Turnaround President Makes the Most of His Colleges’ Small Size

Leadership can be a vexing topic for me because while many people can manage, few people are inspiring enough to be leaders. I’ve seen that leadership skills are what propel principals to create better schools, teachers better classrooms and counselors better advocates for student success. Emotional intelligence has become a vital part of how today’s leaders meet the significant challenges they face. Being courageous enough to challenge a broken situation with several alternatives, champion a student who is letting themselves off the hook on their abilities, or call forth a colleague who can be performing optimally but is choosing mediocrity is the beginning of courageous conversations which change outcomes.

Small, liberal-arts colleges are facing hard times in today’s economy, and G.T. Smith is trying to change that through leadership and genuine relationships. In the Chronicle of Higher Education article below, Mr. Smith states “The underlying thing for me is relationships—hardly anything important happens that doesn’t have to do with relationships. It’s getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.” Mr. Smith’s role model for fostering a sense of community to improve failing small, liberal-arts colleges is Howard Lowry, the College of Wooster’s seventh president where Mr. Smith attended as a student. Mr. Lowry wrote an essay for The Atlantic Monthly in 1966 defending the liberal-arts college in response to W. Allen Wallis’s article predicting the coming irrelevancy of small colleges unless they conformed into university-like institutions. Mr. Lowry’s essay argued that small colleges give students “the capacity to survive change” during “a time when colleges are trying to prepare students for careers 10 years away that do not now exist.”

How can today’s colleges and universities appeal to incoming freshmen’s need for belonging?

How can higher education foster a sense of community with high schools?

How can you be courageous as a leader in the role you play to challenge the status quo and bring about positive change?

November 15, 2009
Chronicle of Higher Education

By Scott Carlson
Elkins, W.Va.
Most people here know G.T. Smith simply as “Buck,” a grandfatherly figure who strolls around the wooded campus of Davis & Elkins College picking up bits of litter and chatting up students, professors, and groundskeepers by name.
But in higher education, Mr. Smith is known as a turnaround artist, a man with the talent and disposition to take a failing college and transform it into a winner. Here, at 74 years old, taking no salary, he is trying to save a tiny, debt-ridden college in one of the poorest states in the country. His strategy is so simple and earnest, it may sound naïve to the jaded.

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