Advent Observations about the Seminary Presidency
Presented at the Presidential Leadership Intensive Week December 2003 by Daniel Aleshire, The Association of Theological Schools
At one of our ATS conferences this fall, a participant quoted someone whom he had heard, but whose name he couldn't remember, who had recently said that knowledgeable persons were predicting that half of the current theological schools in the U.S. and Canada would be closed ten years from now. I try to keep up on this kind of information, and this prediction came as a surprise to me. I started running through the list of schools that I thought were on respirators, the ones that have been showing up in the ATS emergency room, and the ones suffering from the troubled-denomination syndrome or the too-little-money disease. I came up with twenty-five or thirty-an alarming number-but that's more like ten percent of all ATS schools, not fifty percent, and I think most of them are going to make it. If half of the schools are closing in ten years, you would think that more of them would be showing up "sick."
We keep a record of closed schools that were members of the Association, and I looked through the files. It is not as big a file as you might think. In the past fifteen years, three schools have closed: the Maryknoll seminary, a school in Southern California that was started by Campus Crusade, and the seminary of the archdiocese of Denver, which has since opened a new seminary. There have been a few mergers, and one school has been absorbed by another (Conservative Baptist Seminary of the East by Bethel Theological Seminary.) A few schools have significantly altered their institutional scope (Union Theological Seminary in New York would be the most widely recognized in this category), but for the most part, the schools that we have in 2003 are the schools we had in 1990, with the exception of all the new schools that have been formed and are now a part of the Association. Since the 1990 Biennial Meeting, ATS has admitted about thirty schools to its membership, almost all of them newly founded seminaries.
If Charles Dickens were a commentator on theological education, he might say something like "it is the best of times and the worst of times." Any ATS school that derives much of its operating revenue from endowment and has sought to maintain a responsible spending limit has cut its budget several years in a row. Schools with newer endowments have been unable to pull anything from their endowments because the market value has dropped to the size of the original gift and, in some cases, dropped below that original amount. For those schools, there is the rapid retreat from new programs and the people hired to run them. Budget cutting is hard work. It takes a toll on the people in a theological school and, because of that, it takes a toll on you as presidents. If not the worst of times, it certainly feels heavy and often worrisome. These reduced budgets, however, are still larger than they were four years ago, and the size of reduced endowments are still multiples of the endowments the schools had a decade ago. Enrollments are up and schools with enrollment-driven budgets are doing pretty well. As poor as ATS schools are, they are the richest theological schools in the world. They all have well-educated faculties, adequate if not good libraries, generally engaging students, and most have loyal donors. In many ways, ATS schools, as a group, are the envy of the Christian world. If it is not the best of times, it is certainly one of the better ones.
While a few schools may not make it through the next decade, I predict that almost all of them will. So, don't list your campus on eBay any time soon. Far more schools are going to be around in 2013 than the unnamed expert predicted, but continued existence may not be all its cracked up to be. I don't know which is more frightening: that half the schools would be gone in a decade or that they would still be here but unable to do what they were called into existence to do. Closing a seminary is actually difficult; it is relatively easy to let a seminary dwindle into a kind of institutional vegetative state in which it continues to function as an institution, but no longer has the capacity to accomplish its mission; that is the fear that haunts me.
Will theological schools live into their promise over the next decade, enhance their capacity, and fulfill their missions? Will they contribute to a more capable religious leadership? One critical factor influencing whether they thrive or dwindle is the quality of their presidential leadership. Good leadership will not single-handedly make good schools, but no school will be good without it. Bad leadership may not single-handedly cause a school to weaken, but few schools weaken without some bad leadership along the way.
To get you in the mood for thinking about presidential work, I want to share something I heard at an ATS meeting earlier this fall. Theophan the Recluse was a nineteenth century Russian priest and mystic who spent his time in prayer, literary work, painting icons, and maintaining a vast correspondence. Father Theophan wrote:
Make the following rule: first of all, anticipate trouble at every moment and when it comes, encounter it as something expected.
He went on to say,
...put out of your mind all expectation that the nature of things will change, and resign yourself to life-long friction. Do not forget this or underrate its importance....Finally, with all this, preserve a good-humored expression, an affable tone of speech, friendly behavior, and above all, avoid reminding people in any way about their unjust words or deeds. Behave as though they had done nothing wrong.
I. Avoid Behaviors that Weaken Institutions
Rita Bornstein, president of Rollins College, has undertaken a study of presidential failures. She recently summarized her findings in a Point of View column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I want to call your attention to three of her six points. While she is focusing on presidential failure, I want to focus on behaviors that can weaken institutions. The two are not the same, although they can be related. The points are hers; the commentary is mine.
1. Managerial incompetence. Bornstein notes that one threat to presidential success is managerial incompetence. An institution's employees need to be held accountable, even when that is difficult. ATS schools are not large enough to carry many people who do not do their work well. Institutions cannot spend more money than they receive for very long without seriously eroding their capacity to fulfill their missions. Healthy institutions need good decision-making processes, and if reasonable ones don't exist, they need to be invented. The many systems of a school need to be ordered toward the mission of the school. Managerial strategies vary; one size does not fit all. They need to be sensitive to the culture of the school and the abilities of its faculty and administrators. Good management does not necessarily make a school stronger, but bad management will almost always make it weaker. If management is a personal weakness in a president it can be buttressed in a variety of ways, but ATS schools cannot be un-managed very long. I have known a few presidencies that failed because of managerial incompetence, but more tragically, I have known schools that slid a long way into incapacity because a president failed to ensure that a school was managed with care.
2. Loss of social capital. Another reason Bornstein thinks college and university presidencies sometimes fail is the erosion of social capital. She describes social capital as involving relationships of trust, mutual influence, and cooperation, and she writes that "social capital can be replenished, like money in the bank." I think that this banking idea may be a bit too optimistic. Last year, I told the new presidents that I had decided that trust of an institutional leader is like manna in the wilderness: the best you can hope for is enough for one day at a time. You never build much of a backlog. No matter how many times you have proved yourself trustworthy as a leader, it seems that you must do so day after day. My image is likely exaggerated; perhaps Bornstein's is more accurate. Trust does accrue, but I'm convinced that it takes two deposits of social capital for every withdrawal and the balance never earns interest. Don't hear this as unduly pessimistic. It is just the way things are. Every hard decision consumes social capital.
One ATS president told me a few weeks ago that a seminary president's job these days is saying "no." Robert Cooley, retired president at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, talked with ATS presidents one time about the "burden of accumulated grievances." I think that he means, in part, the burden of the "no's" that do the institution good, but consume social capital in the process. Too many "yes's" make for bad management; too many "no's" deplete social capital. Too many "maybe's" make for both bad management and depleted social capital. Some ATS presidents have described certain situations to me and, as I think about them in the context of this point, their descriptions amount to the perception that their social capital balance has gone negative. They talk as if it might be time to move on. My reaction is that social capital can be rebuilt, and I find myself encouraging them to stay and build the capital rather than assume they need to leave. Loss of social capital won't weaken a school by itself, but the decisions that make schools stronger require social capital. In this way, a president's social capital is an institutional asset more than a personal one and the time you spend building it up is doing something that, in the long run, strengthens schools.
3. Misconduct. A third pattern of presidential failure is misconduct. Bornstein references this threat by saying, "Although the academic presidency is often thought of as a higher calling, campus CEOs appear no less prone to misconduct than business, government, and religious leaders do." I felt the sting in her statement, with its use of "religious leaders" as a normative reference point, but she is right. In the past fourteen years, more than one theological school has lost its president to misconduct and when that happens, the pain falls both on the person and on the school. As best I can tell, misconduct has its roots in too much stress, over too many years, or in the substitution of a public persona of a religious leader for the personal disciplines of faith. In our business, there is no recovery from misconduct; it is fatal to a presidency. Grace and forgiveness may happen personally, but not institutionally. This is not right and it is not fair. We know that all of us are sinners, and there is precious little theological basis for some sins constituting disqualifying misconduct and others not. Misconduct has more social than theological roots, which may be why it is so fatal. Presidential misconduct does not necessarily weaken a school, but it certainly won't strengthen it-at least not our kind of schools. It absorbs all of an institution's energy, weakens its donor base, tears at relationships, and leaves scars that are evident years later.
Most theological schools are robust enough that they can withstand a failure here and there, but most are not robust enough to withstand a steady diet of presidential failures. We can learn from Borstein's list of failures. Take management seriously. It is a gift to an institution, not an indicator that you have so little intelligence or imagination that you have nothing better to do. Build social capital on a daily basis; be patient with the institutional reality that never stays fresh very long and realize that the time it takes to build capital-with faculty and staff, with board members, and with constituents-is a way of building stronger schools. Avoid misconduct.
II. Practices that Strengthen Institutions
Strong schools need more than a president who avoids the behaviors that lead to presidential failure. They need presidential practices and perspectives that, in my judgment, contribute to good schools, and I want to mention three.
4. Honesty. Be honest, especially with the board. I have watched some presidents, for some reason or the other, think that the board would like to hear good news even when the news is not so good. The financial story can be honestly spun in more than one way, but if the school is overspending its resources, the board should not be the last to know. I've never talked with a board member at an ATS school who has an adversarial attitude toward the school. The data from the Auburn study of trustees suggests that, if anything, they are uncritically supportive of the schools they serve. So, I am not sure why some presidents don't tell the truth, particularly the financial truth. Sooner or later, it will always be found out; if not on one president's watch, then on the next one's. Most boards of ATS schools want the school to do well and are supportive of the president. Because of this, they can handle the truth. The board will do its work better when it knows the truth-about finances, personnel, missional effectiveness-and it will do its best work if it knows the truth sooner rather than later. As in all truth-telling that is faithful, truth-telling need not be brutal, uncaring, or impersonal. Truth creates a context for growing strong institutions; hiding truth weakens schools. I cannot think of a single ATS school that has been seriously weakened that did not have a problem, somewhere along the way, with presidential truth-telling.
5. Personal humility and institutional will. For the past several years, I have been reading literature on leadership and institutional quality. While I haven't read all there is to read, what I have read has not necessarily been fulfilling. If leadership is what some of the leadership books says it is, I am neither a leader nor do I want to be. If good companies are what some of the literature says they are, I would prefer to hang around with the mediocre ones. Occasionally, there is a book that I think is of significant value, and Jim Collins's Good to Great is one of them. He and his team of young researchers studied companies in a variety of segments of the economy that broke ahead of other companies in the same segment and sustained their relative leadership position for fifteen years. Both the research question and the findings fascinated me.
The research question intrigued me because I think our culture is much too interested in short- term results. Higher education institutions need to build themselves for the long-term. Everything we are about as theological schools-from the things that we value to the society's need for our graduates-is needed for the long-term. What makes an institution great and able to sustain itself over the long-term? The findings were fascinating. These companies showed the ability to abandon some long-standing areas of business and hold onto others. There was no common secret to their success other than good decisions, made over time, and the institutional discipline to make the decisions work. Collins notes that the enemy of great is good, and the companies in this study were no longer content to be good. As I read the descriptions, I didn't get the idea that any of them had a strategic plan to become great. Their institutional goals were to find what they did well and what the market needed to be done better. They seemed to have been guided more by a drive to get better than a goal to become great, and to be discontent with any performance other than their best. The study shows how, if a company really wants to get better and better, it just may end up great.
I was even more intrigued by the descriptions of the leaders of these companies. In the world of celebrity CEOs, this study found that the CEOs of these companies functioned very differently. It came as a surprise to the researchers that the CEOs of fifteen of these very successful publicly held companies were virtually unknown. The researchers interviewed the senior executives who were active with these companies as they "broke ahead" and as they worked to sustain their relative position over the years. The interviews revealed that these were people of personal humility who worked hard and enjoyed their work. They did not define themselves by the perks of their jobs or use their positions to promote personal fame. They were passionate about their companies. Collins describes them as people of intense professional will. They were committed to their company's achievement more than any personal status. They were committed to the success of the company, over the long term. I cannot think of a better or more healthy pair of leadership qualities for presidents of ATS schools than a combination of personal humility and strong professional will. That combination, over time, will contribute to strong schools, maybe even great ones. I know of one ATS school that is taking the results of this study seriously in hopes that it can chart a future of renewed contribution to its vision of faith and the church.
6. Making good small decisions. I have observed one other presidential quality that serves institutions well. Sometimes, we are inclined to think that it is the great big decision that makes all the difference; a sort of president's holy grail. We imagine that one great decision will set the school on a right course and keep it going in that direction. I have decided that this is not the case. My favorite commentator on the human condition, Garrison Keillor, recently wrote on Arnold Schwarzenneger's election as governor of California. I won't get into the politics of the commentary; suffice it to say that he was addressing the good people of California after Minnesota's experiment with Jesse Ventura. Keillor compared the work of action-hero governors to the people with more regular-sized chests who sit in meetings, make decisions, and get things done. His words are better than mine.
You go for a walk on a summer night and notice the little ramps carved into curbs at street corners. People sat through a lot of meetings to get that accomplished. It was a boon to the wheelchair crowd and also to parents pushing strollers and kids riding bikes. It made life slightly more civil and friendly. Government works through small, incremental changes, and action heroes are much too high and mighty to take notice of these or other small details, but the changes are real, and in the end, we prefer government to heroism.
Commentary by Garrison Keillor for Time
I think this is true of theological schools. They grow stronger over time-not by the great decision, great gift, or heroic president, but by the consistent, persistent, insistent commitment to mission and quality, decision after decision, year after year.
I've been watching presidents for many years now and watching the schools they have led. My conclusion is that leadership makes a difference. The stakes are high. While there is a margin of error, it is not large.
One of the business leaders Jim Collins describes is Coleman Mockler, who was the CEO of Gillette, one of the companies that the study demonstrated had moved from good to great. During his tenure, the company, in Collins's analysis, underwent three serious attacks and with each, "Mockler did not capitulate, choosing instead to fight for the future greatness of Gillette, even though he himself would have pocketed a substantial sum on his own shares." Collins goes on to describe Mockler in this way: "His placid persona hid an inner intensity, a dedication to making anything he touched the best that it could possibly be-not just because of what he would get, but because he simply couldn't imagine doing it any other way. " (Collins, pages 23-25). What Jim Collins did not know was that Coleman Mockler and his wife Jo Anna were contributors to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and after his death, Jo Anna served a term as chair of the seminary's board of trustees. He represented the kind of leader that makes good seminaries, in addition to making good companies: a dedication to the best because he could not imagine it any other way; a gentle presence, a generous spirit.
The characteristics of leadership I have discussed with you tonight have been said more concisely, in better words, in a more ancient time:
Now a bishop must be above reproach...temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money, not a recent convert, well thought of by outsiders. (From I Timothy 3)
Those are the kind of people who get the cuts in the curbs to the sidewalks, who strengthen theological schools, and who, if they hang around long enough, can make bad to better, better to good, and even good to great.