It’s December 30th and cold north winds are slowly changing the northeast landscape into a tableau of white and grey. But the winds of change are arriving more quickly than many of us had expected at Lafayette. The first public manifestation of change will be the arrival of Sherryta Freeman as the new athletic director. As many of us, who have been part of, or even led a changing leadership environment know, the first days and weeks will set a tone for the coming months and years of operation.
Academic bureaucracy is notorious for slow walking change, and by any historical measure the pace of developments at Lafayette has recently occurred at warp speed. There is an internal slow inertia in the academe, perhaps a result of its structure of faculty tenure, and slow board of trustee turnover. It may mean resistance to change of any sort. Lafayette was last to adopt athletic scholarships and resistant in many areas aside from athletics. Even in the evolving marketplace of higher education teaching professors can be slow to adapt to new methods and tools. Tradition and fleeting success can be a defense against frozen policies, but at some point like the winter winds changing the landscape, sticking to “summer” strategies can endanger the institution.
Let’s review. One year ago a study was commissioned to examine the athletic department. The results of that study have yet to be released. but I would submit its findings are already reshaping the perspective of management. We completed a search and hired a new AD in record speed for our college. There are still 21 openings for new AD’s nationwide and we are out front with an excellent new hire.
But this is a new managerial era for our school, brought on by the hire of Alison Byerly. In her four years, we have set a new strategy, to grow the school, increase the endowment, and build a new science center among other initiatives. These are all bold efforts, which will no doubt have its small hiccups and larger risks. But even as we experience risks it will be an opportunity to learn and grow. No doubt, tenured faculty, long time entrenched board members, and even alumni will have fear of change. Management will have to be alert to the demands that change will bring and alter personnel and processes to support a new operating environment. It will also require an openness so that people will have the opportunity to debate and understand….and yes even contribute ideas that might avoid crippling risk. It will sharpen skills of management, but require an openness not typical of the academe. It will expose those people who would not be supportive of new initiatives.
Athletics, more than any other activity of the school can offer a very visible look at changes in process and strategies. It can be an important and positive view for the outside world to see or it can be a dark negative. My sense of developments of the past year, is that it is a sign of the dusting off of intransigence, and realization that movement is necessary. I am sure many of my older friends on the board, or faculty who have faithfully been at the school for many years are uncomfortable with this development. It will require an open mindedness that may not be possible for some. Some may even have to move on.
Even students will have to embrace those changes. They will have to put down their cell phones and turn off their computers locked into social media long enough to engage, support and yes, even politely debate those who have different interests and views than their own. In the end, Lafayette is still a community, perhaps slightly larger, more diverse than before, but a community that embraces the totality of itself, where learning occurs in every activity, be it on the field, in the classroom, or even on the stage. It would be nice to see faculty at games at Metzgar and coaches at plays and lectures!!
Ms. Freeman brings an opportunity to embrace and support that change. One of her initiatives at Penn was to encourage all athletic teams to support one another. She developed a system where teams earned points to attend others team’s games, for GPA, for charity work, and yes for their won/ loss record. Maybe that will be a first initiative for the new AD.
I expect in meetings with the new AD, that coaches will begin to see an accounting for what happens on the field, or on the court, not just how close they are to their budget numbers. Many would like to see the AD report to the president, but if rumors are correct she will at least meet with the president once a week, a recognition of the importance of the enterprise to the institution.
Success breeds its own success and to our student athletes it’s an exciting time. Embrace it, support it, demand the change that is needed. There is no room for whining by coaches, athletes, parents, faculty, alumni or administrators. Open minds and open dialogue are more needed right now. Closed minds and resisting dialogue are not what is required at this point.