On Greatness: More Than a Tagline

Last week, Executive Vice President Nancy Stroud and I had an opportunity to share our Middle Georgia State experience with colleagues at the American Association of University Administrators. In a presentation entitled “Toward a More Perfect Union” we presented some of the areas of tension and challenges associated with managing institutional mission after a merger. More importantly, we illustrated how institutions in the midst of consolidation—particularly at a time of constrained resources—can focus their efforts on turning those very challenges into opportunities.

We identified five areas of tension. The first and most obvious area of tension during a merger is unity and institutional integrity in the face of disruptive forces. Here at Middle Georgia State, we faced unprecedented disruption, including: three names in four years, four presidents in five years, serving five distinct campuses and communities spread over 175 miles, regulatory and funding changes in higher education, and evolving admissions standards associated with level change from college to university.

Such rapid change often leads to brand confusion, which has been an ongoing challenge. Yet, to address that challenge, we turned to the character of the institution—one rooted in our history. We called on our people—faculty, staff, students, and community—to stand for greatness. For several years we have asked our faculty and staff to accomplish more, driving bolder work and vision with modest resources. This kind of creativity shows greatness is within the grasp of us all, as well as our students.

The idea of greatness is more than a tagline in our marketing, it is the thread that binds us together, and links our vision and values to mission. Indeed, our core values are at the root of how we addressed the challenges arising out of the other four areas of tension we presented.

The second area of tension is one higher education professionals know all too well—shrinking budgets. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, since 2000, public universities have lost 25% of their state funding per student. A drop in enrollment during and immediately following consolidation led to budget cuts. We addressed that challenge through our value of Stewardship. We identified a rational approach to budgets, including control over expenditures and strategic allocation of resources toward institutional strengths.

The third area of tension presented, rationalization of resources, is one we addressed through our value of Engagement. We played to institutional and regional strengths, breaking down silos with innovative partnerships in areas ranging from STEM to film. And we embraced market differentiators, such as being home to the only four-year school of aviation in the state.

Accountability to state mission and mandate, with increased self-reliance, is the fourth area of tension we presented. Here, our value of Adaptability has been key. Our mission evolved as we ascended from college to university level, so we rooted our university strategic plan in the vision that led us to this point in our trajectory.

Lastly, the tension of continuing our best academic traditions, even as we embrace segmentation and agility, required us to apply our value of Learning. One example of how we have applied Learning is the way in which we began our graduate offerings. The first programs launched are in disciplines where we have tremendous experience, and for which we know—through outside research—there is demand in the region.

Throughout this period of rapid change, together we advocated for resources, seeking and receiving support from decision-makers by demonstrating our value to the University System of Georgia, legislators, and community partners. Most importantly, we kept our focus on our core stakeholders—students. We have worked to increase retention of existing students through academic support and improved co-curricular offerings, while being sensitive to the access sought by prospective students, taking a multi-year approach to higher admissions standards.

In preparing to share our story, it was impossible to ignore the tremendous amount of work our faculty and staff have done in a relatively short amount of time. As our first year as a university draws to a close, I encourage each of us to take time, in recreation and re-creation, to reflect on how far we have come. And when we gather again in August, we can march on in the confidence that who we are—our values—will continue to lead to greatness in challenges great and small.