tough decisions.

Accountability and Culture

Just as focus and feedback are vital to ensure the alignment of mission and margin, defined accountability and ownership are equally important. “The key is that each initiative has to be one person’s responsibility, and everyone has to support that person in leading the initiative. My job [as president] was to delegate certain responsibilities to certain people. You have to make the decisions that put people in charge.”

Accountability creates a sense of ownership and pride within a person. It’s the motivation most of us need to succeed. However, we also need a supportive and encouraging culture to thrive in. And if the culture doesn’t already exist, create it.  Dan believes that building executive teams and boards of trustees that support the culture’s essence will begin to permeate through the faculty and staff and finally into the student population. Dan says of culture on campus, “You can feel it when you walk on campus. When you are a small institution, it’s [changing the culture] not turning an oil tanker; it’s more like turning a speedboat – it really is possible.”

Outcomes

The payoffs that Dan experienced in applying this approach to two vastly different situations at the institutions he served were astounding.  Both institutions realized considerable improvement in retention rates – including moving freshmen retention levels from the mid-60 percentile to the lower 80 percentile.  In the case of Edgewood, under his leadership the institution successfully created a competitive and nationally recognized nursing program, increased overall enrollment, and successfully improved campus diversity.  

In summary, focusing on the student, being clear on key differentiators, and creating a campus culture of supported accountability are essential to realizing an institution’s goals.

MPK&D is a strategic partner with Baker Tilly. To learn more about Dan and his partners at MPK&D, please visit http://mpkdpartners.com/.

“As a leader you have to understand that the alignment of mission and margin starts with focusing on the mission and focusing on the students. Revenue, and therefore your bottom line, will grow and develop as you start to focus on the students – student success is what we’re all about!” – Dan Carey, MPK&D Partners, Founding Partner & President Emeritus, Edgewood College

For more information on this topic, or to learn how Baker Tilly higher education specialists can help, contact our team.