March 25, 2019

How one college president pushed through disruptions plaguing higher education

But don’t think there’s one easy solution or even one difficult solution

By Geoff Baird, CEO of Edcura

Understanding an institution needs to change is only half the battle for today’s college president. Confronted with competing opinions and bureaucratic hurdles, leaders with the best intentions can fall short of achieving transformative results if they fail to execute difficult, sometimes unpopular initiatives.

I recently brought this challenge to Sharon Herzberger, who led Whittier College through more than a dozen years of triumph and turbulence. Her perspectives are enlightening and reaffirming for any leader moving through major institutional shifts. Perhaps her most stark and validating message: Presidents who implement the changes necessary for their institutions to thrive should not anticipate applause, and they cannot expect unanimity.

As Herzberger, who retired last year, transitions from college president to sage advisor and advisory board member for Edcura, we want to share some of the actual steps she took to help her organization, her administration and her board of trustees move from thought to execution, through three difficult and increasingly common headwinds.

Identity uncertainty

As Herzberger prepared to take on the Whittier College presidency in 2005, she heard the same two questions about the school: “Didn’t Richard Nixon go there? Isn’t Whittier a Quaker college?”

“No one seemed to know how Whittier had evolved since Quakers founded it and Nixon attended it, into this amazing school that is among the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country,” Herzberger said.

Colleges sometimes fixate on pillars of identity that held institutions upright when things were going well. But environments, competition and values change, and Herzberger knows identity and reputation must evolve as well. She recognized Whittier’s strongest characteristics and developed a path to amplify those, as opposed to implementing dramatic change.

First, she found a way to celebrate Whittier’s status as one of the few liberal arts colleges to have educated a U.S. president, and she helped create the Nixon Fellowship Program to enable students to explore public policy. Next, she built upon the college’s Quaker origins by touting the ideals, if not the religion, of the Quakers and linking these to the ethos of today’s Whittier. She made sure students understood they attended a college devoted to consensus building, respect for people of all backgrounds and diverse voices.

Because of the values inherent in the Quaker-founded institution, Herzberger was able to capitalize on an important strength of the college: its diversity. Her team devised a plan to enhance Whittier’s leadership in this area, and within a few years the college became an institution where students of all ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds could flourish.

“I wanted Whittier’s student body to represent a modern America and for people to see us as a model for the nation,” Herzberger said.

Presidents must address the unbelievably powerful mission of their institutions to give more people a chance at education. Increasing access and offering tuition discounts are also essential to fulfilling this mission and staying competitive. But commitment to access relies on an institution’s ability to maintain financial sustainability.

Tuition-driven changes

When she was hired as president, Herzberger realized Whittier was under-enrolled, and the campus infrastructure could support a larger student body. Without spending significantly more on enrollment personnel, Herzberger targeted athletic participation on the DIII non-scholarship campus as one of the ways to grow, from about 1,300 to nearly 1,700 undergraduate students. She hired a determined athletic director who added teams and filled rosters. Student athletes grew from 200 recruited athletes to close to 500.

“One of the critical things every president should realize is that when you build your athletic program, you are really enlarging your enrollment management staff,” Herzberger said. “And they have to work together.”

While investment in athletics may not be the right solution for every institution, Herzberger felt for Whittier, it was one of the key levers that could quickly reverse the overall enrollment trends while also fostering school pride.

Traditionally in higher education, walls separating departmental silos are thick and made of hardened steel. But the athletic director and the vice president for advancement collaborated to find alumni enthusiastic about contributing to the growing athletic program and supporting the facility improvements needed to attract athletes. The CFO was on board.

Herzberger and her athletic director explained the strategy and noted that athletes tended to have better yield and retention rates. But some felt any money Whittier spent on athletics was money denied to academics.

“I am regarded, I have heard, as the athletic president, which I don’t think is a compliment,” Herzberger said. “I was never able to achieve uniformity within the faculty, but that’s a nearly impossible feat that I know not to seek.”

Additional strategies involved expanding recruitment of transfer students and shifting the target enrollment catchment area to better compete for qualified students in neighboring but less represented geographic areas. Without adding significant personnel or additional expense, they reallocated the spending and focus, sending people to Orange County, San Francisco counties and San Diego counties, while pulling back a bit in the Los Angeles area, where they already had built their reputation in feeder schools. Supported by their plan to lean in to Whittier’s increasingly diverse student body, Herzberger also successfully guided a change to recruit more international students.

“That’s one of the keys to all this. You can’t have one strategy, you have to have multiple strategies, and they all must add to the whole,” she said.

This is what happens inside the walls of the institution, but sometimes, the decisions of college leaders are subject to much more external scrutiny.

Trying to save the law school

Driven by graduates’ low bar passage rate for first-time test takers, the American Bar Association put Whittier Law School on probation in 2005, just as Herzberger became president.

The law school had relocated from LA to Orange County in 1997, but when it moved, it lost much of the original student market and failed to build reputation in its new area quickly enough. The admissions profile dropped, and four years later, so did the bar passage rate.

During the probation, Whittier, joined by other law schools, led an effort to change the ABA’s bar passage rule, which focused on first-time test takers. The schools argued the rule discriminated against first generation students, students whose first language is not English and students of color. Whittier Law School, one of the most diverse in the country, found its students tended to pass the bar on the second try. They argued for a broader test of competence to determine who could become a practicing attorney. In 2005, the council of the ABA adopted revisions of its rules, Whittier was shown to be in compliance and the probation was lifted.

But three years of probation had stunted Whittier’s ability to recruit law students, especially those whose credentials predicted success on the bar.

Then the recession hit, and students around the country began questioning the return on investment in a law degree.

“We never could climb out of the situation we were placed in by the ABA, and our student outcomes were not up to par with what we wanted or what we could be proud of,” Herzberger said.

Herzberger put together a board committee to explore the three possible paths forward: selling, merging or closing the law school.

Under Herzberger’s guidance, Whittier warned students, faculty and staff that these paths were under serious consideration. Even incoming students knew closure was a possibility. This consistent communication was a critical piece of the process.

In the end, when the other options failed, Whittier’s board voted to discontinue the law school, and they took the news public right away.

Overall, Herzberger never reached full consensus among all members of the college community for any of the significant initiatives she deployed, but she did not let that stop the institution from moving strategic plans forward. As a result, she left the college in a more sustainable and powerful position.

Multivariate thinking

When asked what advice she would give to other presidents facing similar challenges at their institutions, Herzberger succinctly summarized her approach to leadership and change.

“Don’t think there’s one easy solution or even one difficult solution. You must think in a multivariate way and consider that some elements of your strategy won’t work. And don’t try for unanimity. But have a board that understands where you’re going and what the pitfalls are and will stand behind you. If you know you’re right about what you’re doing, you must push forward.”

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