Redesigning the University by David J. Staley

If you could start a university today from scratch, what would you create?

Most of us will never be offered this inviting opportunity.  Stephen Lehmkuhle was so fortunate, recounting his efforts as the founding chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester in his memoir Campus With Purpose: Building a Mission-Driven Campus. Aside from being a manual for designing a new university, Lehmkuhle’s book is an invitation for leaders of existing institutions to think deeply about—and to consider radically changing—their mission and purpose.  

The book recounts Lehmkuhle’s unusual decisions, unusual in that the design of the new university did not conform to our expectations about “what a college should look like.”  There were no sports teams, for example. The University of Minnesota-Rochester did not own any buildings, opting instead to rent space. Given its location near the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, Minnesota-Rochester had only one major: the bachelor of science in health sciences. As a new university, Lehmkuhle could be deliberate and strategic in crafting its mission and purpose. 

To think so differently about what a university could be meant that Lehmkuhle needed to exorcise the “ghost of the university past,” which he defines as “legacy administrative systems, processes, policies, organizational structures, common practices, prevailing habits, inherited mind-sets, and culture and traditions.” (32)  Even though Minnesota-Rochester had no history to hinder it, “the idea of the university” was always lurking in the background, although Lehmkuhle would never allow the “ghost” to derail any new ideas he might pursue.

Starting a university from scratch gave Lehmkuhle the opportunity to ask questions most incumbent institutions take as a given: why do we exist? What is our distinctive purpose, our indispensable reason for being?  Lehmkuhle says that not only university founders need to be asking this question: incumbent universities might (re)define their campus purpose as a way to thrive in a complex, unforgiving higher education landscape.  

Most campus leaders, however, do not think of their campus missions as a potential strategic asset.   

A strategic planning process typically begins with the assumption that the mission is a given…My experience as a participant in many strategic planning exercises is that we as leaders rarely engage in substantive discussions about mission. We are apt to honor legacy and the words written by the founders.  We shy away from difficult conversations about why this mission or even if we can execute the mission in the rapidly and ever-changing landscape of higher education…A historical mission originally shaped a campus identity by providing a rationale for its existence…We need a twenty-first-century version of the mission in order to more effectively address human needs today: Why does the campus exist today? What is its rationale today?  This is campus purpose.

And we might add to Lehmkuhle’s list the strategically-important question “what can our purpose become?”  

I have written elsewhere that a critical challenge facing many institutions of higher education today—and there are many challenges—is their lack of distinctiveness, of differentiation.  For a variety of reasons, institutions race to emulate their competitors, and wind up offering the same programs, the same experiences, the same intercollegiate athletics.  Higher education has become a commoditized industry, where indistinct colleges compete with each other for a dwindling market share by pursuing a strategy of selling their “product” at a lower price than their competitors.  

Even if an institution isn’t being created from whole cloth, any institution can ask the questions Lehmkuhle asks: why do we exist?  What is our unique rationale? What about our mission makes us indispensable? After they have articulated a unique mission, the challenge for incumbent universities, of course, is re-designing the institution to fulfill that new mission and purpose.  

Re-designing a mission—and, thus, an institution–requires visionary, transformational leaders. Lehmkuhle draws a distinction between custodial and change leaders.  Custodial leaders maintain the status quo and tend “to tactically tinker around institutional margins while waiting for more favorable and better fiscal times to return.”  Change leaders, in contrast, believe “that institutional transformation [is] necessary to adapt to the changing future.” (3) While boards of trustees and search firms write presidential leadership advertisements seeking “visionary leaders,” in truth the last thing many of these colleges and universities seek is someone who will lead the institution in new directions, redefining the purpose of the university. Most colleges, in fact, seek and reward tinkering custodial leaders.

Many observers of the business world have identified the rise of the “chief transformation officer,” a C-suite-level executive responsible for enterprise transformation.  It is possible that we will see the next wave of hiring for senior leadership in higher education defined not by enrollment management—perpetuating custodial leadership—but by institutional transformation.  The era of the college president as CEO may very well give way to the era of the president as CTO.  Campus With Purpose deserves to be widely read and acted upon. It is one of the most important books on higher education leadership and strategy to be published in the last decade.

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