Is Crisis necessary for change?
As many friends and associates know, I spent the first half (and more) of 2019 engaged in Hampshire College's existential crisis. In spite of being both an alum and a long time active volunteer, I wasn't really ready for the heightened responsibilities of being a Trustee (which I became in September 2018) at such a time, and absolutely wasn't ready for the response to the actions of the new President. And I think I can speak for others that we absolutely didn't expect the level of activism and opposition that ultimately resulted in the resignation of said President, and a doubling down of the College's commitment to surviving and continuing to be a leader in higher education. Since that time, we've found and hired a superb leader in President Ed
Wingenbach, who took the College community through an intensive six week planning process to re-envision Hampshire for the 21st century, while also ensuring a financial model that was sustainable through the next five years. And yes, I believe we will succeed, thrive and become the model of future higher education.
The question I've asked myself and others many times over the last six months: would we have received the kind of financial support and recommitment to Hampshire had we not had this crisis? If the President hadn't proposed cancelling a first year cohort of students, but had continued on her path to find a new "owner", would alumni have come out of the woodwork to insist Hampshire stay independent? That one statement didn't in itself at the time change our dire financial position. But had we not had such an incredible fundraising response, we may not have survived our review by the accreditors and may have still faced closure/sale.
Because I have spent the last decade trying to engage Hampshire alumni in ways other schools take for granted, I would have to say that it was of necessity that we experienced this crisis that made alumni stop and reflect how valuable they had found their Hampshire education and experience, and why they were moved to act to ensure Hampshire survived.
So then, are crises required to shake up the status quo enough to cause real change? Even if President Wingenbach had been hired in a calmer time, would people have been willing to engage in this very hard, very intensive process to re-imagine our College? I'm not so sure.
That said, over the course of my career, I have experienced significant organizational change that happened without a traumatic event of any kind. Usually, it’s led by a visionary leader. But over the last six months, I have been involved in what now appears to be a fundamental change for an organization that merely was in search of a new Executive Director. The Board of Directors, in a common move, wisely though it worth taking some time to ensure they found the best next leader, and so contracted with me as Interim Executive Director. I was not hired to "clean house" or to make major structural changes. But I can say that we made some significant changes over the last six months that will have a long term impact for the organization. For example, the Board accepted my proposal to restructure the staff to maximize program impact. This included hiring the new position of volunteer coordinator which would both allow us to recruit more volunteers but also remove this responsibility from the already busy program managers. The newly hired office manager had talents far exceeding that position, and became a communications
manager who quickly implemented new social media campaigns, turned around the use of an expensive but underutilized database and organized years of electronic files so history was at our disposal. There had been no job descriptions, so once those were complete, the Board recognized the need for salary adjustments to meet area standards. We implemented staff meetings and regular internal communications; the Board started a rotation of staff visits/presentations. The Board completed both their strategic planning revision and hired a new Executive Director. So now, the organization is truly set to thrive in 2020, with a marginally larger staff but double the capacity to serve their mission.
As I reflect on these two very different examples, I can easily see the significant differences. In the no-crisis scenario, there were no external forces and plenty of resources. Hampshire, as a higher education institution, faces a LOT of external pressures and challenges, and internally has hundreds of staff, faculty and students dependent upon it. But for both, I am excited to observe, whether from the sidelines, or entrenched on the Board, how these rather dramatic changes impact the effectiveness of both institutions.