Like any new president, when I arrived on the campus of Wofford College in July 2013, there was a sense of anticipation and an expectation of change. The 11th president in the college’s 160-year history, this was my first presidency, and I knew that there was an opportunity to be seized.
Students, faculty, staff, coaches, trustees, alumni, friends, donors, foundations, and community partners all knew the same thing. In some ways, that shared expectation provided its own language of change. As a community, we embraced the idea that things might be different and coalesced around an effort to envision what that sense of difference meant and how to achieve it.
Fast forward nearly seven years. Wofford College used that initial moment of expectation to plan and implement strategic changes to the academic program, student experience, and physical campus. A successful comprehensive campaign and modest enrollment growth began to fuel another opportunity for a new generation of strategic visioning. We were preparing for that second phase of visioning when a global health crisis forced unplanned changes and dramatic new challenges on the higher education community. The pandemic also emphasized racial and socioeconomic disparities that our society has been slow to address. Now, in the midst of responding to one set of external forces, supporting our students, faculty, and staff of color will require yet another system-wide evaluation and commitment to change.
This chapter examines where those the moments of change that demand a new vocabulary to build consensus reside. The stakes are high, and the implication of these changes may be felt for generations.
In my inaugural speech, delivered nine months after I arrived at Wofford, I said that the campus, the campus grounds, and the individual are the preserves of liberty and human progress if, and only if, the fetter of those who fear inquiry, debate, and change are cast aside. We were in the early stages of the strategic visioning process, and this statement defined the boldness we needed to affect the type of seismic change that would consider the future of higher education and give critical appraisal to Wofford’s place in that future.
From the onset, language shaped change, and we recorded that language in the visioning document: “Building on the spirit of engagement and collaboration throughout the visioning process, Wofford’s vision for the future embraces an intimate student population for one-on-one learning, integrates residential and extracurricular into the learning experience, and celebrates diversity, financial and environmental sustainability, and creativity and community involvement.”
Wofford College had a long history before I was asked to lead the institution. Steeped in tradition and filled with stories of legendary professors and the graduates they influenced to go out and make the world a better place, Wofford College offered a tradition of residential, liberal arts teaching and learning comparable with the best colleges of its kind in the nation. Still, Wofford had an unofficial motto: “There’s a right way. There’s a wrong way. And there’s the Wofford way.” And too often, “the Wofford way” was used as a reason to dismiss change. College leaders needed to reclaim that phrase. We needed to demonstrate to our community that the notion of innovation and change does not require the tearing down of the academy and its positive traditions only to reconstruct it in some unfamiliar form. Rather, change is about timing, responding to stimuli, asking the right questions and creating effective processes. Here, timing is crucial, for it is not possible to be in a constant state of innovation and change, which is disrupting and unsettling in itself. Instead, there are moments when a college is primed to engage in substantial and campus-wide innovation and change.
One of those moments is the arrival of new leadership, with expectations of something different — a vision and vocabulary — that flow from that moment. Those expectations are mutually held by college stakeholders, which in many ways makes change at this time easier. Unlike at many other organizations, new college and university presidents have a distinct opportunity and even expectation to bring a refreshed vision of the institution and are given the latitude to formulate a process for change. And, to be clear, such an opportunity is not a reflection on the immediate past. Rather, it is simply in the nature of the transition of leadership in any organization that new ideas and new vocabularies are generated.
Because of this latitude, taking the time to include stakeholders in conversations in which need, intention, and impact are discussed is critical to the formation of a culture that is receptive to change. This type of dialogue prepares a college community for a future different from the present. Hence, at Wofford, we began a year-long process of strategic visioning that incorporated all stakeholders in dialogue. With five broad pillars of change, ranging from curriculum to governance to the physical campus, the groundwork for new practices, programs, and spaces was laid that informed a comprehensive capital campaign.
The start of a new president’s tenure is not the only moment when opportunities for change and innovation occur. Higher education presidencies often reside in a cycle of activity — visioning, strategic planning and implementation, the execution of a capital campaign. This cycle is neither brief nor is it routine, and it can last as long as a capital campaign is in progress, perhaps up to 10 years. Once the cycle is complete, often at the conclusion of the campaign, the time for innovation and change returns, or at least it should.
This time of re-envisioning is designed to infuse new energy in a community that may be fatigued from the work of fundraising and implementation. The narrative becomes one of momentum. Our physics departments are well acquainted with the laws of physics and the properties of energy. Those same properties of energy apply to change.
The success of the previous strategic plan and implementation process that has transformed a campus can create a store of potential energy for the next cycle of progress and improvements. During a re-envisioning process, that potential begins to translate once again to kinetic energy, or energy in motion. This phase of momentum certainly benefits from the original investment in strategic planning, but it relies more on the success of the previous plan and the institutionalization of the resulting programs and capital projects. Momentum allows you to leverage new opportunities and relationships, and regardless of the direct impact of past successes, the entire institution benefits by the shared energy and anticipated forward motion.
In many ways, the success in this phase is evidenced in the effectiveness of the teams you have built to manage growth, change, and opportunity as well as day-to-day operations. These teams should be well versed in your chosen vocabulary because while the language we use can pave the way for change, poorly chosen narratives or negative responses to change can subvert the process. While novelty and expectation are hallmarks of initial change, trust and momentum are required for its second or third wave. Again, initial success helps build both.
Higher education publications of all types speak to the need for innovation and change in what we do and how we do it. Adjectives like “disruption” are used to describe emerging trends in our sector, though it is never quite clear what exactly that means. The fact that we continue to teach and learn in many of the same ways over decades and centuries is often a point of ridicule. Robots and other technologies are making things so much easier and efficient; one can only watch and wonder as much of higher education is left behind.
And yet, the demand is there for the kind of learning that so many of our institutions provide: the classroom is a place where knowledge and ideas are explained, evaluated, tested, manipulated, created, and diffused into the minds of students. It is a place where skills that define our species are nurtured and cultivated, refined and deployed in creative ways to produce words, images, designs, equations, art, and ideas that advance us collectively and prepare individuals for productive and meaningful lives.
So, when we talk about innovation and change as responses to forces of disruption, what do we mean? How do we execute it? And when does it happen? It surely does happen, and some institutions have embraced innovation through the virtual classroom as a cornerstone of their delivery of education, but still, millions of students each year attend in-class instruction using various technologies of learning, blended classrooms, and the like, that complement student-instructor interaction but do not replace it. Reading, writing, oral expression, critical analysis, and the Socratic method remain fundamental to the cultivation of the human intellect and imagination.
Let me offer the following proposition: innovation and change are about programmatic and pedagogical opportunities within the context of our traditional classroom and institutional space. It is not about efficiencies in learning; it is about the quality of learning and experiences we can deliver to our students and how our institutions function. Furthermore, the notion of disruption is often associated with technologies forcing innovation and change: online learning, massive open online courses, and virtual classrooms, all of which reduce the need for physical proximity and presence, buildings and grounds, and people. Yet, again, our campuses are filled with students in buildings in classrooms and labs and studios, they are filled with lively conversation, libraries are busier than ever before, and the campus cafes and coffee shops are hubs of activity.
Of course, as we are experiencing now, there are other moments of fundamental innovation and change driven by external forces typically beyond our control. In a sense, our institutions (and leaders) become reactive to events: social protests around race and bigotry demand new conversations, new ways of thinking, and new programmatic approaches to the student experience. Similarly, environmental activism brought to bear on institutions sustainability practices throughout college campuses including, even, revising endowment investment strategies. The development of new technologies offers opportunities for new pedagogies in and out of the classroom, with virtual learning and 3D experiences vastly expanding the reach of certain kinds of education far beyond the geography of our campuses. In so many cases, practices and programs associated with these and other such external forces are already extant on campuses in different forms; it is the reimagination of how they work to support and reshape the learning experience that is at the core of this moment of change and innovation.
All of our institutions have been committed for years to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campuses. We have changed hiring practices; reallocated resources for recruitment of students, faculty, and staff; and created new support structures and services, while expanding programming. Yet we find ourselves now re-examining all of these efforts, not to tear them down, but to find new vocabularies to express our concern for events around us and our commitments to combatting racism and bigotry in our midst. We ask ourselves, as we are at Wofford, what kinds of new structures do we need on our campuses, new programs, are we doing all we can to realize our collective ideal? External events thus create for us moments of institutional introspection, new beginnings, and change for the future.
I contend that each of these moments demand new processes and a new vocabulary to tap into the energy and resources offered by the campus community. We need to be conscious of when those moments occur: when we arrive through natural cycles and at times when external forces drive our responses. Recognizing these moments, creating inclusive and collaborative engagement — with the leader guiding and drawing on the ideas and hopes of all campus constituencies — is essential to sustaining vibrancy on our campuses over the long haul. The words cannot be cliched, rote, and without vision. The vocabulary will have its greatest impact if it is generative from the opportunity that the moment provides, inspiring vision and aspiration, innovation and change.