Bulletin of Dental Education

Choosing to Look in the Mirror: ADEA CCI Presidential Symposium Offers Lessons on Leadership

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By Nicole Fauteux

How does a poet become a leader in higher education? In the case of Dr. Sanford C. Shugart, President of Valencia College, you become a speechwriter for your state's governor, develop policy expertise, get tapped to assist the President of the North Carolina Community College System (in the role of Vice President, no less), find yourself "thrown in with the sharks" but have the wisdom to listen and learn. Then after a couple of years, you become good at swimming in those waters.

This unlikely story marks the start of a remarkable career, but as in all stories worth telling, it has an unexpected turning point, one that eventually took Dr. Shugart down the path that led to his selection as speaker for the ADEA Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education (ADEA CCI) Presidential Symposium at this year’s ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in Orlando.

“One day,” Dr. Shugart recounted softly, “I hurt someone on my senior staff.” He doesn’t remember what he said in the meeting, but he remembers the response it provoked. In his office later that day, the injured party held up a mirror to his face, and Dr. Shugart saw he was becoming someone he had never wanted to be.

The encounter sent him on what he called a pilgrimage for a way of being responsible in the world. He discovered the work of Robert Greenleaf, the former AT&T executive who developed the concept of servant leadership. In a nutshell, Mr. Greenleaf espouses the notion that “legitimate leadership is freely granted by the led," that "caring for persons... is the rock upon which a good society is built," and crucially, that most of that caring is now mediated through institutions.

In Dr. Shugart's view, institutions (including those within higher education) are both awesome and awful. They have put public goods like literacy and health care that were once the province of an elite within the reach of the masses, yet they often lose sight of their missions as they focus on their own survival. By way of example, Dr. Shugart asked the audience, "How can you rationalize putting 1,000 students in a lecture hall and calling it education?"

In the face of such deviations from the mission, Dr. Shugart asserted, some people are called upon to infiltrate institutions and invite them to reclaim their servant ethic. Greenleaf calls these infiltrators “servant leaders,” and Dr. Shugart is clearly one of them, although he is quick to point out that in the case of his particular institution, Valencia College, the transformation he has facilitated is one from "good to great."

Valencia is an exceptional institution. The Aspen Institute just awarded it first prize for Community-College Excellence, just one of many accomplishments Valencia can celebrate. According to the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System 2010 Feedback Report, Valencia’s overall graduation rate is nearly three times that of similar, large urban public community colleges as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. In the last decade, Valencia’s four-year graduation rate for college ready students increased by almost 10% to 44.8%. “The environment at Valencia is defined by professors and administrators taking responsibility for student success,” the college’s website states, “consistently asking what they each can do to improve student outcomes.”

Dr. Shugart called the philosophy underpinning Valencia’s approach “learning first.” It derives from the notion that anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. Although few people believe this to be true, Dr. Shugart assured the audience that if anyone had two hours, he could explain why this is an unassailable fact! "Once we accepted [the truth of] this," he said of Valencia’s faculty and staff, "we stopped teaching and started creating the conditions for learning."

Those looking for inspiration on how to be successful leaders left the symposium with much to contemplate, including Dr. Shugart’s quick overview of Greenleaf’s principles in action. He told the audience that servant leaders choose persuasion over coercion, “entheos” (a Greek word meaning sustaining spirit) over ego, foresight (or helping people see future consequences) over control, listening over directing, acceptance and healing over blame, and systematic neglect over perfection. He translated this last choice to mean not wasting time on issues that are not worth the energy.

As Dr. Shugart’s own story made clear, this type of leadership requires fierce integrity. "You need to choose to look into that mirror over and over again," he told the audience, and to realize that "if I can't take criticism, I won't get better." For a taste of what is happening at Valencia, visit The Aspen Institute website or read this article in the Chronicle for Higher Education.

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