If you ask college and university presidents about transitions, they’ll most likely cite two: arrival and departure. But as I recently signed my latest five-year contract to lead The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), a highly selective, state-run institution of 6,500 students outside the state capital of Trenton, I realized that my tenure has so far been marked by at least two additional transitions.
My first mid-tenure transition took place in 2006, seven years after my arrival in 1999, and it hit me and our college like a one-two punch. First, we and New Jersey’s other state-supported colleges and universities had to absorb a massive budget cut—the largest in the state’s history. As TCNJ recovered from our initial shock, we realized that dealing with a significantly smaller state appropriation would be difficult but manageable. We would have to take stock: What was our core mission? Which programs were critical to that mission? What could we do for our students and faculty to ensure that we produced quality programs with the funds we were given?
The second punch was even harder to take. One of our freshman students died a violent and still-unsolved death. We were faced with the indescribable pain and loss experienced by students, faculty, staff, and of course the family. We had to assess our psychological support programs and residential programming efforts. We had always been proud of our open, quiet, safe campus. Now that sense of security was threatened. We needed to reassure students and parents—and ourselves—that TCNJ was safe, so we reinforced our campus security measures and facilities. Necessarily, the culture changed a bit, but we needed to make sure that as a campus community we were safer and felt safer.
At the time, I saw the budget cut and the student’s death as discrete incidents requiring separate responses. But I came to understand them as different aspects of a new reality that had been thrust upon higher education, requiring a new approach to campus governance. That was my first mid-term transition.
My second came more quietly. By 2010, our tightened security and our straitened finances had become the new normal, but the environment around us continued to change. TCNJ had always been proud of our high graduation rates, but as we delved more deeply into the data on graduation rates, we observed a small gap in the rates at which different cohorts—especially students of color—graduated.
Three other major shifts challenged our sense of ourselves: The philanthropic environment became much more competitive. We saw a decided shift in student specialization toward majoring in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines—one that threatened to undermine the disciplinary balance of the institution. And we began to recognize the need to engage students more effectively in their own education: treating them not as consumers of education dispensed by faculty but as participants, with faculty, in the educational enterprise.
Once again, these challenges presented themselves as separate issues calling for separate resolutions. But even more than in 2006, it became clear that what was needed was not piecemeal measures but a significant course correction. TCNJ needed, in particular, to be more intentional—not to establish processes and live with whatever outcomes they produced, but to define the outcomes we wanted and put in place processes and people likely to bring about those outcomes. One early obvious step, for example, was to establish a division of enrollment management to help shape the disciplinary makeup of our student body.
Becoming more intentional also called for a transformation of the senior leadership team. I took advantage of unfilled vacancies to reengineer some cabinet-level leadership positions. Our human resources leadership was elevated to a vice presidency. I hired a new provost with insight into transforming the learning process—one who knew how to work creatively with faculty to engage students. And an advancement vice president with national experience was recruited so that we could compete effectively in the crowded philanthropic marketplace.
I see three lessons learned from these major mid-tenure transitions:
- A president must listen to what events are telling her. She should not get so immersed in the announced agenda that she becomes oblivious to the ways in which reality has changed since the last formal planning cycle. I had to train myself to recognize change and the need for transition when it arrived.
- A president must never be afraid of sea changes. The longer a president’s tenure, the more the world will change, and the more far-reaching the presidential response must be. Too drastic or too sudden a change, without context, can be destructive to a campus community, but major environmental shifts require major responses.
- A president should not resist or unduly delay making transitions. The winds of change are powerful. If a president ignores them, the institution could be blown far off course. But if a leader catches these currents, she will take the institution where the leadership wants to go, farther and faster than could have been imagined.
R. Barbara Gitenstein is president of The College of New Jersey.