A Reflection of Our Identity: The value of a dynamic and diverse senior leadership team

Posted by Shirley M. Collado on Monday, September 24, 2018

Throughout my career in higher education, I’ve been deeply invested in the important work of building inclusive cultures and leadership teams that model full participation within communities, and I bring this perspective to my work at Ithaca College. From the beginning of my presidency, I have been very clear about my intention to build a senior leadership team that reflects this approach, and that is talented, visible, and high-performing. Unquestionably, a large part of a leadership team’s ability to serve and understand students is to reflect their lived experiences. I see it as my moral and ethical obligation as president to cultivate such a team.

I know our campus has a recent history of struggle and challenge around inclusion and trust and has been asking to see significant changes regarding what voices are at what tables. I also know that, often, when leaders who are people of color champion such a culture shift, tensions revolving around change and difference can surface. I believe this is ultimately a healthy and productive tension, because it prompts a community to thoughtfully examine its core beliefs and think about what purposeful, value-driven leadership looks like in action. Personally, I am proud to serve as leader of a campus that believes in the importance of our shared work and understands that our path to full participation can be imperfect and sometimes difficult.

In my inaugural address, I mentioned the strong empirical work of political scientist Scott Page and Lani Guinier, a law scholar and civil rights theorist, who explore how diverse teams and collaborations across difference generate better outcomes. This research blends with and heavily informs my views on how to build a strong academic community that is focused, as ours is, on being highly student-centered.

Our shared reality is that for Ithaca College to succeed in facing the challenges inherent to higher education in the 21st century, senior leaders must have broad perspectives and the ability to contribute in diverse ways to decisions that influence the success of our students and the success of our institution. This is critical to our ability to generate innovative responses to challenges like changing student demographics or ensuring financial stability, challenges that require actions that honor deep subject-matter expertise and the unique alchemy that can happen when people from different backgrounds have the freedom to collaborate and create. Our success depends on our intentional efforts to fuse a commitment to valuing diverse ways of knowing into the hardwiring of our community’s decision-making processes. This has a positive effect not only on our ability to address big questions, but in how we approach things like shared governance, or our strategic planning process.

At our fall All-College Gathering, I introduced to the campus community the three newest members of my senior leadership team: La Jerne Terry Cornish, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs; Guilherme Costa, vice president, general counsel, and secretary to the board of trustees; and Bill Guerrero, vice president of finance and administration. La Jerne, Guilherme, and Bill join Chris Biehn, vice president of college relations and advancement; Rosanna Ferro, vice president of student affairs and campus life; Gerard Turbide, vice president of enrollment management; Nancy Pringle, executive vice president and senior advisor to the president, and Melissa Daly, my chief of staff. These eight people have made a very intentional decision—like most faculty, staff, and students—to live, work, and learn as a part of our campus community.

These individuals are stakeholders in Ithaca College who represent an incredible range of views and perspectives. People who are committed to having difficult conversations and making wise decisions with the ultimate objective of strengthening our college and enabling the success of our community. They are also committed to evolving and growing, to learning from the intersections of their identity and professional expertise to be responsible leaders.

Invariably throughout my career, I have encountered pushback to this approach. I’ve been told that, to be an effective leader, researcher, teacher, or colleague, you must check your identity at the door. But the fact is, identity matters. It matters for students, for faculty and staff, and, without question, it matters for our leadership team. We must all honor the power and knowledge coming from our own experiences and the richness of our stories by sharing them with one another. This is imperative not only for effective leaders—but for the creation of a strong academic community that is equipped to promote student success in an environment that empowers us all to learn, grow, and thrive.