Autobiography of a Professional Change Agent
In this picture, I am in the lower right corner. This is my team from Western International University, where I served as President during our teach-out of the university. With the support of my team, we were able to take care of all our students, staff, and faculty while over achieving both in regards to revenue and expense. This was our last lunch celebrating the end of the university.
Throughout my professional career, I have served as a change agent. I have done this as a leader and also from a non-leadership, support role. I have supported changes in technology, changes in organizational structure, and developed data and reporting systems to support continuous improvement. This is a summary of my achievements and setbacks over the last almost forty years.
The University Years (1986-1992)
My first "real" job in college was as a first year student at the University of Michigan working in the dorm cafeteria. I am not counting my earlier work selling Christmas trees on the family tree farm or taking tickets at high school football games. That first job led to my first leadership positions first running the dish room and then as a student coordinator. As student coordinator, I supervised a brigade of about 20 student employees, serving 1,500 meals a night. I worked in the cafeteria for almost 3 years, and I quit in frustration when it became clear that the university did not prioritize service to our students.
The university president had an alumni lunch one day, and the cafeteria managers pulled most of my crew to support the lunch, leaving us short-handed for lunch for the students. I protested by quitting. I was an idealistic 21-year old studying sociology and social movements. My customer service ethic had been forged in the high school drama club, where I learned that the audience was why we were there, and our role on stage and off was to create an experience for the audience. If the cafeteria did not prioritize its audience over visiting dignitaries, I could not be part of the cafeteria anymore.
I used to imagine how think my file was with university human resources. Everything was paper-based back then, and over six years of undergraduate and graduate school, I worked at least ten different jobs including as a graduate research and teaching assistant. It was my last job at the university, as a computer systems consultant, though that was the gateway to my career.
Essentially, I supported faculty, staff, and students with computer questions working on the help desk and in computer labs on campus. My part-time student position had become a half-time, regular appointment. Then in January 1992, senior management sent out a call for someone to support a start-up consortium that the university was part of. The headquarters was in Saginaw, Michigan, not far from where I had grown up. I volunteered, and pitched the idea that since it was my Dad's birthday, I would be in town that weekend and could easily stay over until Monday to do an analysis of what was needed.
From January to May, I would spend the first part of the week at the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and drive back to campus for classes. By May, I was given a full-time job offer to join CIESIN. I also had a competing offer for a funded research fellowship to work on my dissertation. I could not do both. I decided that my further teaching and research would be better for the experience of working at an innovative, government-funded start-up, and that I could always finish my degree. My professors did not share my optimism at being able to have my cake and eat it too, but I like desert, so I went for it.
In hindsight, I was right on both counts, but it would take a long time to prove myself right. CIESIN was designed to be a mixture of people from research and academia, government and politics, and business. Our mission was to make data and information on the human dimensions of global change available over the Internet. In 1992, the web was just being born in Switzerland. The Internet was not a household term, and high speed consumer access to the Internet was still years away. I started as the IT department, and then as I became burned out on that, I had an opportunity to take a role as a product manager in marketing. My mentor George was the chief operating officer and came from business.
Product management was challenging and fun as we had a variety of different products in development. I was able to develop a framework to explain how the different products fit together to reduce conflict over which product was most important. I was also successful in winning a Smithsonian Computerworld Award for one of our applications. Unfortunately, the president of the organization forced George out, and it became clear that the business-oriented parts of the organization were no longer valued.
Fortunately for me, the president had created a mid-level management position in our IT development group for someone who was not willing to relocate to Saginaw. That provided me with an opportunity to lobby for and eventually land my first real management position. I was 26. I inherited one employee who had already given notice, and five open positions that needed to be filled. My new boss (and mentor) Don was based in New York and flew in every other week. I became his person on the ground and trusted lieutenant. That was a great 18 months. My responsibilities expanded with the addition of IT operations to the team. While my first leadership role had required me to build a new team, my expanded role required me to turn around an existing team that had significant dysfunctions. Everything was going great until Don had to return to his home university, and I lost mentor #2.
At the tender age of 27, I became the Acting Director of Information Technology, reporting to the president and serving on her cabinet. Those were tough months. I was working three jobs as the Acting Director, still supervising my own team, dealing with the aftermath of political battles that Don and I had fought and won, and also providing support for our Information Cooperative program. The Information Cooperative was one of many brilliant, ahead of its times ideas that came out of CIESIN. The concept was rather than creating a traditional data archive, we would create a virtual data archive linking together existing data archives around the world. Eventually we had over 70 partnerships on six continents. (Penguins in Antartica do not share their data, sadly). My responsibility was managing the technical implementation with all of these partner organizations.
My biggest obstacle, though, was the internal politics. I was resented for having achieved so much so young. Don and I had won some nasty political battles, but I did not have his experience or connections, so when he left, our enemies came for me. It was clear that I would never be the permanent Director, and when the president merged this position with another position under a new hire, his request to have me as his deputy was turned down. Fortunately, our Vice President for Strategic Initiatives asked me to come work for him and manage the Information Cooperative project, reporting to the head of international programs.
This was an exciting opportunity. I worked on grant applications to organizations like the World Bank. I presented at a United National Development Program conference in Mexico City. I was in talks to do consulting work with the government of China. Then the academics in the organization started to go after the government people, and mentor #3, Bob left the company. I followed soon after.
Entrepreneurship and the Path Not Taken (1996-1998)
Just before my 29th birthday, I finally landed a new position as Data and Information Systems Coordinator at the Muskegon Community Health Project. Muskegon is a small city on Michigan's west coast, a couple of hours from where I had been living and working in Saginaw. The project was funded by the Kellogg Foundation. This was right after the Clinton's failed at national healthcare reform, and the Foundation wanted to see what could be done from a grassroots level as an alternative. My primary role was the development of a "community health information network." Shortly after starting, I received a call from a new division at General Motors called OnStar about an interview. I turned them down, and ever since when I see an OnStar commercial, I wonder "what if"?
Within less than a year, I had both designed the community health information, including securing financial support from the two hospital systems. I was able to leverage my experience in building an international network to create a network at the community level. During this time I developed my approach to leading change revolutions. Unfortunately, I failed to manage the internal politics of the project, and my boss asked me pursue other opportunities.
I had negotiated as part of my new job the opportunity to run a side business, and I had developed a partnership with a local college to offer workshops on the Internet and the World Wide Web, which in 1997 was still a very new concept. Through this relationship, the college offered me a part-time teaching position. Once my job went away, I shifted my focus to teaching and developing my business.
My business had success very early. Through my contacts in the community, I had a large contract with the local intermediate school district. I also won contracts to develop web sites for both the county and the local airport. The college also gave me more classes to teach. Money was tight and not as consistent as a regular pay check, but there were also great satisfaction in working for myself.
Introduction to Higher Education (1997 - 2007)
Part-time teaching led to a full-time faculty position, but I put in my notice after a few months. Professionally, I did not feel I was given the opportunity to learn and grow, and personally my first marriage was under a great deal of stress. However, I rescinded my resignation when I was asked to become the interim dean. The new role gave me an opportunity to grow and learn. My peers were all experienced academic leaders, and I had to work twice as hard to have half the results. I enjoyed working with students and faculty and on the curriculum.
The campus where I served was one of ten campuses spread across Michigan. I was impressed about how all of the campuses were experiencing growth, and when an opening became available at the system headquarters in 2000, I leapt at the chance to learn how the special sauce was made.
My initial role was Director of Instructional Technology. My mission was to support faculty in the use of technology in the classroom. This experience allowed me to develop processes for how to influence faculty to adopt new technology. Through this work, I further refined my approach to leading change, and made my first presentation of change revolutions in 2001.
In time, my role expanded to become the Director of Effective Teaching and Learning. In addition to instructional technology, I became responsible for faculty development. We developed a comprehensive program for faculty onboarding across the entire system. I also developed an appreciative inquiry process for faculty in our developmental education program to support the development of identifying and adopting best practices to increase student success and retention. During these years, I became an accreditation peer reviewer, and became leader of the college's accreditation program. I was also asked to coordinate strategic planning.
Ironically, I had never intended on staying in Michigan. I thought that after grad school, I would move out-of-state to pursue a higher ed career. The higher ed career happened, but I was still in Michigan. The push I needed to move on came when the college appointed someone who was not me to take over for my boss when she retired. My concern was that while the college was great at recruiting new students, it was lousy at retaining them. I did not believe that the new Vice President of Academics would be the champion we needed to lead change, and that eventually the college would face significant headwinds. Unfortunately, I was right, but long before then, I had moved on.
The Chicago Years (2008 - 2016)
When it was clear my career was not going to advance where I was, I activated my network and learned about a job as Vice Provost of Institutional Effectiveness at a university in Chicago. My responsibilities would include assessment, which I was familiar with, and institutional research, which was new to me.
The new university was more traditional than I was used to with tenured faculty and strong faculty governance. At different times over the university's 125 year history, it had lead several innovations in higher education, but when I arrived, it was struggling to find its path going forward and was stuck in the past. During my short-time, I had three bosses, two interim and one permanent who would leave a year after I did.
I had interviewed with another university as a Vice Provost, but they had taken so long to get back to me, that I assumed it was a "no." Then I got the call to interview with the president, which led to a job offer that I could not refuse, so my office changed from downtown to Chicago to the suburbs.
My new role initially was responsibility for the faculty, which consisted of over 1,000 part-time faculty. I also had a team of about 30 full-time staff and faculty that were full-time. This role gave me experience with using changes in organizational structure and design as a lever to change organizational effectiveness. In time, my role transitioned to lead our doctoral programs. This included changing our learning management system, changing program curriculum, recruiting new faculty, and enhancing the student experience. Looking back, this was the first time other than my own business that I was given freedom to make the changes that I thought were important for success.
Unfortunately, I again failed to manage my boss, and I was again given the opportunity to move on. Fortunately, this time I saw it coming, and I already had my next opportunity lined up. For the first couple of years I lived in Chicago and traveled to Phoenix on a regular basis.
The Desert and the Swamp (2016 - present)
My first role at the university was Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness with a mission to address significant accreditation issues. We were successful in both addressing the underlying issues and in effectively telling our story. When the provost left, I became the interim and then permanent provost, which meant relocating to Phoenix. This was the promotion I had been looking for since before I left Michigan for Chicago. Unfortunately, a few months after the family joined me in the desert, it was announced that the university would be closing.
For the teach-out, I became the president, which allowed me to check off one of my professional goals. Being the leader of an organization that is closing is a surreal experience. We knew we had two years to complete the teach-out, so we knew we had job security for a time. My team and I achieved all of our goals. All students were given an opportunity to graduate or transfer to another institution. We only lost two team members who voluntarily departed the university. We helped the staff transfer to their next careers. Financially, we controlled costs and were below our expense budget. We also exceeded projections for revenue. As president, it was my responsibility to take care of everyone as best as I could do knowing that the final outcome was already set.
Even before we completed the teach-out, my family and I relocated from Phoenix to Orlando, from the desert to the swamp. Our plan was to stay in Florida until I found my next role. When I found a position with the university where I work now, we did relocate to Maryland for a year, COVID happened and pushed us back to Florida.
My current role is a Vice President, but since we are a large university, there are many vice presidents. Having been a president and a provost, there has been an adjustment to return to a supporting role. I have the largest team of my career with over 100 employees in my structure. The role has inspired to think about and look at change from a new perspective. How do you make change when you are not in charge or have sponsorship from those who are in charge? How do you make an impact on an organization when your team provides a support function?
Another gift of my current role is that I need the creative outlet to help others learn from my experience and the insights I have gained across my professional career.