March 2009 was a dark (or awakening) month for a small graduate school of professional psychology located in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. It was then that the school received a letter ("the Letter") threatening loss of accreditation, which would force the school to close its doors. The accrediting body, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) had been concerned about the school for almost a decade was finally done with temporary fixes, unfulfilled promises and the like. The March 2009 letter could not be ignored.
Those in education and even business generally will recognize the host of issues raised by WASC -- financial sustainability; management and governance; planning and use of data; faculty morale and policies; assessment of student learning and success; data collection and management; and understanding and promoting diversity and student success. There was an utter and systematic failure of leadership that had all but destroyed the structural integrity of the organization. The only things that kept the school from completely losing its accreditation were the academic programs. Somehow the faculty had continued to show up and bring their best to students in spite of the decline.
The Letter caused an instant panic because, in uncharacteristically straightforward terms, WASC made clear that either changes be made or the school would effectively be closed. So who was to lead the school through this storm?
I am not a lifelong educator. Nothing close to it. Just two years prior I was the principal of my own nonprofit consulting firm. My work in academia was limited. Indeed, I was introduced to the school via a prior contract to prepare its strategic plan. When the Letter landed at the school, I was teaching and helping in some administrative capacity and still had my company.
In the swirl of upheaval I was asked to step in as president with the support of some and antagonism of others of the very board that had been in place during the deterioration and was to devise and implement a plan to address the institution's challenges.
Now, four years later, the school is on the right foot and is growing. It wasn't easy.
This blog is about the journey of the school, and myself, through this trying time. I will cover the business and governance strategies and tactics used to turn things around such as choosing and interacting with a board, implementing financial controls, interacting with auditors and accountants, dealing with accrediting bodies, changing culture, change management and the like. I have an MBA and found myself constantly referring to my learnings and finding out that many in academia (especially the faculty) are not always conscious of the fact that educational institutions, even nonprofit ones, are businesses and must adhere to business principles.
I will also address my personal journey. I believe that to transform an organization, the leader must sometimes be transformed. And that is certainly true in my case. What could possibly lead me to believe that I had the tools, resources and wherewithal to bring an institution back from the brink of closure? What really happens when someone is thrust into DOING what she had in the past been paid to tell others to do? What happens to a person who believes that fixing problems in an organization can be done without exposing herself? What happens to an organization on the brink of the abyss and against which all bets of survival have been placed? How do people focused solely on their survival pull together to keep their school's doors open?
How did the school turn around and I keep all of my hair . . . ..