Liberal Education

Leadership Lessons: Perspectives on a Twenty-Five-Year Presidency

In 2020, I will be retiring as the president of Bay Path University after twenty-five years. My career in higher education, however, began long before and has spanned more than four decades. As I prepare to move on to the next chapter of my life, Christen Aragoni, the editor of Liberal Education, has asked me to reflect on the Bay Path journey and share my optimism about the challenges higher education faces today. How did Bay Path, a women’s university, thrive and become one of the fastest-growing private baccalaureate and then master’s institutions in the United States, with enrollment increasing from just 450 to more than 3,400 students? What are the essential ingredients of a successful presidency? What insights might I offer other leaders at small, private, independent institutions as they navigate the ever-changing higher education industry? Here, in brief, are five lessons that have shaped my presidency, transformed Bay Path, and positioned the university for a financially stable future.

First, the back story

Founded in 1897 as a coeducational business school, Bay Path became all-women after World War II, in time finding its niche as a junior college. Six years before my arrival as president, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had given Bay Path College the authority to grant baccalaureate degrees. Although history, strong presidential leadership, and a balance sheet with very little deferred maintenance were on the college’s side, for some time it had been struggling to attract young women to a single-sex education. When I began my tenure, the numbers were grim: the entire student body numbered fewer than 450.

You may ask what compelled me to take the position. The answer was simple: I saw tremendous potential at Bay Path. I believed in its mission of a practical, career-focused education built on a liberal arts foundation that would allow our women, often from working-class families, to have an independent and fulfilling life. Long before the debate of the pros and cons of a career-focused education, Bay Path knew that its core strength was preparing graduates for careers that offered excellent growth potential and that mattered to the economic landscape of our region. Over the decades, we have been resolute in strengthening that mission, especially for women. This continues to be among the most important factors in decision making and program development at Bay Path.

So, with a mind-set that fully embraced the educational philosophy of Bay Path’s founding, and with a heart that fully embraced its mission, I accepted the presidency, determined to lead Bay Path into the future. It was, I knew, a matter of survival.

Lesson 1: The big differentiator

Bay Path’s upward trajectory over the past twenty-five years has been driven, in large part, by our steadfast commitment to remaining a women’s college. This has not always been an easy course to maintain, especially during economic downturns, when the prospect of becoming a coed institution might have seemed to hold merit. Yet we have not wavered. Our belief in women’s education, grounded in Bay Path’s mission, differentiates us from most other colleges and universities and is fundamental to defining who we are and what we do—supporting the advancement of women at all ages and stages.

With time, the definition of “women at all ages and stages” has evolved. Today’s Bay Path students reflect the changing demographics of America. Our undergraduate student body is a complex and beautiful mosaic of diverse, first-generation, and underserved women ranging in age from eighteen to seventy. Mindful of the unique needs of the students we serve, and confident in what we have learned in helping them succeed, we tailor programs to drive retention and persistence to graduation. For example, our Women as Empowered Learners and Leaders (WELL) program is built into the curriculum and woven throughout the undergraduate experience, ensuring that the academic component is enhanced by a journey of self-discovery as reflected in ePortfolios, community service projects, and tailored events that highlight our annual campus theme. WELL sets us apart from other institutions and helps define us for our most important audience: the women we educate.

Further differentiating Bay Path in the marketplace is our advocacy for women’s leadership both within the university and throughout the community. Our Women’s Leadership Conference, which attracts more than two thousand attendees annually and is now entering its twenty-fifth year, has brought incredible speakers like writer and activist Maya Angelou, broadcast journalist Barbara Walters, and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright to our region. The conference allows us to showcase Bay Path’s core competencies: our ability to develop and deliver unique educational experiences, our promotion of networking opportunities, and our willingness to tackle the issues facing women today, while also providing partnership opportunities among conference participants, the university, and our students.

My advice: Fully leverage what differentiates you in the marketplace and what’s important to your audience. Always stay true to your mission.

Lesson 2: Never stop changing.

Early in my tenure, as we began to rattle the status quo, a frequent question I heard on campus was “Can we stop changing now?”

In reality, we had been evolving since our founding in 1897, but true seismic change at Bay Path began in 1999, when, with great determination, we set out to develop an entirely new model of education to meet the needs of adult women. There were so few options available for these women, many of whom worked full-time and managed families while struggling to take college courses at night (a scenario that is still all too common across America). It often took them years—as much as a decade—to earn a degree, if they were even able to complete their education. We knew we could change that. We also knew it wouldn’t be easy. But we plowed forward, launching the One Day a Week Saturday Program for adult women, offering women the chance to earn their degree in as little as a year and a half to three years by attending classes all day on Saturdays in a six-week accelerated format, eleven months a year. No other college or university was offering this type of educational model.

Forging ahead with a new model demanded change in nearly every area of the institution. We had to re-engineer how we delivered all student services, from financial aid and registration to advising and even parking! The academic calendar was revamped. Faculty members, who agreed to work on Saturdays teaching classes in five-hour blocks, had to refine pedagogy to fit the learning styles of adult women, incorporating interactive learning, immersive discussions, and inclusion of life experiences.

It wasn’t easy. Change rarely is. But it was hugely successful.

The One Day a Week Saturday Program gave us great insight into what adult women need to flourish, such as flexibility, accelerated courses, peer support, and acknowledgment of and responsiveness to the unique life challenges faced by adult women, many of whom were single mothers working full-time. It also provided the financial resources that allowed us to grow our undergraduate programming and enrollment, as well as fuel the next phase of our evolution: graduate programs. But perhaps of even greater significance, the change process infused an entrepreneurial mind-set at Bay Path that continues to define our culture and operations. It also informs our approach to human resources. We understand that the Bay Path ethos of constant change and innovation isn’t for everyone, so we make very intentional hiring decisions. I often look outside of the higher education industry to find talent that will bring new perspectives to our institution, and I have been especially fortunate to count on a consistent and talented executive staff to help lead Bay Path through risk as well as opportunity.

In his book Good to Great, business management consultant Jim Collins points out, “If you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.”1 To this day, I am part of the interview process for full-time faculty and staff candidates, during which I share the history and culture of Bay Path and make sure the candidates understand the fast pace at which we operate, how we must continue to stay ahead of the industry and technological changes, and that we must always remain student-centric in all we do. I like to remind our new hires that the one thing that will remain the same is that we will always be changing in order to best serve our students.

No, I respond to all who ask, we cannot stop changing now.

My advice: Among the most important questions to ask is “What can we be doing differently—and better—than what we are currently doing, than what our competition is doing, and that really matters to our students?” Then hire the faculty and staff members willing to join you in forging ahead to create a new vision.

Lesson 3: You must decide to decide.

We have always operated under a vision and financial plan at Bay Path, developed every three years and endorsed by our board of trustees. And while plans are critical, they must also have the elasticity necessary to respond to major and unanticipated challenges—the Great Recession, for example—as well as to opportunities, such as the one we seized with the development of our master’s in physician assistant studies. Plans, such as structures, policies, and processes, play an important role but cannot be allowed to strangle the institution’s ability to evolve. The acceleration of change, as we have experienced at Bay Path, demands nimbleness and swift decision making.

This also pertains to how we bring new programs to the marketplace. We have been in a growth mode—some might refer to it as a dizzying growth mode—for twenty years, and we have no plans to slow down. In any given year at Bay Path, we develop and launch, on average, two to four new academic programs, with a particular emphasis on new and niche degrees in on-the-ground, online, and hybrid formats. We are also (1) implementing new technologies across the university, like customized customer relationship management technology, to better serve students and increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our processes; (2) harnessing data in new ways, including predictive analytics; and (3) retooling our approach to student services to provide online support. And we are doing all of this as we implement major grants, both private and federal, including a Strada Education Network award for $1.5 million to develop a digitally fluent workforce, the 2019 award of our second Title III grant for $2.25 million, and multiple National Science Foundation awards, all of which help fuel the engine of our success.

But there is a balancing act to all of this. While decision making and program implementation at Bay Path is rapid by industry standards, thorough due diligence and scrutiny of required resources, including financial and human, are fundamental tenets to the way we do business. We voraciously consume data and assess the external landscape to stay on top of industry and workforce trends. Our strategic investments, aligned with multiyear vision plans, are based on comprehensive feasibility studies. Corresponding financial models are realistic and conservative.

Judicious fiscal management is central to Bay Path’s decision making. Bay Path is a no-frills institution, frugal in our approach to expenses. While we rely almost entirely on tuition dollars for revenue, we have little to no deferred maintenance. Our capital investments have largely involved technology or renovations to existing facilities. To be sure, challenging economic times have demanded that we make difficult, sometimes painful choices, such as freezing salaries and delaying hiring for positions, but the litmus test for any decision has always been our mission. Diminishment of the academic enterprise or the student experience is not an option.

Aside from considering the fiscal and human implications of any agenda for change, leaders must also encourage—demand, even—that decisions not be turf-bound. For example, we have streamlined the process of new degree approval, enabling us to bring programs to market more efficiently and more quickly. As Bay Path’s enrollment and programming have grown, I have been careful to prevent layers of bureaucracy that could become a burden on the institution and a barrier to students. I believe this is the Achilles’s heel of higher education. Bureaucracy not only hinders the fostering of new ideas but also has an innate tendency to preserve the status quo and stall progress.

Equally important to how we make decisions in furthering the institution is the engagement of our board of trustees. I cannot stress enough how important it is to Bay Path that our board has an appetite for risk and a willingness to challenge the higher education “norm.” Our trustees are willing to roll up their sleeves and grapple with critical issues facing our industry, such as diversity and inclusion, the cost of college, persistence to graduation, online learning, and credentials that transcend degrees. Board members not only approve our vision plans; they actively support them.

But despite all the planning, research, and debate; the engagement of stakeholders; and the support of the board, at the end of the day, as president, I must own the decisions we make. And I do.

My advice: Be very clear about your decision making. What are the values and the criteria against which you, and your faculty, staff, and board, evaluate decisions and move forward with plans? Also assess what gets in the way of sound decision making, including preservation of historically claimed notions about your institution and the higher education industry.

Lesson 4: Mind-set for innovation and growth

Our ability to predict, listen, and act quickly has contributed much to the success of Bay Path’s programs. The big differentiator, as conveyed in Lesson 1, is our mission of educating and advancing women. Aligned with this is our commitment to providing career-focused education and to preparing students for the workplace. Our approach is to develop niche degrees, including graduate degrees, for in-demand professions. This phase of our evolution, started in 2000, has had an extraordinary impact on Bay Path. Graduate programs—many of which are online—now account for 44 percent of our total student population and generate 55 percent of net tuition and fee revenue.

Bay Path’s graduate programs build on the strengths of our undergraduate degrees, most notably in the fields of technology and health sciences. We launched our first graduate degree in 2000, a master of science (MS) in communications and information management, followed soon after by a master of occupational therapy (MOT). We have continued to launch new programs in response to economic needs, and growth has been extraordinary.

On the technology side, our graduate programs have expanded to include MS degrees in cybersecurity management and applied data science, among others. As with the health sciences programs, the technology degrees are increasingly earning not only regional but national recognition for providing education that is relevant, critical, and immediately applicable to the changing workplace. Accordingly, enrollment is not only growing from the pipeline of current Bay Path undergraduates but from the employees of organizations seeking to stay ahead and succeed in the marketplace.

Success in our MOT program led to the launch of an MS in physician assistant studies and the construction of our first new academic building in more than forty years, the 58,000-square-foot Philip H. Ryan Health Science Center. We have since launched other cutting-edge graduate degrees, including an MS in genetic counseling, the first online program of its kind in the country, as well as our first doctoral programs.

As we consider the development of new programs, we assess the skills and jobs that are in high demand. We also look at who else might be offering a program, considering not only traditional competition but also other providers of education—and there are increasingly many. In addition to program content, we analyze delivery models—including on-the-ground, online, and hybrid—challenging ourselves to provide options and to make it easier for our students to earn a degree at Bay Path.

Our successful growth has been predicated upon the innovative mind-set of our talented faculty and staff. The launch of our One Day program, for instance, demanded all members of our community embrace a new approach to their work. In this new model, semesters were condensed into six-week sessions, with faculty teaching five-hour blocks on Saturdays. Some of this was made feasible by our faculty’s willingness to operate within a model that, since 1983, has included a board moratorium on tenure. Today, full-time faculty have three-year contracts. Faculty join Bay Path knowing we do not provide tenure and stay because of their commitment to our mission. Our model also depends significantly upon the engagement of a nationwide pool of adjunct professors who are instrumental to our career-focused curriculum as they bring their industry expertise and experience to our students, a strategy that also enables us to control costs.

My advice: Look to your strengths and build on them while encouraging faculty and staff to develop programs that are unique, both in academic content and in experience, and that address emerging markets.

Lesson 5: Every revolution starts with a great idea.

Experience with our One Day program taught us much about helping adult women overcome the odds and succeed in earning a college degree. We were graduating hundreds of adult women every year, primarily from underserved communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But what about the 77 million women across the country without a degree and the promise it holds for a more secure future? We resolved to not leave them behind.

With this bold idea, we set out to create The American Women’s College (TAWC), the first all-women, all-online baccalaureate degree program in the country. With the infusion of a First in the World grant from the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, we developed Social Online Universal Learning (SOUL). SOUL’s data-driven technology is the engine for the online experience, enabling adaptive and responsive learning that integrates artificial intelligence across the platform. Educator coaches, mentors, and online communities of learners all contribute to the effectiveness of the online experience. Our aggressive approach to open educational resources is one of a variety of strategies that make TAWC an accessible, flexible, and low-cost option for students, addressing yet another barrier that too often prevents a woman from earning a degree.

TAWC is succeeding. So are our students. Through interactive support and careful interventions provided by the SOUL system, students are achieving graduation rates that significantly exceed national averages. With degrees in hand, adult women are reporting higher incomes, increased confidence, and a greater likelihood that their children will attend college.

As many leaders in our sector continue to question the value and quality of online education, I have no doubt it is here to stay and will continue to evolve and grow. I predict that it will increasingly be the best or only option for many students, including eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds, the segment upon which traditional education has been built. This, no doubt, is perceived as a threat to many in the academy. But history teaches us that those organizations, in any industry, that hold on to “traditional” ways of doing business become vulnerable to extinction.

Our conviction that the traditional model and cost of higher education were becoming increasingly untenable led us to rethink and retool virtually every aspect of how we deliver education. Organizational structures cannot be thought of as immovable, and there can be no sacred cows when undertaking change of such magnitude. At Bay Path, we think and act differently, in ways that do not always fit the conventions of higher education and that may not be appreciated or accepted by the academy. But they work for our students.

TAWC is an example of how we need to think outside the parameters of our current educational delivery models and adjust them to a new generation of students. With SOUL, a great idea became the impetus for a great revolution.

My advice: Innovate from within. Encourage risk taking and nurture disruption. Listen to those who challenge the status quo and unleash the creativity that can bring about great ideas.

I am not frightened about the future of higher education.

Although pundits and critics of our industry have become a chorus of naysayers, I am not frightened about the future of higher education in our country. America once led the world in education, and we can do so again. But only if we are willing to acknowledge that our industry must change. We cannot ignore the tsunami of skepticism at our shores, nor can we perpetuate a system that is increasingly untenable from a financial perspective for our students and our own institutions. What we can do is harness our collective abilities, resources, and visions to—as Michelle Weise, senior vice president and chief innovation officer at the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, admonishes—“seed the foundational elements of a learning ecosystem of the future.”2

Integral to this charge is a redefinition of “student.” As futurists have forecast, human lifespans of 150 years are on the immediate horizon. It is not unreasonable to project, then, that careers will span eighty to one hundred years, necessitating an entirely new concept of lifelong learning. How will we, as educators, respond to this demand?

At Bay Path, this is an essential question as we grapple with how best to deliver education in the twenty-first century. Our definition of “student” is bold and encompasses the concept of lifelong learning. It may be an eighteen-year-old studying for her baccalaureate degree as she aspires to her first job; it may be an adult woman looking to step out of poverty through education; it may be a midcareer professional striving to get ahead in a competitive work environment by earning a master’s degree; or it may be an employee who lacks the skills and credentials necessary for gainful work. This is the new concept of lifelong learning and it is what drove us to establish our Strategic Alliances Division three years ago, a decision that marks yet another chapter in Bay Path’s evolution.

As Weise states, “The future of our nation’s economic prosperity and competitiveness will depend on a citizenry that regularly retools itself for the future of work.” The mandates upon us, as institutions of learning, are (1) to build healthy ecosystems of partnerships with other colleges and universities, as well as businesses and organizations; (2) to adopt new learning models that will meet our students where they are in their lives while addressing affordability; (3) to explore how technology and the management of data, including the use of artificial intelligence, will enhance the student experience and influence how we do business; and, most important, (4) to shift our thinking from finite endings such as bachelor’s and master’s degrees to credentials, certificates, and learning opportunities that provide a continuum of academic enrichment over a person’s lifetime.

There are so many possibilities for the future of higher education. All it takes is courage. 

Notes

1. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business, 2001), 42.

2. Michelle Weise, “We Need to Design the Learning Ecosystem of the Future,” EdSurge, February 22, 2018, https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-02-22-michelle-weise-we-need-to-design....


Carol A. Leary is president of Bay Path University and past chair of AAC&U’s board of directors. A first-generation college student and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Boston University, she earned her master of science degree at the University at Albany, SUNY, and her doctorate in philosophy at American University. Before leading Bay Path, she served as vice president for administration and assistant to the president at Simmons College and held administrative positions at Siena College, Boston University, and the Washington Campus Organization.

Previous Issues