A Question for Mary Papazian

Transforming Under Pressure

By Erin Geraghty    //    Volume 32,  Number 1   //    January/February 2024

Mary Papazian, PhD, joined AGB as Executive Vice President in August, 2023. A two-time former university president with extensive board experience, Papazian orchestrates AGB’s strategic planning processes to strengthen members’ satisfaction, engages with media and external stakeholders to advance AGB’s thought leadership, and oversees partnerships with grant-makers and subject matter experts to expand reach and impact.

During your tenure as president, San Jose State University (SJSU) was named #1 Most Transformative University by Money magazine. What lessons did you learn leading a university undergoing a digital transformation of its business model during the COVID-19 disruption?

SJSU’s designation as the #1 Most Transformative University focused on how the SJSU experience transformed students’ lives and the opportunities before them. For this, I credit the faculty and staff who have long been committed to equitable student success. As one of the most diverse institutions in the country with a large percentage of first-generation students, SJSU also benefits from its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, where it developed close partnerships with the business and civic communities, particularly in the technology sector. Accordingly, we strove to equip students with the tools they needed to thrive in a digital world. We designed and launched a successful three-year digital transformation effort in 2017, an initiative that involved redesigning many of our internal processes, which can be threatening if not handled with clarity and transparency. We defined a clear vision of what we wanted to accomplish—enabling our faculty, staff, and students to work, learn, and teach from anywhere—and a commitment to engaging all impacted stakeholders in the design process. We were also committed to transparent communication and adopting change only if it created a measurable benefit for the campus community. We were fortunate that this work preceded the onset of the pandemic and fortuitously ensured that we were prepared when faced with the disruption created by the pandemic.

With many presidents, board members, faculty, and students struggling to gain footing in a tumultuous era, what are some examples of strategies that institutions might adopt to shift from a reactive to a proactive posture?

Developing a proactive strategy is critical to an institution’s long-term ability to thrive and requires an artful blend of strategy, adaptability, and foresight. It starts with a clear vision and mission, the true North Star toward which all decisions lead. It also requires having disparate viewpoints around the table to ask good questions, identify blind spots, and develop meaningful strategies for collaboration. Other approaches include scenario planning, risk assessment, and agile decision-making structures such as streamlined communication channels, empowered task forces, or interdisciplinary committees dedicated to rapid response. It is important to encourage a forward-looking approach by emphasizing long-term strategic planning. When the horizon is only a few years, the results tend toward tactics rather than transformational strategy. Long-range planning involves setting clear, adaptable goals that are aligned with the institution’s mission while being flexible enough to pivot in response to emerging trends and challenges. Finally, it is also critical to align expectations and incentives with proactive rather than reactive approaches to addressing present and future challenges.

Given the academic freedoms under siege at many institutions, what advice can you offer colleges and universities as they work to mediate, mitigate, and reconcile the environment surrounding campus culture?

Institutions benefit from having clear policies and guidelines that establish and delineate the boundaries of academic freedom while fostering an inclusive and respectful environment. These policies should navigate the complexities of free speech and ensure that diverse viewpoints are welcome, while also making it clear that neither hate speech nor harassment will be tolerated. In the development and implementation of these policies, campus leaders should facilitate open dialogues among faculty, students, and administrators to surface any concerns and to come to a shared understanding of the expression of academic freedom on campus. Additionally, strategies might include developing educational programs or workshops to educate the campus community on current critical issues, ensuring support for diverse perspectives within curriculum and campus activities, defending faculty and students who engage in controversial or dissenting research or discussions, and regularly reviewing policies and practices related to academic freedom, adapting, and refining approaches based on feedback, changing societal norms, and emerging challenges. None of this is easy—difficult conversations never are—but clarity, transparency, and consistency will be essential for success.

—Erin Geraghty, Acting Managing Editor

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