June 12, 2015

Leading Guilford to Sustainable Financial Health

As the community strives to reach a balanced budget, we rely on our tradition of a transparent and inclusive process of decision-making to protect and prioritize the academic core and the campus experience for students. A continued focus on an excellent and innovative education, undergirded by the Quaker testimonies, will assure that a Guilford education is accessible, available and affordable to students for generations to come.

You’ve been a leader in higher education for almost 30 years. What previous experience has been most valuable to you as you move Guilford beyond its budget challenges to sustainable financial health?

In normal times, I would say that my experience with strategic planning is very valuable in working on budgets. Even with the current situation involving the need for an immediate and critical response, experience with strategic planning is useful. When I became the head of the State of Hawaii’s School for the Deaf and Blind in 1991, I inherited an institution that was on its last legs. Reviving it and improving the quality of education for Island students who are deaf or blind began with a carefully crafted strategic plan. At Gallaudet University, leading a comprehensive and inclusive process of developing and implementing two strategic plans to increase student enrollment and retention, also at crisis levels, and to promote inclusive academic excellence at every level of the university was an important learning experience for me.

Regarding our current budget challenges, my experience at UNC Asheville applies most directly to my work now. I arrived in Asheville at the start of the Great Recession and as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs had to oversee a series of deep budget cuts due to consecutive years of decreasing support from the state.

I have learned well that developing a plan for balancing the budget can only be successful if conducted through a fair, inclusive and transparent process.

It’s also crucial to keep everyone focused on the good of the institution as a whole. That means staying true to the core mission and values of the campus and serving students first and always.

Cutting budgets is no fun. But sometimes the necessity to do so serves as a stimulus for the community to reflect on, articulate and refine its core mission and to reach consensus on how to perfect it. That is my hope and expectation for what we’re undertaking together at Guilford College. When we emerge from this painful process, we will be a balanced, sustainable institution.

You have described your vision for Guilford as “a small college of excellence doing a few things splendidly.” How is the College determining its areas of focus? What have you learned from this process so far?

I have come to believe that the Guilford distinction is closely intertwined with our Quaker roots and values. The close supportive relationships students have with staff and faculty; the opportunities to apply knowledge and understanding in principled ways to real problems and projects; the strong sense that ours is a diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus; our instilled habits of listening and speaking out of shared silence; the emphasis we place on guiding our students to think critically and creatively to seek truth rather than spout back “right” answers; our commitment to serving the community both locally and globally; and the efforts we make to integrate different ways of learning and knowing along with interdisciplinary approaches and collaborative learning to bring light to understanding – these are among the qualities that distinguish a Guilford education. And the more I come to know about the Society of Friends, the more apparent it is that Quaker testimonies inform and guide what we’re about.

I believe many – perhaps most – of our students come here not out of a desire to pursue a Quaker-based education per se, but wanting the type and quality and atmosphere of education we provide. Only after some time here do those students come to realize that what they like most about Guilford actually derives from its Quaker-inspired values and norms.

What are some of the ways the College’s history resonates with your own experience?

That’s an interesting question. I remember reading that when Mary Mendenhall Hobbs was a schoolgirl her class was given the assignment to write about what they would do if given a large sum of money. In her essay Mary wrote that she would use the funds to start a school for girls. Of course, she went on to become an educator and first lady of Guilford College; succeeded in raising funds to support women students at the College leading to the creation of what is now called Hobbs Hall; and she is credited with being one of the chief proponents behind the establishment of the State Normal and Industrial School, now UNC Greensboro. Mary Hobbs knew very well the transformative power of education and she wanted to share that power with others, for both their personal benefit and the benefit of society. She is a role model to me.

When I was a young girl, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life and how he and my mother could help me achieve it. My answer was that I wanted to have a school and make it the best school possible. So I know what Mary Hobbs was feeling when she wrote that essay, and I understand the motivation that led North Carolina Friends to establish New Garden Boarding School and Guilford College. Now that I am president, I want to honor the legacy of our founders and shapers and help make Guilford the best school possible.

Guilford has a tradition of serving the underserved. For instance, it educated women when that was a rarity. What must Guilford do to ensure that it remains accessible?

The first thing we must do to ensure that Guilford College remains accessible is to attend to financial stewardship and sustainability. We are fully engaged in that now. By hewing to what is essentially Guilfordian and doing it splendidly, we’ll be able to regain our financial footing, effectively manage enrollment and hold tuition increases to a minimum. And by accomplishing that, we will be better able to attract support in the form of gifts, grants and scholarships to make sure that we continue to serve those who would otherwise not have access to a top quality education.

You’ve been a champion for diversity throughout your career. What inspired your passion for diversity? Why is diversity important at Guilford?

Having been born deaf and educated in public schools where there was no one else like me, I experienced first-hand how important it is to make all students feel welcomed, included and valued. In junior high and high school my best friend was one of the few African American students on campus. She and I bonded over our shared sense of “difference” and a desire to succeed in school despite the odds. We learned from each other’s experience, and that’s why diversity, particularly in an educational setting, is important.

Today, employers of college graduates are looking for people with experience and expertise in skills such as problem solving, communication, working in diverse teams, and collaborating. As the population of our state and nation becomes ever more diverse (people of color already outnumber non-Hispanic white residents of Greensboro and Charlotte, for example) the teams that our graduates collaborate with in the work setting will be increasingly so. And that diversity confers the advantage of different experiences, points of view and sensitivities to apply to analyzing and solving problems. At Guilford, diversity enables the opportunity to learn with and from a broad range of students, faculty and staff. Learning how to communicate and collaborate effectively with others from diverse backgrounds is a tremendously important and relevant aspect of a good liberal arts education in the 21st century. We do this splendidly.

What did you think of the Guilford Undergraduate Symposium, also known as GUS, where more than 100 students shared their research and creativity?

I was delighted with the quality and variety of the projects presented. Our students are a bright and creative bunch, supported and mentored by a world-class faculty. The evidence of passionate pursuit of knowledge, understanding and solutions to problems was gratifying, as was the creativity revealed in the artistic presentations and performances. I was impressed with the interdisciplinary aspects of a number of projects and even the sense of humor that some exhibited as a means of calling attention to serious problems and their potential solutions. The most memorable projects for me were: Black Lives Matter, a series of live portrait drawings of African American Guilford faculty, staff, students, and administrators now on exhibit in Hege Library; Adele Price and Michele Malotky’s research using healing plants used by indigenous people in Madagascar to explore the development of anti-resistant antibiotics, and Kayla M. Mayes’ community collaborative research into the disparities within the Montagnard Community in Greensboro. The Guilford Undergraduate Symposium offered vivid evidence of the value of our particular brand of principled, practical, integrative liberal arts education.

What about Guilford sets it apart from other colleges?

I partly answered this in my response to the second question. But Guilford’s Quaker underpinnings and the qualities they bring to what we do here as a scholarly community help define the particular essence of a Guilford education. George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, famously said, “Let your life speak.” (Well, he probably said, “Let thy life speak!”)

Guilford attracts students, faculty and staff who want to do just that, and seeing “That of God” in each other, we set about providing an educational experience as a community of equally valued learners collaboratively seeking truth - not just knowledge, but also wisdom.

And we apply that learning to let our lives speak and to set about creating the world as it ought to be.

Dedication to service is another key Guilford/Quaker characteristic. I am constantly impressed by the varied and significant ways our students, faculty and staff serve the community. And as I meet alumni from across the country and the globe, the amount of good work or service they are doing amazes me. So many Guilford people are passionate about their work, their service. Service is the manifestation of compassion, so the cultivation of compassion is another distinguishing characteristic of a Guilford education that sets us apart.

The Guilford farm is a great example of our students, faculty and staff learning through experience how to serve the greater Greensboro community. Since the farm began in 2011, our student farm apprentices have worked in a collaborative effort with the Bonner Program’s Hunger Fellows to address hunger issues, both individually and systematically.

While the farm produces mountains of fresh produce that is sold to high-end restaurants, the Hunger Fellows Food Kitchen has routinely harvested seconds and over-stock produce to help prepare meals to serve people in need. More recently the Mobile Market has partnered with student farm apprentices to send fresh produce directly into area food deserts. The produce is brought free of charge to various communities including Glen Haven, a food insecure community of mostly Nepalese and Bhutanese refugees. The student farm apprentices have also served in numerous ways to help facilitate local food production and serve as advocates for food justice through direct outreach and hands-on involvement. Most recently, members of the farm team are volunteering to help create garden plots at the Triad Math and Science Academy, an elementary school located in a low-income area in southeastern Greensboro, thus teaching young children how to grow crops and sustain a healthy diet.

You are a strong advocate for the liberal arts. What is the enduring value of a liberal arts degree? Do you foresee changes in the traditional liberal arts education?

Liberal arts education is as crucial and relevant today as it ever was, perhaps more so. There are two parts to its mission. The first is to holistically develop students into their best selves so that they can lead successful and fulfilling lives (which includes being gainfully employed in a satisfying occupation). Doing this relies on teaching our students to think critically and creatively, to examine issues from a variety of viewpoints, to speak and write clearly and cogently, and to use technology effectively. The second aspect of the liberal arts mission is to serve society, both domestically and globally. A liberal arts education produces “principled problem solvers,” to use a Guilford-centric term, for the benefit of humanity.

So the enduring value of the liberal arts is to give people the tools to lead good and useful lives and to give society the people equipped to do so.

I believe liberal arts education will continue to evolve. The interdisciplinary aspect of a good liberal arts education is something fairly new, evolving in the late 20th century. With the generation of professors that included Mel and Beth Keiser and Carol and John Stoneburner, Guilford was at the cutting edge of the interdisciplinary thrust in liberal arts that began a few short decades ago.

The intentional community that a small campus affords in providing a liberal arts education I see as continuing to be valued in future. One likely change is an increased emphasis on collaborative learning and designed “apprenticeships” where students learn and apply their learning by working with their professors and other mentors on real-life projects and problems. Forward-thinking colleges like Guilford are already starting to do this. Another trend is further emphasis on enhancing diversity and global perspectives within the liberal arts. Competence in cyber technology will continue to be an important quality of liberal arts graduates and approaches to creating effective virtual learning communities will be developed, but I see direct, in-person teaching and learning relationships remaining essential ingredients of liberal arts education.

Much in the higher education landscape is changing but there are essential constants. Guilford will always and evermore be exclusively focused on our students and their education. Excellence in education and the integrity of a balanced budget are fundamental to good stewardship of all our resources, human, financial and material.

Our legacy of innovation and risk taking for the good of the society will continue to propel us forward.

Guilford will continue to be a strong and vital part of higher education in Greensboro with positive impact locally, in the region, and beyond as our graduates go out into the world. In these ways, we continue to honor the legacy of our Quaker founders and the Quaker ethos permeating our campus life.