How does a poet become a leader
in higher education? In the case of Dr. Sanford C. Shugart, President of Valencia College, you become a
speechwriter for your state's governor, develop policy expertise, get tapped to
assist the President of the North Carolina Community College System (in the
role of Vice President, no less), find yourself "thrown in with the
sharks" but have the wisdom to listen and learn. Then after a couple of
years, you become good at swimming in those waters.
This unlikely story marks the
start of a remarkable career, but as in all stories worth telling, it has an
unexpected turning point, one that eventually took Dr. Shugart down the path
that led to his selection as speaker for the ADEA Commission on Change and
Innovation in Dental Education (ADEA CCI) Presidential Symposium at this year’s
ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in Orlando.
“One day,” Dr. Shugart
recounted softly, “I hurt someone on my senior staff.” He doesn’t remember what
he said in the meeting, but he remembers the response it provoked. In his
office later that day, the injured party held up a mirror to his face, and Dr.
Shugart saw he was becoming someone he had never wanted to be.
The encounter sent him on what
he called a pilgrimage for a way of being responsible in the world. He
discovered the work of Robert
Greenleaf, the former AT&T executive who developed the concept of
servant leadership. In a nutshell, Mr. Greenleaf espouses the notion that
“legitimate leadership is freely granted by the led," that "caring
for persons... is the rock upon which a good society is built," and
crucially, that most of that caring is now mediated through institutions.
In Dr. Shugart's view,
institutions (including those within higher education) are both awesome and
awful. They have put public goods like literacy and health care that were once
the province of an elite within the reach of the masses, yet they often lose
sight of their missions as they focus on their own survival. By way of example,
Dr. Shugart asked the audience, "How can you rationalize putting 1,000
students in a lecture hall and calling it education?"
In the face of such deviations
from the mission, Dr. Shugart asserted, some people are called upon to
infiltrate institutions and invite them to reclaim their servant ethic. Greenleaf
calls these infiltrators “servant leaders,” and Dr. Shugart is clearly one of
them, although he is quick to point out that in the case of his particular
institution, Valencia College, the transformation he has facilitated is one
from "good to great."
Valencia is an exceptional institution. The Aspen Institute just awarded it first
prize for Community-College
Excellence, just one of many accomplishments Valencia can celebrate.
According to the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data
System 2010 Feedback
Report, Valencia’s overall graduation rate is nearly three times that of
similar, large urban public community colleges as defined by the U.S. Department
of Education. In the last decade, Valencia’s four-year graduation rate for
college ready students increased by almost 10% to 44.8%. “The environment at
Valencia is defined by professors and administrators taking responsibility for
student success,” the college’s website states, “consistently asking what they
each can do to improve student outcomes.”
Dr. Shugart called the
philosophy underpinning Valencia’s approach “learning first.” It derives from
the notion that anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. Although
few people believe this to be true, Dr. Shugart assured the audience that if
anyone had two hours, he could explain why this is an unassailable fact!
"Once we accepted [the truth of] this," he said of Valencia’s faculty
and staff, "we stopped teaching and started creating the conditions for
Those looking for inspiration
on how to be successful leaders left the symposium with much to contemplate,
including Dr. Shugart’s quick overview of Greenleaf’s principles in action. He
told the audience that servant leaders choose persuasion over coercion,
“entheos” (a Greek word meaning sustaining spirit) over ego, foresight (or
helping people see future consequences) over control, listening over directing,
acceptance and healing over blame, and systematic neglect over perfection. He
translated this last choice to mean not wasting time on issues that are not
worth the energy.
As Dr. Shugart’s own story made clear, this type of
leadership requires fierce integrity. "You need to choose to look into
that mirror over and over again," he told the audience, and to realize
that "if I can't take criticism, I won't get better." For a taste of
what is happening at Valencia, visit The Aspen
Institute website or read
this article in the Chronicle for