Michael Bassis

President Emeritus, Westminster College, Salt Lake City
Served from 2002-2012

Leadership, Collaboration, and Teamwork Reflection

The ARTIFACT  I have chosen to illustrate my leadership, collaboration and teamwork skills is a description of the strategic planning process I initiated and led shortly after I came to Westminster in 2002. 
The faculty has conceptualized leadership, collaboration and teamwork as component parts of a whole. They describe the concept as follows: Team members demonstrate a focused effort on the group goal and aims and they take responsibility for their own effort, contributions, and interactions with the rest of the team. So, if we assume the team is the campus community and the goal was to develop and implement a great strategic plan, my experience suggests that leadership, collaboration, and teamwork all had to be part of my portfolio of skills.

The first premise of a successful planning process in higher education is that the president can neither dictate the plan nor allow others to take the process in directions which are inconsistent with the direction he or she believes is best. The president can’t dictate the plan because it is the faculty and staff who have to own the plan if they are to be committed to implementing it successfully. At the same time, the president must believe that the plan is taking the institution in the right direction for, when all is said and done, it is the president who is responsible for the long-term success of the institution. So here is what I did to try to get the kind of plan I believed Westminster needed and, at the same time, try to get the faculty and staff to assume ownership of the plan. 
Setting the Stage
Before the planning process formally began, I worked to set the direction the plan would take. 

First, as part of my inauguration celebration, I collaborated with a senior member of the faculty to organize a Symposium on the Future of Higher Education. This consisted of a series of panel presentations and small group discussions led by outside experts who talked with the campus community about the rapidly changing external landscape and what some schools were doing to adapt. The ideas discussed in the symposium fertilized deliberations during the planning process about what it would mean to shift our instructional paradigm from teaching to learning.
I was convinced that student learning was becoming an increasingly important criterion for judging quality in higher education. If Westminster was to remain a high quality institution, we had to shift our paradigm from teaching to learning.
Some months later, I drafted the design criteria that the board then adopted to guide the strategic planning process. The most critical of these criteria was the one that pointed the College in the direction of the learning paradigm. It read, quite simply: “The plan must be designed to develop an educationally distinctive, learning centered environment”.

Bringing Others into the Process
The planning process was designed to be open and transparent. All members of the faculty and staff and all members of the board of trustees were encouraged to get involved and, in one way or another, the vast majority did. Together they contributed all of the programmatic initiatives that found their way into the final version. So instead of ending up with “The President’s Plan,” the process generated a campus-wide sense of ownership. That ownership, in turn, ensured that the plan wouldn’t end up collecting dust on my shelf. It emerged as a plan that many people were willing to step forward to implement.

At the same time, I made sure that campus leaders—people who were respected by their peers—played prominent roles in the planning process. But I also included faculty and staff with a reputation for opposing new initiatives. That allowed the plan to be informed by thinking from both ends of the spectrum. In addition, once the plan had been formalized, it gave me the benefit of having not only all of the leaders, but a few of the dissidents as well, serve as salespeople and spokespersons for it. 

To what degree has the plan been successful?

The faculty adopted the plan with only five dissenting votes. The board of trustees gave it their unanimous support. Now, almost 10 years later, almost all of the provisions of the plan have been implemented. And I think it’s fair to say that, as a result, the College is thriving as never before. (Click HERE to view a section of our 2010-2011 Annual Report that note some of the indicators of our success).

Nonetheless, in my view, the transformation of the institution that was an implicit goal of the plan has yet to be fully realized. The hope was that the widespread ownership of the plan would create enough momentum to encourage all of the faculty and staff to internalize its philosophy and that philosophy would, in turn, be reflected in the way they did their work. While many members of the Westminster community did just that, others decided that, while they might agree with the plan, they did not need to make it a part of their behavior—and they didn’t. As a result, while the plan has, I believe, become a part of the college’s generic ethos, there are still holdouts and the transformation is incomplete.

Perhaps that’s inevitable. Few faculty members are socialized to think of themselves as members of a team. The very notion is anathema to some who pride themselves on being independent, divergent and often contrarian thinkers. I value that type of professional orientation, but only when it isn’t being employed to camouflage a resistance to change that is grounded in a desire to protect one’s own interests at the expense of the interests of the whole. Click HERE to read an enlightening article about faculty resistance to change, by one of today's leading educational thinkers.
And perhaps it’s a healthy sign that not everyone drank the kool-aid and accepted the learning paradigm as the new orthodoxy. Any enterprise ought to be able to benefit by making space for alternative points of view that challenge conventional wisdom. At the very least, those challenges put pressure on the enterprise to continue to test its assumptions and claims against hard evidence and to modify its orientation when warranted. 
Click HERE to access the interactive rubric and evaluate my work.

Michael Bassis, President Westminster College, Utah
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