A New President and the Board Chair Compare Notes

By Devorah Lieberman    //    Volume 20,  Number 5   //    September/October 2012

When I accepted the position to become the president of the University of La Verne, I knew that I faced a triple challenge during the following seven months before taking office in July 2011.

For one, this would be my first presidency, and I would need to learn about a new institution in Southern California. La Verne had different complexities than Wagner College in New York, where I had previously served as provost and vice president for academic affairs. In addition, I needed to discharge my responsibilities at Wagner, which included assisting my successor with her transition into the role as provost. Then, too, there was the personal side. My husband and I had to move our family across the country.

The challenges I faced might have been more daunting had I not known of and endorsed the values of “reflective practice.” At Wagner, I had led efforts to institute reflective practice throughout the curriculum. The reflective process provides a structure for students to review and analyze what they are experiencing and from that draw forth meaning. I decided to keep a reflective journal during my transition from provost at Wagner to president at La Verne, and I asked the La Verne board chair, Luis Faura, president and chief executive officer of C&F Foods in City of Industry, Calif., if he would also keep one at the same time.

Writing such journals would provide the opportunity for each of us independently to reflect upon a common element: the presidential transition. It would also give us an opportunity to review each others’ journals and to discuss how to create the most effective working relationship.

We began shortly after my selection as president and continued through my inauguration in October 2011. Two or three times a week, I spent 20 or 30 minutes typing my impressions onto my iPad. I usually made my notes after important telephone calls and teleconferences with Luis, senior administrators, and faculty members.

The act of writing, of articulating my reactions and impressions, helped me to refine the significance of the discussions. Days or weeks later when the issues resurfaced in new conversations, I would return to my initial entries on the topic. That deepened my understanding of those issues and helped me to be more strategic in my actions.

Luis kept a journal as well. After seeing mine, he laughed and told me that I was a much more prolific writer. Yet we both have agreed that sharing first impressions and candid observations, and then being able to talk about our thinking, provided valuable insight into each other’s personalities and perspectives. Journaling generated a complementary relationship that might otherwise have taken months or longer to evolve. Although I’ve been on the job a relatively short time, we both think our relationship is as strong as many chairs and presidents who have worked in harmony for years.

Luis, whose company processes and ships dried beans, peas, rice, and popcorn to domestic and international markets, has discovered that journaling is even an important tool in the management of his business. “After key meetings, I jot down a few notes,” he told me. “For example, we meet once a week to talk about new items for the market and innovative products and packaging. This cross-functional team involves sales, research and development, quality control, accounting, supply chain, purchasing, and administration. Reflective practice has helped me better understand the interaction of my team and develop new ways of managing each member. Reflection has definitely increased our productivity.”

For me, journaling allowed me figurative and literal space to separate the three main components of my transition. In the journal, I analyzed major issues as they emerged, recorded my thoughts, and knew that I could return to the details when I needed. That process freed me to concentrate on the issues at hand and at the same time focus on the future.

In short, the journaling process significantly facilitated my transition into a new institutional culture as its president. I encourage all new presidents and chairs of higher education institutions to consider it.