Strive for Rising Expectations

04/05/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

"Strive for rising expectations." If ever there was a counter-intuitive statement, this one may be it. In the corporate world, presidents tend to massage their numbers whenever possible. They always want to beat their stated goals, but not by too much.

Not so in the educational world. Goals are meant to be broken, and the better the numbers the happier everyone seems to be.

If a fundraising target is passed, great. By the way, fundraising goals are almost always exceeded because of the duplicitous (but fairly rare) practice of double-counting pledges and payments and because items are sometimes counted, like will commitments, that should not be included.

Development officers repeatedly argued with me for the inclusion of will commitments, since their inclusion makes fundraising goals far easier to attain. Some pushed for including any will commitment; others argued the commitment should only be included if the person was beyond a certain age. I never included those commitments at any age, since I knew how easy it was to alienate a donor regardless of age.

If the admissions office exceeds the stated goal, wonderful. Again, do it honestly, not by counting phony items in the numbers. Don't inflate the number of applications (counting inquiries as applications, for instance); don't play with statistics; don't massage the numbers. Lead in an honest way. After all, "gaming" the process is simply dishonest, and dishonesty and the search for truth, which is an important part of a college's raison d'etre, are mutually inconsistent.

Some of those with whom I worked felt, as do some in the corporate world, surpassing a target put added pressure on them for the succeeding year. They were right--and wrong. After all, when expectations rise, the institution rises with them. And meeting future goals in a more positive environment becomes easier.

I always felt I would rather have us fail at reaching a higher target than succeed at a lower one. Fortunately, despite rising expectations and goals, we managed, for the most part, to reach them.

One will find that not everyone--on one's staff or board--will be happy with higher and higher targets. They were not always happy with mine.

Ultimately, setting goals is the president's responsibility. Remember, though, the institution is best served by reaching high. As Robert Browning famously said, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for."