Among the books I am presently reading is Scott Cowen’s Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education. Cowen served as Tulane University’s President from 1998-2014, a period that included the institution’s recovery from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
You may be as intrigued by the title as I was.
The Winnebago phrase emerged from a circumstance Cowen experienced in his first year as President. As Cowen tells it, he offered the coach of Tulane’s undefeated football team “an offer he couldn’t refuse – and he refused.” The coach (Tommy Bowden) left for Clemson where, he noted, the program was so spectacular that the fans lined up their Winnebagos on Wednesdays in anticipation of Saturday games. For Cowen, this phase frames his perspective on the current reality for higher education leaders: they face a range of competing, complex, and in certain instances, almost comical pressures that require transformative leadership to solve.
One compelling pressure addressed by Cowen relates to how one measures an institution’s impact and consequently assesses its reputational value. Cowen recounts what many of us know: In an age of skyrocketing tuitions, limited resources, and anxious students facing greater competition for admission, our society has defaulted to an oversimplified and flawed set of ranking lists to evaluate a college or university’s quality and impact. Cowen asks:
“…how can we construct a nuanced and accurate portrait of a school’s impact? How can we get a real picture of how graduates are doing, not just economically but in their lives as a whole?”
Several universities and higher education leaders featured in Winnebagos on Wednesdays have led the charge to reclaim the narrative and paint a more holistic and precise picture of their institution’s impact. To do so, Cowen suggests it requires that we “expand our longitudinal data to take into account what happens after graduation…collect qualitative data that illuminate personal satisfaction and contribution to society…and consider the mission of an individual institution when assessing its value and impact.”
As the head of a young school whose oldest graduates (from our first class of 2007) are just turning 30 years old, I find Cowen’s questions compelling and his suggestions affirming. We believe we can measure how effectively we have met the charge articulated in our mission statement to “guide young people to become creative learners and bold leaders” who positively “impact the complex global society.” Indeed, we seek a broader perspective on what makes Parish – or any school, for that matter – a “success” beyond standardized tests scores, college placement lists, or number of national merit scholars. We have formulated a plan to engage our alumni – through focus groups; as mentors and coaches to our present students; and via programs like ParishConnect. These points of contact help us gather meaningful data points on Parish’s impact on our graduates.
A part of this plan, not surprisingly, involves me. I am increasing the amount of time I spend with our alumni – and I must say it is one of my favorite parts of the job. Listening to them proves equal parts affirming and guiding. Our graduates are thriving and Parish has prepared them well.
At the same time, they hold us accountable. Elements of our program that have shaped them – such as the powerful, personal relationships they forged with high quality faculty and staff members or our focus on character development through chapel and ParishLeads – should remain steadfast institutional commitments. As new members of “the real world,” though, they recognize the urgency for the school experience to evolve – to, among other things, incorporate more open-ended, problem-based learning; to lessen stress by heightening engagement; and to promote student agency and personalization.
Recently, I have recorded five podcast episodes with alumni. I hope over the holiday break, you will take an opportunity to get to know these young adults as they share their perspectives on success and Parish’s impact. Through my conversations with these Parish graduates, I think you will recognize what Scott Cowen and I believe: that the lives an institution’s alumni lead represent the greatest testimony to that institution’s impact.