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Teamwork Builds College's Future

Claire Gaudiani wants to lead Connecticut College to the forefront of liberal-arts education

By Laurel Shaper WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 1992


`A GOOD leader helps a group take institutional lemons and make them not just lemonade, but lemon spritzers."

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That's Claire Gaudiani, president of Connecticut College, expressing her views on leadership to the college's trustees.

The statement reveals Dr. Gaudiani's simultaneous commitment to leading by consensus and openly confronting flaws in an organization. "That's what good leadership does," Gaudiani explained in a Monitor interview at the college. "It doesn't necessarily remove the lemon, but it creates an opportunity for a transformation."

While much of higher education in the United States is tightening its belt and repenting for excessive spending and expansion during the '80s, Connecticut College is reaping the rewards of its conservative approach.

Gaudiani, who became president in July 1988, oversees a college that is adding programs rather than cutting them and that boasts both a steady enrollment and increasing income.

Founded in 1911, this small liberal-arts college of 1,650 students has maintained a balanced budget for more than 15 years.

But when Gaudiani became president three and a half years ago, she was not content to coast along, buoyed by the positive trends. Instead, she saw the college (from which she graduated in 1966) as poised to move into the "forefront of liberal-arts education" in the US, and she was determined to lead the school in that direction.

"Connecticut College will stretch to connect its traditions to innovations," she said in her inaugural address.

The question was: "How could we move from a comfortable college with steady enrollments and a balanced budget to a leadership institution?" says Claire Matthews, director of admissions and planning.

Four days after assuming the office of president, Gaudiani began bringing the college community together to outline a five-year "strategic plan" for the school. (See accompanying story.)

"When you're getting to know each other, you may as well get to know each other in the active mode," Gaudiani says.

She wanted to lay a foundation for building on the college's strengths in preparing for the future. "The trustees told me that the college needed a sense of direction and that it had never had a strong plan to operate from," she says. The new president set out to foster stability and progress by developing such a plan from the grass roots.

"I had no idea how to do a strategic plan except that I knew I had to do it with the people that were there," Gaudiani says. "They had the knowledge, and it was my job to organize the task. So the best thing to do was to ask questions and organize the structures together."

In the end, about 300 people - including faculty, students, staff, administrators, and alumni - participated in drafting the strategic plan. "The mind at work was a collegial mind," Gaudiani says.

The college's various constituencies worked together to devise the five-year plan over two academic years. It went into effect at the beginning of the 1990-91 academic year. Soon after taking over as president, Gaudiani arranged separate retreats with groups of faculty leaders, student leaders, and administrators. She used the "Socratic method of discourse" to generate ideas for the strategic plan.