Keynote Address, Wake Forest University Summer Leadership Conference
The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
Good morning. It is a delight to be with this special group, on this occasion, to deliver my first public presentation as president of Wake Forest University. It is slightly intimidating for me, a newcomer, to speak with you about Wake Forest, an institution that has captured your hearts and minds over many years. It reminds me of the story about the mystery writer Rex Stout, who tried his hand at designing and building a house. In 1930, he built with his own hands a fourteen-room house on a hilltop in Danbury, Connecticut. Later, he invited Frank Lloyd Wright out to see it and waited patiently for his evaluation. Wright examined it carefully and then said, “A superb spot. Someone should build a house here.” Hopefully, my efforts at Wake Forest will gain a slightly more favorable response.
For the last few weeks the Hatches have been in the throes of moving—a rigorous process, to say the least. After fifteen years in the same house, we probably should have purged even more than we did. Still, it was useful to discard all those items we could seem to part with and to find things we considered lost.
One thing that I thought was long gone was a nine-by-eleven envelope that I had received as a high school senior in 1963. That fall I was writing a paper on the senatorial career of President John F. Kennedy, and I had asked for some information from the White House. That material was sent in a White House envelope postmarked November 22, 1963.
I also came across a brief but memorable note from a student who had taken one of my courses. “If I only had ten minutes to live,” he said, “I would want to spend it in your class.” It then went on to add, “It would seem like an eternity.” (I can attest that the first story is true; the second is apocryphal.)
Let me say a word about our family and the transition. For the time being Julie is still in South Bend, where we are expecting our first grandchild. Gregg and Kathy, the expectant parents, live there and Gregg, a Notre Dame alumnus, works in health care administration. Our second son, David, also a Notre Dame graduate, has worked in Chicago for five years in investment banking and corporate finance, but he will also be moving south this summer to begin an MBA at Duke’s Fuqua School. Our daughter, Beth, is a rising junior at Notre Dame and will spend the fall in their London program.
Coming to a university with historic Baptist roots, I think it is important that you know just how well my conversion process is going. Last week, I had the great opportunity to meet a Wake Forest hero—Randolph Childress. It did not take long for his love of Wake Forest to come through in our conversation. I am also happy to report that I used the occasion to take my professional responsibility very seriously. Randolph’s two young sons and his wife, Janai, were with him, and I began the recruiting process for Devon and Brandon!
Let me begin by emphasizing that our challenge is to dream boldly about Wake Forest and its future. I have learned much in the preceding months about this remarkable institution, its history, mission, and aspirations, as well as its current realities and challenges. My approach today is twofold: to explain why Julie and I chose to take on this challenge, and to speak about my core beliefs and commitments as a leader in higher education.
When I accepted this position in January, I offered six reasons why Wake Forest was such a magnet for us—its academic ascent, its sense of place, its strong identity as a community, its strong professional schools, its commitment to the ideal of Pro Humanitate, and its role in the Winston-Salem community. Today, I want to say more about why this challenged gripped us and uprooted us—after thirty years and considerable security at Notre Dame.
Several years ago a management consultant company did an extensive profile of my leadership style, focusing on the intersection of what I have loved doing and where I have tasted a measure of success. One of their central conclusions was this: “By nature, challenges are seductive for you.” In particular, it was noted, I am drawn to challenges that involve people and building organizations.
Although I have been at Notre Dame a long time, I have never been satisfied going around the same track too many times. I spent a considerable number of years in teaching and scholarship, and I love the exhilaration of intellectual discovery. I then turned my attention to helping build a liberal arts college for six years, investing the same length of time advancing graduate education and research at Notre Dame. Finally, I oversaw the entire academic enterprise for nine years as provost.
In each of these tasks, I was privileged to find a set of defined challenges that I could throw myself into fulfilling. I wanted the organization to improve in noticeable ways and to think strategically and move from one point to another. In the College of Arts and Letters, we created a major program of faculty development and raised an endowment that today is almost $20 million. In the Graduate School, we focused with laser-beam precision on quality, building small but superb doctoral programs. As provost, I focused on hiring outstanding academic leaders, building centers of excellence, going the second mile to recruit and retain outstanding faculty, enhancing undergraduate education, and fostering Notre Dame’s religious identity. Being provost also provided me the opportunity to learn much about the distinct dynamics of professional schools in law, business, and divinity. (Dick Dean, Bill Applegate, and others are giving me a crash course on the complicated set of issues of a major medical center.)
I am thoroughly an academic and have cherished administrative work not as different than teaching and scholarship but as an opportunity to build an organization in which academic life can flourish.
I take up the mantle of leadership at Wake Forest cognizant of the great challenges that we face together. Exactly where we need to go is yet to be determined, as is how we get there. I look forward greatly to the perspective and insights that you can share this weekend and in the months ahead. I am committed to moving forward, to building a culture that faculty and students increasingly prize, to becoming more fully part of a national conversation, and to increasing our profile as the school of choice for generations of superb undergraduate and graduate students.
To these ambitions I bring a core set of beliefs and commitments that inform my approach to leadership, gathered both in- and outside of the academic world. Allow me to describe these convictions, as well as the sources of their influence.
I have been privileged to know Max De Pree, an extraordinary leader who is the former CEO of Herman Miller Furniture. I gleaned firsthand his many talents while serving on a board with Max, and I have also found his writing about leadership both compelling and challenging. Max has many great ideas about leadership, such as the notion that you can only focus on so many things at once. He used to carry around a three-by-five card with his stated priorities listed. When someone in the company asked about another problem or issue, Max would pull out the card and suggest how that person might address the issue at hand.
My first deep conviction about leadership derives from the heartbeat of De Pree’s writing (in books such as Leadership is an Artand Leadership Jazz), which involves the profound responsibility of an organization’s leader to its members. A leader must work to define reality for the organization—where it is, where it wants to go, and by what it will measure itself. A leader also must nurture the people of an organization in a holistic manner, because an organization will reach its potential in proportion to the degree that its constituent members achieve their own promise. As well, De Pree encourages the constant asking of probing questions:
- Have we stopped hiring people better than ourselves?
- When did I last stop to say “thank you”?
- When did I call a customer and ask how we are doing?
- Do I have a nose for stale air?
My second deep conviction about leadership is that one must go the second mile to find the right people. I have come to this conclusion from experience, but as a principle it has been best articulated by James C. Collins (in his book Good to Great) and others. Lawrence A. Bossidy, chairman and CEO of Honeywell International, put it this way: “At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategies.”
At every level in higher education, having the right leaders makes all the difference, be it at the level of department chair or dean, in the areas of admissions and placement, in the library and registrar’s office, and in information technology and research administration. And the same can be said for athletics, investments, finance, human resources, and fundraising. Higher education, sociologists tell us, is the most internally complex organization in modern society. Finding the right leaders for all these diverse functions is critical and will be my most important job as president. There is very little that I can accomplish personally at Wake Forest. What I can do, however, is find the right leaders and enable them, working together, to move us forward on many fronts.
My third deep conviction involves the challenge of organizational success. In fact, I think the biggest danger at a place like Wake Forest is not weakness but success; or, more specifically, a mood that the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith has called a “success reflex.” This is an institutional mindset, given notable accomplishment, of coasting, of defending the status quo, and being smugly complacent. It says, “Look where we have come from.” In his book Rethinking America, Smith analyzed American companies like G.M. and IBM that were mired in the mindset of success, their arteries clogged by overconfidence. By contrast, he noticed that Toyota was relentlessly reorganizing as if they were in deep trouble—even though they were immensely successful.
It is very easy for successful universities to remain inwardly focused and to adopt such a façade. And most universities stay pretty much the same. If I could borrow Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of a bellwether in the night, the thing I most fear at Wake Forest is this—resting on our laurels. John V. Lombardi, the former president of the University of Florida and now chancellor of UMass Amherst, put it this way: “Absent a strong drive for change, most institutions stay more or less the way they are: stable, competitive at their level, but unlikely to move dramatically without significant and unusual impetus.” I trust that at Wake Forest we are able to sustain more of a sense of urgency.
Toward this end, I try to encourage leaders to do three things:
- Engage in vigorous self-examination. At Wake Forest I hope we can have a code of candor that rewards frankness which allows us to “work out problems.”
- Benchmark operations against the external environment. What are best practices? We cannot be preoccupied with our own view of the world. We must remain part of a larger conversation.
- Encourage innovation and risk-taking. An institution must know what it values deep down to its toes. But it must be a living experiment to find fresh ways to make those values alive and dynamic. A study of college presidents who have been particularly successful found a common characteristic: They are opportunity conscious, have a sixth sense about opportunities, and are ready to open the door almost before the knock is heard.
My fourth deep conviction involves what it means to be part of an aspiring institution. Last week while Randolph Childress was on campus, someone gave me an article recounting the 1995 ACC Tournament in which he played so brilliantly.
The depiction of the game against North Carolina referred to “little” Wake Forest, the David arrayed against the giant Tar Heel Goliath. I have heard Murray Greason, the outgoing chair of our Board of Trustees, refer affectionately to “Little ‘ol Wake Forest.” Wake Forest is the smallest of the ACC schools, but in other ways it has had a further distance to cover to achieve recognized excellence.
What I would like to emphasize is that my own professional history involves similar institutions. Wheaton College, Washington University, Notre Dame—all are institutions that can boast excellence but remain slightly outside the corridors of academic power and influence.
Frankly, I like the part of the underdog. I am confident that it has been compelling for all of you to see how far Wake Forest has come. I welcome the opportunity to see how far this community of faculty, students, and alumni can travel together in coming years. I hope all of us can go “the second mile.”
Finally, let me say again how much I value your insight about how we build upon the many facets of this wonderful institution. I am committed to building a vibrant community of learning in the College, in our graduate programs, in medicine, in business, in law, and divinity. I look forward to embarking on this pilgrimage together.
- May 18, 2020
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- May 15, 2020