You may have been following the drama unfolding at Gustavus Adolphus College. First, many faculty, students and alumni became disgruntled with the president, calling for President Jack Ohle's resignation following years of similar complaints about his leadership. Reports that the president was under fire spread quickly, with the president facing revolt from his constituency. Recently, the Board of Trustees wrote to alumni expressing their support for the president, saying in part:
In these challenging times in higher education, technology and online learning are confronting the traditional methods of teaching at a residential, liberal arts college. Concerns have also been raised about rising costs in private education as it relates to the challenges being faced nationally. Despite these challenges, Gustavus continues to thrive and remains one of the top private liberal arts colleges in the United States.
By its very nature, a college campus is a diverse mix of individuals and opinions and Gustavus is no exception. It is a natural process to openly engage in civil discourse about divergent opinions in the way in which an institution of higher education is governed. The Board of Trustees, through the governance model we developed over the past few years, has been seeking more input from faculty, staff, and students to make sure the appropriate conversations and discussions are held so that the institution will continue to move forward.
As a Board, we have listened and are hearing the concerns expressed on and off campus and will continue to do so. While we know there is work to be done, we are excited about the progress of the institution under the President's leadership. Be assured that the Board and President Ohle are committed to continuing to work with all of the College's stakeholders.
While I do not claim to be intimately familiar with what's been going on at Gustavus since the president assumed office, I understand they face shrinking budgets, as has all of higher education. President Ohle appears to have initiated programs around strategic positioning, in an attempt to restructure for operational excellence at Gustavus. In these economic times, without knowing their details, that seems the right thing to do.
And Ohle also seems to have the support of the Board of Trustees, who clearly communicated that support in their letter to alumni. Bringing institutional change is difficult, and it's important to have the "air cover" from the Board. So the president has the political support from above.
But based on the reaction, it's obvious that the president did not have the support of his campus. From the Star Tribune article:
Results of a faculty survey posted on the site show that many faculty members question Ohle's priorities: investing in new buildings and public relations while cutting departments' budgets. Responses describe Ohle as a "dictator" whose "top-down leadership style drips with contempt and arrogance."
The phrase "top-down leadership style" implies that Ohle made decisions independently, and did not seek buy-in from his campus. Maybe he didn't view that as necessary. Or maybe the decisions about buildings and public relations didn't involve faculty—although department budgets certainly do. In any case, the comment about his "top-down leadership style" is a clear indicator that Ohle ignored the culture of shared campus governance. And that certainly appears to be the case, from my reading of the news coverage.
So what can other campus leaders learn from Gustavus? This is a perfect case example of the three lenses of leading through change:
I try to use the three lens approach as my benchmark in bringing any change to my campus. This method has helped to shape how I communicate about a change, serving as a reminder to consider how the change addresses the strategies, politics, and culture of my audience. Of the three, the most important lens is "Cultural." You can be doing the right thing (Strategic) and have the right people behind it (Political) but if you don't respect how people think and act (Cultural) then your change will be sunk. Every. Single. Time.
In this case, Ohle seems to have been working to reposition the campus for the right reasons (Strategic) and had the full support of the Board of Trustees (Political) but then ignored the campus governance process and failed to get buy-in for his change efforts (Cultural). And "Cultural" wins no matter what.