When I joined the board of trustees at Saint Leo University in 2008, I had no idea that seven years later, I’d be sitting in the president’s office. But as I approach the end of my first two years in office, it has become increasingly obvious just how valuable my time as a trustee was during my transition, and how it will continue to serve as an asset during my presidency.
In some ways, serving on the board provided me with a seven-year learning curve. I was introduced to the institution, got to know many of its people, gained an understanding of how the organization worked, and learned the values system that lies at the core of Saint Leo’s culture. A typical new president from outside the institution must learn all of these things on the fly. No doubt, this process can be daunting.
As a board member, you monitor the institution from the 60,000- foot level through the lens of budget, enrollment, and outcome statistics, all of which provide a picture of the university’s health and direction. But as president, you see the institution from up close on a daily basis.
My predecessor, Arthur F. Kirk Jr., spent 18 years in the presidency. He led the institution from the edge of bankruptcy to one that serves nearly 16,000 students, making it the third largest Catholic university in the country by student population. That includes our students at University Campus in Saint Leo, Florida; our online programs; and our education centers across Florida, Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, California, Mississippi, and Texas. I was blessed to step into such an enviable situation.
For the first three to six months, my leadership team and I spent a lot of time “kicking the tires” to take stock of how we conducted our operations. To use a small business metaphor, we were a startup that had really taken off, but we needed a reorganization to sustain our growth and continue to improve the education we provide to our students.
A smooth reorganization process is impossible without good communication. During that time, I was able to build on existing relationships founded on trust, collaboration, and cooperation. University leadership already knew me and felt comfortable talking to me. There was no awkward “getting to know you” phase. As I listened to my vice presidents and many faculty, staff, and students, they were willing to be candid and to discuss challenging topics.
Throughout, I’ve benefited from knowing our trustees on a personal level before taking office. We have a diverse board, and each member brings his or her own expertise to the table. I’ve leaned on them as trusted advisors in the decision-making process, and because of our existing relationships, I was able to recognize the strengths of the individuals and where their focus would best serve the institution.
There is no shortage of presidencies that have succeeded with an outside perspective. And hats off to those who have navigated those uncharted waters calmly. But I firmly believe that my foundation from serving on the board has proven, and will continue to prove, invaluable moving forward. It’s one of the key reasons why, when presented with the usual inauguration routine that most incoming presidencies use as a formal introduction, I thought the money was better used elsewhere.
I already knew Saint Leo and, to some extent, Saint Leo knew me. A day focused on me seemed at odds with our student-centered mission. Instead, we created 20 inauguration scholarships of $2,500 to go to students from University Campus, the Center for Online Learning, our education centers, and graduate programs.
There will be plenty of time for pomp and circumstance in the future. For the time being, I’m excited about the work that has already been done after nearly two years in office. Now the tires have been changed and I look forward to the road ahead.