Listening and Leadership

The Chronicle of Higher Education's 2014 Great Colleges to Work for survey results came out recently. For the second year in a row, Austin Peay State University, where I served as president until two months ago, earned a place among the ten large universities on the survey's Honor Roll.

Now that I've joined a new academic community, Mercy College in New York, I've spent a good deal of time thinking about what we accomplished at Austin Peay and what I hope we accomplish at Mercy College.

Mercy College has an access-oriented mission which seeks to provide transformational educational experiences to predominantly low-income students who are often the first in their families to attend college. That inclusive mission is the natural partner of an inclusive campus culture, where everyone, from those who answer incoming phone calls from potential students to our senior faculty and administrators, has a voice.

One important tool in creating an inclusive campus community at Austin Peay was my practice of visiting with every division of staff and every academic department each year. These visits were characterized mainly by listening on my part. The Greek philosopher Zeno gave biological priority to listening overspeaking, since -- he said -- we have two ears and only one mouth. And so in these sessions, I endeavored to use my ears more than my mouth. I listened to complaints and concerns, to dreams, to questions. "Most people," Stephen Covey argued in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Understanding was my goal, and this goal relieved me of the need to feel defensive. I wasn't listening as a preface to a defensive reply; I was listening to learn. In the process, I learned more about my academic community than I would have ever learned simply by relying on those who worked most closely with me.

Now, at Mercy College, I have begun similar listening sessions. During the summer, most of the meetings are with staff. Once the academic year begins in the fall, faculty and students will join in these sessions. I almost never walk out of one of these listening sessions without being struck by the passion and professionalism of our staff. We laugh frequently at these meetings, brain storm about possible solutions to problems, talk candidly about campus culture and what we dream it might be.

When I was in my final months at Austin Peay, trying to learn about my soon-to-be-home remotely, I couldn't wait to hear from faculty and staff and students at Mercy College. I knew the reports I was reading only told a part of the story of what Mercy College was and what it was capable of becoming. Now that I'm here in New York, I have even more reports to study, but I encounter them in the company of the voices I hear through my various listening sessions.

It's not enough to listen, of course. Members of a campus community rightfully expect that speaking candidly with the president will produce results. Not every suggestion can be implemented, certainly, just as not every complaint is meritorious. But I work hard to see that I follow up on as many items from these listening sessions as I can.

Annually, I spent about 60 hours on listening meetings at Austin Peay State University. I suspect that this number will increase at Mercy College, because our faculty and staff and students are dispersed across campuses in Dobbs Ferry, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Yorktown Heights.

Is the time well spent? Absolutely. Of the many factors contributing to the results in the Great Colleges to Work for survey, I'm convinced one of the most important was that faculty and staff knew that they had a voice at Austin Peay State University. Their annual meetings with the university president -- meetings where they talked more than they were talked to -- were one important way that their voice was heard.

All of us, I believe, know more than any of us. Now, at Mercy College, I believe more than ever that one principal role of leadership is to help a community know what it knows. By listening to the many members of a community, a leader helps the community find its voice out of the multiplicity of its members. That voice is full of knowledge and perspective, without access to which, the community is poorer in every way.