Enrollment Management: Lessons on Leadership

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By: Shelley Arakawa, Amy Crutchfield, Robin Mamlet, and Lisa Meyer

What leader doesn’t feel unsure of their abilities during 2020? There certainly is no historic data to draw on when making decisions, and every decision seems crucial to the health of one’s team and the institution.

To help admission professionals navigate these unprecedented times, WittKieffer, a global search firm and NACAC member, was honored to partner with some of the country’s leading enrollment and higher education experts through our Summer Speaker Series, a course of four webinars focused on enrollment leadership.

One takeaway? Strong leadership matters, now more than ever.

“Think about it in terms of athletic training,” Joy St. John, dean of admission and financial aid at Wellesley College (MA), shared during one session. “You may be building endurance skills in a community of sprinters, but if you all have to go out and run a marathon, you know that you’re actually going to have an advantage when you get to that race…The fact that you had to navigate a system that was not built for you is itself a set of skills.”

The Summer Speaker Series, which drew 1,400 registrants, included four sessions featuring 14 insightful and engaging professionals. Topics included women in leadership, antiracist and social justice movements, balancing fiscal pressures with institutional values, finding a voice on the national and local stages, and more.

We left the conversation inspired and energized. While each of our speakers—a slate that included several NACAC leaders and members—differed in job title, background, experience, and geographic location, they spoke in unison regarding key elements to strong leadership.

We hope you will find the following insights from their conversations helpful.

1: Remember that leadership is a journey. Learning to lead is possible for everyone, but it takes time and will include some missteps. There will be moments of self-doubt along the way.

Several of our panelists highlighted the presence of an “impostor syndrome” in their own work, the feeling that they don’t quite merit their role. Panelists agreed this can be especially prominent for women and individuals from underrepresented backgrounds. Angel B. Pérez, NACAC CEO, shared that following a recent interview with NPR, he hung up the phone wondering if he had said the right things. “Even with all my experience talking to media, it happens all the time…There is some vulnerability there,” Pérez said.

You may never feel 100 percent ready for that promotion or new position, and that’s okay, panelists said. Be vulnerable, but also value yourself and the knowledge you have gained along the way. Lean on trusted mentors and supporters who can help in times of doubt. And remember: Everyone, at every level, is continuing to grow. Be honest about where you can grow. Be curious.

“If it doesn’t turn out perfectly, cut yourself some slack,” noted Yvonne Romero da Silva, vice president for enrollment at Rice University (TX). Imagine if you believed that your first attempts at reading and writing were the apex of your abilities! Leadership is learned over a lifetime.

2: Keep mission, both personal and professional, at the center of decision-making and actions. “Be true to what you believe,” was a mantra for many panelists. Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive officer of The Common Application, reminded participants to trust their gut, adding, “You really need to honor that, and that means really trusting your own instincts in your career.”

These are challenging and complex times, but in the end, it all comes back to students. “This moment reveals the honest versions of our institutions and who we truly are at our core,” said Shirley M. Collado, president of Ithaca College (NY). “We are being called to align our dollars with our mission.”

Our speakers acknowledged it can be easy for admission professionals to lose contact with students as they move up in title and responsibilities, but they emphasized the importance of staying in touch with students—the reason for the work they do.

“Every time I spend time with students and parents, it re-energizes me,” noted Brian Blake, provost of George Washington University (DC). Panelists recommended scheduling time with students, whether that meant meeting monthly with an affinity group, attending student events, or mentoring groups of students throughout the academic year. Remaining a strong advocate for all students, especially in terms of equity and access to education, is particularly important, panelists noted.

3: Create community. As an enrollment leader, “you have to see yourself as a collaborator and in a servant-leadership role,” said David Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University (VA). Developing deep partnerships with people from across campus is key.

Shirley M. Collado recommended intentionally setting up opportunities for people to get to know each other and interact across lines of difference. Create these relationships over time, so when you find yourself at a critical moment when a controversial decision needs to be made quickly (e.g., going test optional, changing scholarship criteria, etc.) you have the trust and confidence of your community to move forward. Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for university enrollment affairs, dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt University (TN), identifies key campus leaders and makes a point of getting to know them and their perspectives. He noted, “These are the folks who will block and tackle for you to get things done and to meet the objectives of the institution.”

Collaboration also involves allowing one’s own staff the space to speak their minds. Consider having meetings on occasion where you as the enrollment leader don’t speak—something that Derek Kindle, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recommended. “Every semester, there’s a brainstorming session with the team,” he noted. While he stays silent, he encourages his team to share their wisdom. “We don’t just ask for good ideas or recommend that people do that, we demand it.”

4: Work on yourself. Don’t forget to prioritize your own growth and well-being. Take time to learn about what others are doing and to understand the big picture of enrollment practices across higher education. But also take time for yourself.

The work can be stressful and demanding. Make sure to meditate, explore hobbies, re-energize, and find time for family and friends. “Balance is different for everyone,” said MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management and student success at New York University. “Ask yourself, how do I keep my center?”

5: Focus on the positive. In the field of enrollment—and in higher education in general—there is a lot that can go wrong these days. Learn from these instances, but remember to revel in what goes right, too, said Donald Hall, with the University of Rochester (NY). He noted, “I once led a retreat where I required people to say something positive before they shared anything negative.”

While the work of enrollment management requires understanding the realistic needs and goals of the institution, there is room for optimism. “As enrollment professionals, we have the ability to be extremely optimistic and realistic at the same time,” said Ronné Patrick Turner, vice provost of admissions & financial aid at Washington University in St. Louis (MO). “We’re optimistic because we believe we can solve some of those challenges that exist, and we approach our work with a lot of creativity and a solution-orientation.”

In this particular climate, where conflicting political views can be so divisive, it can be difficult to remain positive. As NACAC’s Angel B. Pérez cautioned, “You need to choose what to speak about really carefully…I make a point not to debate on social media. I just think you’re not going to win.” For those situations on campus when someone makes a political statement that might negatively affect the work being done, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost for enrollment management at UCLA, had some good advice: “Rather than challenge that, try to pose a question that challenges [the person] to think about what they’ve said as it relates to the institution’s mission.” Foster conversation. Forge relationships.

Shelley Arakawa, Amy Crutchfield, Robin Mamlet, and Lisa Meyer are employed by WittKieffer, a NACAC member. The women moderated the discussions included in Wittkieffer’s Summer Speaker Series and collectively have several decades of experience working in K-12 and higher education. 

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