Mission Matters

JoAnn Rooney

What one university president learned at GSE help her lead mission-centered administrative change at her institution

"When I started the Exec Doc program, I was already a university president, starting in on my second year," says JoAnn Rooney.

Her first year — at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky — had been challenging.

A small Catholic university, Spalding was grappling with a sizable operating deficit, looming debt repayments, stagnant enrollment and facilities in urgent need of maintenance. The school faced the very real possibility that it could lose federal financial aid dollars or risk sanctions by the regional accrediting body if it did make significant changes.

Rooney, a tax lawyer with extensive financial experience in the private sector, knew that she could figure out how to tackle bottom-line issues. But she was also learning that if she was going to be the leader Spalding needed, she would have to become adept at a lot more than managing the business side of a university. "In my first year," she explains, "I was struck by the powerful sense of mission everywhere on campus. Spalding is very student-centered and education is seen as a transformative force in students' lives. Everyone — from the food service workers to the faculty to the staff to the administration — embraces that ideal."

Spalding had recruited her because of her business background, but Rooney admits that, initially, she did not fully appreciate how the business of higher education needs to be structured in a way that fully supports institutional mission.

That's where her experience in Penn GSE's Executive Doctorate in Higher Education Management was so critical.

Designed for senior-level executives in higher education and related organizations, the Executive Doctorate program offers an advanced curriculum centered squarely on core management competencies and applied research skills. Recognizing that, for colleges and universities, mission is critical, GSE's program encourages strategic thinking that's mission-centered and market-smart.

"The Exec Doc program was invaluable for me," Rooney says. "Whatever the topic — institutional culture, governance, recruitment, strategy — we tied all the pieces together through the idea of mission. It was never a one-size-fits-all approach — through our class discussions or just interactions with each other in the cohort, everything was tailored to our particular institutions. We came away with a rich appreciation of the broad differences in higher education but a stronger understanding of our own institution's mission."

Organized to serve cohorts of students who starts their studies together and graduate at the same time, the Exec Doc program brings together students working in diverse settings — a feature Rooney especially appreciated: "People in my cohort came from USC, Brown, Johns Hopkins, small independent colleges, schools with a religious affiliation, and everything in between. We brought our discussions outside the confines of the classroom, and that dialogue continues today. My cohort graduated in 2005, but we still email one another and keep in touch!"

Back at Spalding, Rooney's team worked hard to stabilize the university's finances. But what she learned in the Exec Doc program meant that they did so in ways that did not sacrifice the institution's larger purpose, but rather reinforced the commitment to mission.

They restructured Spalding's academic programs into four colleges and nine schools — a change that required some painful decisions — but they never lost sight of how central student experiences are to the Spalding community. The undergraduate and graduate student experiences were improved, new, innovative schedules were adopted, retention and graduation rates climbed, and faculty research and community service initiatives expanded.

Spalding's solutions to trying economic times were informed by what Rooney had learned from her "incredibly unique and valuable experience" in the Exec Doc program. To learn more about our approach to executive education in higher ed management, click here.

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