How 7 college presidents won faculty buy-in

There's a frequent "us versus them" phenomenon that goes on between faculty and administrators.

But as colleges and universities undertake ambitious new projects, administrators need faculty support to make the initiatives a success. The Chronicle of Higher Education collected advice from seven college presidents on strategies for obtaining faculty support:

Be proactive about asking for faculty buy-in

Steven  Bahls, president of Augustana College (Illinois)

Bahls recommends gaining an understanding of what faculty values most before you start working on a plan. In addition, he argues that administrators should help faculty understand how a plan will affect the institution's finances as well as internal and external stakeholders.

Bahls says he learned this lesson from an incident early in his career, years ago. He says he didn't get enough feedback from faculty while drafting a strategic plan—which caused delays later in the process when faculty voiced concerns about the plan.

Remember that it's a team effort

Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington

Cauce says working to get faculty involved in discussions before an initiative isn't just about being nice, it's also necessary for an initiative to be successful. This is especially true if the project requires support from a wide range of stakeholders such as external partners, Cauce says.

Cauce says she learned this lesson while working on the Population Health Initiative, an ambitious project that is planned to span multiple decades and involve cooperation between multiple departments on campus as well as several organizations in the surrounding community. Before launching the initiative, Cauce and other administrators had to seek buy-in from a variety of partners on and off campus over an extended period of time. She says an executive council that consists of faculty, staff, and student representatives has been critical to making the initiative a success.

Make a strong case to faculty

Donald Farish, president of Roger Williams University (Rhode Island)

Farish argues that if you want to get faculty buy-in, you need to do two things: first, consider whether faculty will agree it is a meaningful idea and second, recognize members of your faculty who help with the process. For example, Farish says that when he worked on a project-based learning initiative, he started with a few faculty volunteers who were the most excited about the project. The institution rewarded early adopters by adding a positive note in their retention, tenure, and promotion records, Farish says.

Once the first few faculty had implemented the changes and seen success with their students, other faculty members grew more interested as well. This helped the changes spread organically across campus, Farish says.

Know the rules of the game

Christopher Howard, president of Robert Morris University (Pennsylvania)

Every institution has its own culture for making decisions, Howard notes. He says he learned this lesson when he joined his current institution, which has a very different buy-in process than the institution he lead previously.

Howard emphasizes that it's important to know yourself and the world around you in order to be a good leader. For example, he suggests that it's important to know just how much buy-in you really need before launching an initiative—you don't have to wait until everyone is on board before getting started.

Elevate the decision to a campus-wide event

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College (California)

Early in her tenure as president, Klawe undertook a major strategic planning process. To ensure that every stakeholder on campus felt included, she turned the process into several campus events, including:

  • A survey of faculty members to get ideas for issues or topics to include in the strategic plan;
  • Steering committees based on the ideas, made up of all stakeholders, including faculty;
  • A week of workshops and keynote speakers;
  • Discussions featuring scribes and trained moderators to ensure the institution captured all feedback and ideas.

Now the ideas that came out of these processes are all in one document, which Klawe says can be embraced by faculty and the wider campus community because they each had a part in its creation.

Let your faculty lead the way sometimes

Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College (Massachusetts)

The most effective college presidents should trust that their staff and faculty know the institution as well as they do and can come up with great ideas for improvement, says McCartney. Taking a grassroots approach to strategic planning, she accepted proposals from faculty, staff, and students across campus. Then, campus stakeholders discussed proposals in a committee, working groups, and a faculty retreat.

Relying on faculty instead of having faculty always rely on you can lead to high-impact initiatives, she says. An example is a Design Thinking Initiative proposed by faculty that McCartney supported. "Shared governance is the key to the kind of continuous learning that distinguishes the best colleges," she says.

Invite faculty to imagine the future

Christopher Puto, president of Spring Hill College (Alabama)

When he first became president, Spring Hill College needed to be taken in a new direction, Puto says. So the first thing he did was engage faculty. He appointed the faculty chair to the college's senior leadership team.

Puto also created a steering committee made up of faculty that would work on strategic planning. The committee reviewed the college's performance, identifying strengths and areas that could be improved. Then, the committee developed 10 strategic goals and built a dashboard to help members track progress toward each goal. After approval from the Board of Trustees, the college is now implementing the plan and the committee continues to be a resource as Spring Hill works towards its goals (McCormack, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/18).


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