The Man With A Plan

by Maria Johnson
Posted: July 12, 2013

HE IS, AT HEART, A TEACHER.

You can tell by the way he acts when he’s challenged. He’s not defensive. But he’s not a pushover, either. He’s a thinker. He waits, he weighs and then he speaks – fluently, bluntly and often with impish humor punctuated by a trilling laugh.

It’s little wonder, then, that Kent Chabotar won teaching awards long before he became president of Guilford College in 2002 or that he insisted on teaching a class every spring, on top of minding his presidential duties.

After he retires at the end of June and takes a sabbatical, he’ll return to the classroom he loves so much at the small Quaker College he has come to love, too.

He’ll have some interesting lessons to share. Over the last decade, he has pulled off the challenge of a lifetime. He has brought Guilford College back from the brink.

“We’re 100 percent better than when he arrived,” says Joseph M. Bryan Jr. ’60, who has been a Guilford trustee for 40 years and chairman of the board for the past nine years.

• • •

Rudderless. Dilapidated. Broke.

That’s how Kent describes the condition of the College when he was being wooed. The trustees agreed.

“They didn’t sugar-coat anything,” he says.

He admired their honesty but cringed at the thought of how to right a school running a million-dollar-plus deficit every year, spending down its endowment at a quantum clip, and close to not meeting covenants on bonds it had floated to cover the construction of a science center.

Kent had seen messes before. He was about to leave a long-held job as chief financial officer at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He’d navigated the small college out of financially troubled waters. “They had just built a science library but ran out of money before it was finished,” Kent remembered, “so one wall of the building was actually plywood painted to look like brick.”

He had earned the reputation of being a turn-around artist, but he was torn about whether he should stay in education. He had an offer to become a managing partner in a hedge fund, and his take would have been substantial.

He turned down Guilford’s first invitation. The trustees asked him to reconsider. Then his father died. After the funeral, he chatted with his eldest nephew, then in his mid-20s. The nephew asked about Kent’s job situation. Kent outlined the choices.

“Looks pretty simple to me” said the nephew. “You can make some money or do some good.”

Kent chose the latter, becoming the first non-Quaker president in Guilford’s history.

“It played to my skill set,” he says, ticking off his reasons for accepting the job. “I appreciated the Quaker heritage. I appreciated the fact that people had been doing so much with so little for so long. I admired the emphasis on teaching and the excellence of the faculty. And I thought I could make a difference.”

Trustee Martha W. Summerville ’76 was on the board when Kent was chosen. She says the group was looking for the most qualified person, Quaker or not, to lead the school at a fragile time, but the winning candidate needed to respect Quaker history and values. Kent fit the description.

“He has done a great job,” says Martha, who lives in New Haven, Conn. “He has brought such discipline and focus to campus.”

Greensboro attorney and longtime board member Ed Winslow says Kent’s greatest asset is his ability to distill vast amounts of data, anticipate what’s coming next, and position himself and Guilford ahead of the curve.

“He’s proactive,” says Ed. “To use a more homely expression, he’s able to keep us out of the ditches.”

For example, the College was prepared when the state cut $2.5 million in financial aid funds to Guilford in 2012. Adjusting was painful – it meant cutting some positions, leaving other jobs unfilled and putting a lid on salaries and benefits – but Kent’s homework helped.

“At least we were not guessing – not to the extent that others might have been – and as a result, I think, the pain was reduced as much as possible,” Ed says.

Faculty value Kent’s information sharing, English Professor Jim Hood ’79 says.

“I think the relationship between a college faculty and its president is almost always characterized by some tension,” says Jim, who joined the faculty in 1999. “Many faculty are by inclination critical of authority, and presidents are charged by their boards with being directive and authoritative.

“Guilford faculty have greatly appreciated the financial acumen and clear messages about the financial situation Kent has consistently provided. They have also deeply appreciated Kent’s own commitment to and valuing of teaching, given the nature of this institution.

“Faculty have valued the commitment to improving salaries that has been in the strategic plans, but they have become frustrated by the inability to continue making good on that commitment during the recent financial downturn and loss of financial aid from the state of North Carolina.”

• • •

In the beginning, Kent set a two-pronged course: Square the budget and make a strategic plan that would stick. He also knew he could not do it alone. He encouraged committees comprised of faculty, staff and students to get involved. In addition, he taught a workshop about college finance that anyone could attend to remove the mystery around money issues and ensure more informed participation in the changes ahead.

The budget part was easier. A robust stock market in the early years of his presidency helped to boost alumni giving and restore the school’s endowment. Gradually, the College ratcheted down the percentage of endowment spending from 14 percent, when Kent arrived, to the industry standard of 5 percent today.

Enrollment growth was also crucial. Kent says the College was lucky to have empty seats rather than a need to build classroom and office space. Because of that, adding students was profitable. Guilford stepped up recruitment, and as a result, enrollment has trended upward, going from 1,500 students in 2002 to about 2,300 students this fall.

Gone are the days of red ink. Operating income has beaten operating expenses on the financial statements in all but two academic years – Kent’s first year and the year that preceded the 2008 retreat of Wall Street.

At Kent’s urging, school fundraisers pursued gifts with renewed vigor.

Today, he and other administrators shepherd the biggest givers. Chabotar tends his own flock.

He tells of a couple, both Guilford grads and long-term, generous donors who told him they were finished with giving to their alma mater. He won them over. Whenever he was in New York, he met the couple for dinner and a show. During dessert, they decided how to spend the couple’s gift in the coming year.

Another donor intended to make a six-figure gift but wanted Kent to decide on the College’s greatest need and make a convincing case for it. When Kent called him back a few days later and started to pitch his idea, the donor stopped him in mid-sentence and said, “Yes.” “Wait, I haven’t finished,” Kent said. The donor chuckled, “I wanted you to think carefully and prepare a good case. I never said I wanted to hear it.”

“There’s no secret to fundraising,” says Kent. “The reason I’m reasonably good at it is, number one, I’m a teacher, and I can pretend I’m an extrovert. I’m not, but I can pretend.

“Number two, I’m a numbers guy, and people like to know that their money is going to be well-handled. Three, I’m focused on what the needs are. Donors want to do what’s good for the College.”

Kent has supported Guilford himself. No active faculty or staff member has donated more.

The College has raised $88 million in gifts, pledges and bequests during Kent’s tenure.

At the same time Kent lassoed the money, he molded The Strategic Long Range Plan – known as SLRP or “slurp” to campus regulars. The biggest hurdle: doubt among faculty and staff that any plan could be executed.

In the 10 years prior to Kent’s arrival, seven plans had been hatched and abandoned. They failed, he says, because they were too closely tied to balancing the budget, unrealistic goals and other reasons.

Kent’s two “slurps,” covering 2005-10 and 2011-16, wove in goals such as improving academics, facilities, diversity and transparency. They also resulted in the identification of the College seven core values that you see posted almost everywhere on campus.

He dived in with his planning and budget committees. Unlike many higher-ed honchos, Kent showed a penchant for the particulars.

“Have you seen Ben-Hur?” he asks. “Most plans like to be the Roman consul on the deck of the galley, looking out at the distant horizon. They do not like to go below deck where the rowing occurs, but that’s what you must do for a plan.

“Rowing the boat is the action steps – the costing, the revenue, the deadlines – which most people find very boring and detailed-oriented, so they don’t do it. We did.”

Implementing the plans churned up some resistance when it came to decision making and hierarchy. The Quaker tradition calls for reflection and consensus, which is fine with Kent, a Catholic.

He starts every meeting and his class with a period of silence, a practice he began after landing at Guilford. “It’s good to transition your mind from one activity to the other,” he says.

But he is also a get-it-done guy.

“I’m the president of the College,” he says. “I’m not the clerk of the College.”

The differences in perspective forced an ongoing, positive discussion about Quaker values and what they mean in modern times, says Ed, a trustee and a Quaker.

The dialogue has benefitted everyone including Kent.

“He came with extraordinary credentials and a very distinguished background,” Ed says. “We thought he knew a lot – and he thought he knew a lot – but he has clearly become a better listener and a better learner from the whole community.”

To that end, Kent and his vice presidents keep weekly open-office hours. Even after New Garden Hall, the administrative building, was renovated – a project that was underway when he arrived – he kept his relatively small office behind the circulation desk in the library. There, he’s more accessible to students, most of whom call him Kent.

Kent also initiated The Buzz, daily email announcements to students, faculty and staff. The Beacon, a weekly wrap-up, also goes to the greater Guilford community. Draft proposals are advertised as “zoning ordinances,” so people can “shoot at them,” Kent says. Digests of trustees meetings are broadcast, too.

By the time a final proposal hits his inbox, he says, many minds have reached consensus along the way.

THEN THE BUCK STOPS. WITH HIM.

Buildings and grounds have been renewed. For that, Guilford can thank a walk-about known as Kent’s Magical Mystery Tour. During his inauguration, Kent got tired of hearing his friends from Bowdoin, Harvard and Michigan State – all previous stops on his career path – tease him about the dowdy state of the campus. They noted the yellow “crime scene” tape that blocked off the columned portico at the front of the library to prevent students and others from being injured by falling debris.

So he rounded up his lieutenants and a clipboard, and they struck out under the canopy of Guilford’s famous oaks, tracing the route of campus tours. They noted every curl of peeling paint, every patch of scraggly grass, every chunk of missing wood in window frames.

They dispatched crews to paint, plant and patch. Quaker simplicity didn’t mean living with disrepair. But it did mean refurbishing existing structures when possible, as opposed to tearing down and rebuilding. Almost every summer of his presidency, the College has tackled a major renovation guided by The Campus Master Plan, another offshoot of the strategic plan.

“If you had been in a time capsule for 40 years in the center of campus, or you were asleep like Rip Van Winkle, you would see the same views you remember,” says Kent. “The grass is a lot nicer and the flowers are a lot better, but the buildings are the same outside. Beautiful Georgian architecture.”

A preppy dresser who sports blazers, waistcoats with watch chains, tailored shirts, suede shoes, and ties with matching pocket squares that students call “Kent’s poof,” he takes personal interest in the details of Guilford’s appearance.

“I get involved with everything – with sites, design and furniture. With advice from professionals, I pick the colors, I pick the fabrics, the whole thing,” he says. “If you walk in any building, I’ve approved most things. I love it, and I never thought I would. I fancied myself as an administrator not an interior decorator.

For example, during the summer of 2012, construction crews ripped out the floor that separated the first and second levels of the student center, Founders Hall. In his travels, Kent had noticed that student centers with open atriums felt more inviting than lobbies with low ceilings, and they imparted a sense of excitement because students could see each other milling about.

“That was the only thing I insisted on in the design,” he says. Openness –whether in architecture or academics – is at the core of Kent, and it’s reflected in Guilford’s admissions. Students of color make up about 35 percent of the enrollment. That’s a much higher percentage than at most colleges, private or public.

The proportion of students of color was already high – about 20 percent – when Kent arrived. Under his leadership, the College has reached out even more to minority students.

It also has emphasized recruitment abroad. The slice of international students in this year’s traditional first-year class has grown to three percent. The College’s new partnership with American Language Academy, where foreign non-Guilford students can come to learn English, has enticed some pupils to stay and enroll at Guilford.

The College’s wide-ranging diversity – coupled with a few incidents of verified and suspected bigotry – prompted Kent to create the Bias Incident Group early in his administration. Led by Kent, the panel investigates reports of bias committed by unknown sources and alerts the community to what can be learned and improved.

Kent also advocates for diversity of ideas. “Too many colleges,” he argues, “are echo chambers of the left or the right. We should encourage our students to debate complex and even uncomfortable issues.

“When I came to Guilford in 2002, I heard about a short-lived tradition of the men’s soccer team to rise before dawn on February 6 and chalk the campus to commemorate Ronald Reagan’s birthday. They did it, one claimed, to annoy the hippies.”

Given his knack for cutting to the chase, it’s no surprise that he’s a fan of the Center for Principled Problem Solving, a Guilford program that started in 2005 as a result of his first strategic plan. The center identifies problems in fields studied by some of the school’s strongest disciplines – art, business, psychology and criminal justice among them – and figures out how to fix them.

“Guilford always had a practical bent,” says Kent, citing the Quaker reverence for “all things civil and useful.” He beams when he says a major donor has stipulated that the center be named for Kent after he retires.

• • •

"IT'S A GOOD TIME TO GO."

Kent sounds certain when he says this. The College is on better financial footing, and is exploring online education. It has launched its first official hybrid classroom, a simultaneous gathering of students who are sitting in classrooms and elsewhere, linked by the Internet.

The College needs fresh energy and ideas to grapple with the future, Kent says. State budget cuts and the federal pruning of Pell Grants endanger financial aid for needy students, and last year’s campus job cuts could continue in the coming year.

“I’d rather leave while people are saying, ‘Why are you leaving?’ than wait until they say, ‘Get out of here,’” says Kent, whose contract expires June 30. “By the time I leave, I will have been here 12 years – that’s about double the national average for a college president.”

But his main reason for not chasing a new contract is his desire to return to the classroom. Keeping a hand in pedagogy – both at Guilford and at Harvard summer programs for executives – has steeled his resolve to honor his passion. He says teaching brings out the best in him.

“I like being president,” he says with a glint in his eye. “I love being a professor.”

Guilford can be thankful for his lessons, taught and learned.

Last Updated: January 10, 2014