Educating Our Leaders: Speaking Truth to Power (Appropriately and Well)

Jerome A. Lucido, Vice Provost for Enrollment, Policy and Management,University of Southern California

Jerome A. Lucido
Vice Provost for Enrollment, Policy and Management
University of Southern California

A good reading of Opens in a new windowPreserving the Dream of America, the report of the Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century, could lead to some serious hand-wringing. After all, we identify conditions that challenge each of us in this work. Rampant commercialism and overheated competition threaten to stampede our educational values. Rankings distort the true nature of collegiate quality and inappropriately influence campus decisions. Scores on college entrance examinations are used in ways in which they were never intended. Need-based aid has been eroded in favor of merit-based aid programs. Admission plans like early decision create pressure on students, manipulate the market and add inordinate complexity to the admission selection process. It truly is enough to give someone sweaty palms.

A closer reading of Preserving the Dream of America, however, reveals a profession that is willing to stand for what it believes — one that is willing to address the conditions that impact its work and one that accepts responsibility for performing at its best. To accept responsibility for performing at our best — this is the clarion call, the challenge and the potential of the report.

In countless forums, task force members have presented the report and have been asked, “How can I help? What can I do?” There are numerous answers to those questions, including:

  • Educate ourselves and our staffs about the conditions in which we work and how to address them.
  • Adopt the declaration of values in our daily work.
  • Place the well-being of students at the pinnacle of our efforts.

Yet even among some of our most dedicated colleagues, resignation may darken the eyes, and another series of questions comes. “What can I really do if my institution does not seem to be committed to the values of our profession?” “How can I put students first if my superiors believe that my fundamental responsibility is to drive up test scores, or to get more students into prestigious universities, or to beat institution X, Y and Z in a zero-sum game of rankings and intense competition?”

One very important answer, perhaps the only good answer, to this difficult set of questions is for us to accept the mantle of leadership. As a profession, we are in a unique position to lead on the questions that are dearest to us. We, after all, are the high school counselors, the admission and financial aid professionals, and the enrollment managers that work in the spaces between systems of education. We are the mediating influence through which students navigate from one system to another. We know the education spectrum, for better or for worse, and we know how it impacts students and their families. We understand the influence of the media, the clout of the test preparation and ranking industries, and the inordinate power that prestige plays in college choice. Indeed, we are in the best position to hold up a mirror to what we see, to ask our leaders to look at the reflection, and then to ask if what they see is healthy for students and for the nation.

This is not, however, a call to go out and challenge the powerful with righteous indignation. Experience suggests that quite often the processes that offend us have a rationale of their own, one that itself is powerful and pervasive. We do not ask ourselves to swim upstream against the rapids (though we recognize that sometimes that may be necessary). Instead, we seek to tame them and to harness their power.

What does that mean? Fundamentally, it means we must become the go-to people in our organizations for leadership on all matters associated with college transition. We are, after all, educators, and most of us are outstanding communicators. How then might we lead?

Here is an outline for leadership.

I. Know more than anyone else in our organizations.

  • Know the educational imperatives for the nation.
  • Know the nature of the emerging environment for all institutions.
  • Know and promulgate the principles of good practice for our profession.
  • Know and practice the ways in which the admission, aid and school transition processes contribute to student self-knowledge, independence and informed decision making.

II. Know how to influence our leaders.

  • Understand how their agenda is set (know what matters to them and to others like them).
  • Find legitimate and persuasive ways to get our issues on the agenda.
  • Teach them through our presentations, through our publications and through the values we exhibit in our programs.
  • Use the power of stories and examples.
  • Involve them in our programs and professional activities.
  • Frame our messages wisely; know when political, economic or social frames work best.
  • Use visible authorities, experts or thought leaders within our field; we need not make every point ourselves. Occasionally, an outside expert can drive home an agenda.
  • Remind leaders of their own strongly held educational values.

III. Understand that each of us is not an island

  • Draw on the vast body of research to make our points — be evidence based.
  • Draw on our professional associations.
  • Draw on our colleagues — we have varied and abundant talent among us.

IV. Understand that you are in it for the long haul.

  • Know that change comes in both small increments and big waves.
  • Celebrate your wins.
  • Reframe and be persistent with your losses.
  • Choose your battles wisely.
  • Know that your timing matters.
  • Live to fight again.

What is most important is that we take up these issues and make them our own. No one knows them better, and no one cares about them as deeply or as often. Together, we can and must lead.

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Admissions Insights is a series brought to you by the College Board Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century. The opinions, interpretations and conclusions of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the College Board. Nothing contained herein should be assumed to represent an official position of the College Board or any of its members.