Teamwork Builds College's Future
Claire Gaudiani wants to lead Connecticut College to the forefront of liberal-arts education
NEW LONDON, CONN. — `A GOOD leader helps a group take institutional lemons and make them not just lemonade, but lemon spritzers."
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.
`I ASKED questions all day long for two days about what we would need to know to ... create a strong sense of direction for a strong liberal-arts college for the 21st century," she says. "What we were trying to do during these early sessions was not so much write the plan as create a structure within which the questions would be asked and the issues raised by the community."
Gaudiani wanted to avoid the notion of a new president or a couple of powerful trustees or administrators outlining the future of the college. "What we were trying to do was create a structure in which the community could explore this. That lessens the tension that something is going to be done to somebody. And that's critical."
"No one can say that it's an administration plan," says Dirk Held, a professor of classics who chairs the Priorities, Planning, and Budget Committee, a group of faculty, students, and administrators which oversees implementation of the plan.
Gaudiani's goal was to use the process of designing a strategic plan as an opportunity to rethink every aspect of the college.
"We didn't have a formula. We were going in at it from the questions," she says. "The Socratic method moves people into the frame that I call 'blue sky.' Open space. Absence of constraints - the constraints of tradition, the constraints of funding, the constraints of structures we've always lived by and can't imagine not living with."
Part of Gaudiani's advantage was that she knew nothing about ingrained institutional habits at the college. d done consulting before, so I just decided to run as far as I could into the organization as a consultant," she says.
"An institution gets stuck in certain modes and people make assumptions about what's possible," Gaudiani says. "Leadership can throw that open and cause everything to be reconsidered."
Ms. Matthews says the strategic plan "has given us a comprehensive management tool. It's given us a focus."
Professor Held says the plan "has had a far-reaching effect on the whole campus. It gives you a framework in which to make decisions and keys those decisions to the priorities in the plan."
"The goal is to get the strategic thinking to permeate the whole institution," Held says, noting that he sees evidence of that happening. Initially, many faculty members were skeptical about the plan and some remain so, he says. But some departments are responding by rethinking their own priorities.
A key component of Connecticut College's plan is having one committee responsible for both planning and budgeting, Held says. "Often what undercuts a plan is that it's not integrated into the budget process," he says.
The inclusive nature of the plan - allowing all segments of the college community to participate - makes for a time-consuming and arduous activity. But Gaudiani views it as the only way. "Leaders need to be primarily in service to the people and values of the organization that they lead," she says. "Leaders almost never need to exercise power. They need to lead in ways that create a vision that motivates people."