In the supercharged, highly competitive arena of higher education, many small and midsize institutions must accentuate their strengths or develop new ones that differentiate them from other colleges and universities. Although higher education is notoriously slow and arguably often resistant to change, today’s market forces and financial realities compel institutions to plan aggressively for success—especially for those that have smaller endowments and are heavily dependent on enrollment.
For many struggling institutions, regaining financial sustainability will require a combination of deliberate planning and concerted follow-up action, including revising the business model and employing tactics that can transform a campus. Pursuing such change will benefit the physical look, fundraising leverage, and overall financial posture of the institution, as stakeholders recognize that it’s no longer “business as usual.”
Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia Beach, Va., has undergone just such an endeavor, and in record time. From a small college losing market share to a thriving university with rising enrollment, new academic programs, and a sound business model, Virginia Wesleyan has benefited from a process that began just before my arrival in 2015 as VWU’s fourth president. Deriving lessons learned and strategies sharpened from three previous presidencies at well-regarded liberal arts institutions, I initiated a step-by-step journey to new prominence for what we now proudly call “coastal Virginia’s premier university of the liberal arts and sciences.”
Together with a forward-looking board of trustees and academic and business office leaders committed to making necessary changes and exploring new opportunities, we have done the hard work required to turn the ship and have started to reap the rewards of some tough decisions we had to make. In broad strokes, what follows is an overview of our process and accomplishments.
Listen and Observe
It was a colleague’s recommendation to the board of trustees that brought me to Virginia Wesleyan in summer 2015, at which time I temporarily stayed in one of the college residence villages and explored my new surroundings. The first thing I noticed was how quiet the campus was in midsummer. Even amid the traffic of nearby Interstate 64 and within the large metropolitan area that spans from Virginia Beach to Norfolk, there was little activity on campus. Air conditioners were humming, staff were working full shifts, yet no one seemed particularly concerned that the institution, which had routinely raised its tuition each year while losing enrollment and market share, was practically deserted.
During sequestration—the automatic budget cuts that took place in March 2013—jobs in the nearby, military-driven area of Hampton Roads decreased by some 20,000—taking those potential students and their family members, who might also have enrolled in classes, with them. As a result, one of the area’s leading, most affordable community colleges lost 16,000 students in the span of five years. In addition, given the growth of for-profit colleges and the presence of a local, public liberal arts university mirroring Virginia Wesleyan’s programs, my new institution appeared to be more and more isolated from its own marketing opportunities.
Exploring what appeared to be a campus that operated only nine months, but with 12-month financial obligations, I recalled the words of the trustee chair of the search committee during our first discussion: “We want an experienced president who will know what to do upon arrival, who will do it fast, and who not only thinks outside the box, but is also willing to throw the box away.”
The days of being an unknown little liberal arts college, founded in a cornfield in 1961, were long past. Now it was time to gain visibility and develop national niche programs. I also made a mental note that we must become a 12-month campus, with revenue streams to match. That meant setting net cash goals for new 12-month programs in areas such as catering, expanded summer camps, summer school online and in classrooms, and a January term for traditional students.
After my appointment, but before my arrival, a branding study had revealed that our best student prospects—especially from the mid-Atlantic population centers of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City—were more attracted to “Virginia Beach” and “coastal Virginia” than they were to the area’s traditional identifiers of “Hampton Roads” and “Tidewater.” If Virginia Wesleyan wanted to move beyond its local market to a more national recruitment strategy, total rebranding and messaging would be necessary. The vision for enrollment included new graduate and online programs as well as partnerships with other entities, such as early- and dual-enrollment relationships and accelerated graduate and dual-degree agreements that would help recruit students.
Meanwhile, the board of trustees had commissioned an institutional review—an independent, comprehensive study of the strengths, needs, vulnerabilities, and stakeholder perceptions critical to understanding where we should go from here. The branding study and institutional review provided a blueprint for action steps linked to strategic planning, analysis of physical resources, potential for enrollment and program growth, and other key indicators. This was soon followed by a campaign feasibility study engaging the institution’s top donors—many of them emeritus trustees—in a conversation about their own aspirations for Virginia Wesleyan.
As a part of this comprehensive process, I turned to a familiar partner to provide oversight for a space-utilization study and a corrective maintenance evaluation, and also tapped a firm to help the school develop a campus master plan. The planning team did more than just furnish a rundown of physical assets. It conducted a thorough facilities assessment audit that gave needed attention to the aging infrastructure of academic buildings and residence halls, parking capacity, and energy use, and provided recommendations for growth along with improved curb appeal and aesthetics.
The plan benefited from feedback from campus opinion leaders—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—focusing on academics, student life, and athletics. A 10-year timeline (from 2016 through 2026) for renovation and construction listed priorities for immediate and deferred maintenance and proposed upgrades for visual appeal on the 300-acre, park-like campus. Once in hand, we presented the plan to various stakeholder groups, including trustees, faculty, alumni, parents, students, and major-gift donors and prospects.
Sell Your Plan
From past experience, I knew that sharing the results of the plan with donors was a key step, not only for gaining necessary buy-in but also for securing philanthropic investment. Soon, some of Virginia Wesleyan’s largest contributors and best donor prospects, who had started to drift from engagement with the institution, began to show renewed interest in supporting us.
There was low-hanging fruit that we were able to secure quickly once donors had confidence in the vision. Completion of the institutional review simultaneous with my arrival gave me solid talking points in initial meetings with donors and prospective trustees. The yearlong master planning process provided an opportunity for major donors to understand our direction and to select their own areas of funding interest that we could then align with our needs.
The process worked equally well in strengthening the board. Several strong trustee candidates from major U.S. corporations also signed on—remaking the board into a more national group and paving the way for conversations with the board and other top donors about their next capital gifts. In fact, an important consideration in any institution’s transformation is maximizing the board, alumni council, and other groups. Although some of these individuals may have their hearts in the right place, they may also lack the means, knowledge, influence, or willingness to make substantial contributions. In each of my presidencies, I have encountered such challenges.
For example, boards and alumni groups are often too local. In addition, they may have ideas that are unrealistic to implement or lack an understanding of their roles as ambassadors of the institution. I have also encountered people who simply have negative attitudes or misplaced loyalty to previous ways of operating. Not surprisingly, such individuals typically distrust a new president who is committed to change. Yet they occupy seats that are too valuable to waste.
Certainly, one of the biggest challenges I have faced is appointing the right people of influence from outside the campus to key volunteer leadership posts. At Virginia Wesleyan, we are fortunate to be able to recruit compatible volunteers from adjacent communities and other population centers throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Using the power of the president’s office, after careful research and in consultation with advancement staff, I realigned trustees and alumni councils, selecting new leaders who share my vision and who have the financial means and networking capability to contribute resources. Although some rural institutions in particular may not have the same opportunity, they nevertheless can adopt a more national focus in recruiting trustee, alumni, and parent volunteer leaders.
Secure the Right Talent
In line with building effective volunteer leadership is securing the right internal talent for your transformation. At Virginia Wesleyan, staffing changes were necessary for supporting the entire process. The areas of enrollment and advancement are now headed by longtime, experienced vice presidents who know marketing, public relations, and web design.
The team headed by the chief financial officer is also key to successful institutional turnaround. Its buy-in to the planning phases and the eventual plan is essential. At VWU, we discovered that our financial processes were outdated and confusing. Unrealistic budget projections guaranteed financial shortfalls. Reviews of staff positions, performance indicators, and accountability had also been lacking. The business office and advancement department were not always on the same page, and there was a need for appropriately credentialed professionals in key positions. Combined with declining enrollment, the financial outlook showed an institution that was not at the top of its game.
By early 2017, we had not only identified cost savings throughout our campus operation but also secured several major major gifts and new partnerships. In one example, working with the local YMCA, we built a donor-funded, shared facility enabling the YMCA Camp Red Feather to grow into a larger summer operation. And during our regular academic terms, this facility is used by the new Virginia Wesleyan partner Tidewater Collegiate Academy, a lab school for our teacher-education majors.
We signed up more camps and conferences, including a summer baseball league; increased fundraising for scholarships; and developed a donor-funded summer-work program for selected financially at-risk Virginia Wesleyan students, who needed a plan to pay down their tuition balances. Additional donor support has now expanded the initial summer-work program to a year-round program. Vendors also stepped up with cash and in-kind support to build a new track-and-field complex, and we identified gift opportunities for funding other components of the campus master plan, including a new fine and performing arts center, a longtime dream of the campus. All of these changes were aimed at ensuring financial sustainability through stronger enrollment and fundraising strategies, the addition of auxiliary revenue, partnerships withlike-minded organizations, and an in-depth analysis of the institution’s promotional and business practices.
Rebrand Across the Campus
Institution leaders need to adopt a proactive stance early in the transformation process. Then you can have an informed discussion with trustees and other key stakeholders, including donors, and develop an action plan that is realistic, forward-thinking, and fundable. Many institutions find that even modest adjustments to their branding, messaging, fundraising, and financial practices can signal positive energy and increased confidence to stakeholders.
Perhaps the most significant change for Virginia Wesleyan happened surprisingly early on: our legal transition from college to university. With authorization by the board of trustees, we had submitted our request for “university” designation through all the proper external channels, including our accreditors and the Commonwealth of Virginia. We expected the process to take a year or more; in fact, it took a matter of months. With all approvals in hand, we began the rebranding process, which included changing our mailing address from Norfolk to Virginia Beach, where most of our campus was located anyway.
Throughout summer 2017, every logo, campus sign, athletic uniform, and coffee mug was remade to showcase our new VWU lighthouse and wave design—expertly managed in-house. We consulted legal counsel on federal trademark registration of all service marks, which included a revised, now zoologically accurate depiction of our athletic symbol, a marlin. A lifesize statue of the Virginia Wesleyan Marlin had languished on the sprawling back acreage of the campus until our construction partner had it cleaned and relocated to a more visible location near our main entrance.
A significant part of our campus transformation has been the realignment of our academic program. Although we already offered a strong curriculum, we restructured our academic departments into three schools: arts and humanities, mathematics and natural sciences, and social science. Since then, we have also created a fourth school for professional studies—combining business, education, recreation and leisure, and social work. The academic restructuring brought distinctiveness and additional clarity to the curriculum, and it inspired new donor activity. We named the schools for our top donors, created logos for each component, and added separate sections to our website describing the schools and paying tribute to their namesakes.
The most influential donor in our history had expressed interest in creating and funding an honors college, a program of rigorous study for top, academically talented students from around the nation and the world. With our new university status, we could now field such an initiative, which focused on study and stewardship of the natural environment, global understanding, and leadership for a changing society. The Batten Honors College, along with the state-of-the-art Greer Environmental Sciences Center—dedicated in 2017—became an elite, national niche program for Virginia Wesleyan.
Our restructuring process also included appointing deans from within the institution, providing greater representation from the faculty on critical issues of curricular growth and innovation. The faculty voted to endorse new graduate programs in business and education as well as an online division—both of which are thriving. VWU launched its University College in 2018 as the umbrella for all not-for-credit, evening and weekend, and continuing education offerings. And as part of an emerging business agreement, Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay, an upscale retirement community, and VWU established the Westminster/Wesleyan Lifelong Learning Institute, which offers noncredit courses taught on site to residents by VWU faculty. Our noncredit programs have grown from about 100 to 2,500 through that initiative and others, including our annual continuing education institute for ministers and church leaders. Achieving these changes, however, was not without challenges.
Less visible to observers, but just as vital to the plan working, is overcoming internal resistance. Our faculty were generally supportive throughout this process; many had known all along that change was needed. However, pushback did come from some very traditional faculty who felt they were being asked to perform duties they had not signed up for, such as designing online classes and graduate programs, teaching courses as part of the Westminster/Wesleyan Lifelong Learning Institute, and speaking to local groups.
Transitioning to a more businesslike model can be anathema to the academic community. Among some staff and faculty, the insistence upon “we’ve always done it this way” can create roadblocks. Part of the solution is demonstrating the benefits of innovation to reluctant adopters, along with motivating key faculty leaders to carry positive messages back to their colleagues.
Eventually, we secured the buy-in needed to move forward. I assembled a presidential leadership team of experienced players who understood the vision and energetically represented it to all groups—especially to internal constituents. By appointing a senior vice president who had worked with me before and understood how to facilitate the agenda, I was able to quickly line up donor support and community partners.
That process, too, presented some low-hanging fruit. Several partnerships with community colleges, government, and members of the nonprofit and business sectors had been overlooked. I committed to meeting as many of these representatives as possible, discovering happily that news of our transformation was gaining attention. Community support from the cities of Virginia Beach and Norfolk was incredible. The Virginia Beach City Council actually cheered when I mentioned the addition of graduate programs. In appreciation, the city lined our main thoroughfare with attractive landscaping and erected a sign proudly welcoming visitors to the hometown of Virginia Wesleyan.
Seek Visible Change
For alumni and other visitors, the most dramatic transformation has been our physical appearance. Eighteen major construction projects in four years—all donor-funded, to the tune of more than $65 million—gave our campus a needed makeover and additional support for the academic program. We did so, however, without compromising our small-college feel. In fact, with attention to cracked sidewalks, the opening of a new bike and walking pathway, and enhanced parking on the new Avenue of the Sciences and Avenue of the Arts, we brought the community closer together. We also made major improvements to the baseball field and created an entirely new stadium for our national NCAA Division III softball champions—and game attendance has soared.
Another campus landmark, a chiming bell tower, had become corroded from nearly a half-century of sea air. Engineers concluded that we either had to fix it or tear it down for safety reasons. Because we shared the campus master plan with donors, one donor actually stepped forward with the funds to enclose the existing structure into the design of a beacon, complete with searchlights at the top and symbolic of our church-affiliated heritage.
As enrollment grew, we found ourselves in need of overflow housing and began using a nearby extended-stay facility for some qualifying students. We sought a more permanent solution to the crowded residence halls by following up on a longtime project to develop VWU-owned acreage directly across from the main entrance to campus. A feasibility study concluded that our best bet was additional housing for upperclass, graduate, and international students, among others. Detached from the main campus, the site was prime real estate but awkwardly configured, bordering private residences and a church. Devising a plan with local developers that took into account the new retail outlets opening up around us, we launched a public-private partnership to construct an eight-building, 248-unit residential complex that would be managed by the developers and provide VWU with additional revenue. Construction began on the apartment complex Coastal 61 at Oxford Village in mid-2018, and occupancy is scheduled by summer 2020.
Be Positive and Bold
During 2015–16, Virginia Wesleyan benefited from the combination of new leadership, a new excitement for growth arising from the institutional review, a tradition of capital giving from at least eight significant donors, and a board of trustees that recognized the need for change.Not all institutions seeking change will have this confluence of favorable factors. However, my experiences as a president, consultant on enrollment strategies, leader of accreditation teams, and observer of the shifting landscape of higher education lead me to believe that there are always opportunities for change.
At 31, I was thrust into my first presidency when my boss, the institution’s longtime president, unexpectedly retired. For my second presidency, I inherited a college where the top leadership had been fired, only six months of cash remained, and the campus was in danger of closing. I was hired to stabilize a third institution that had appointed three presidents in five years and was suffering financially from a poorly executed tuition-reduction plan. Each of these presidencies prepared me for the transformation challenges I faced at Virginia Wesleyan. And each time, I learned the importance of working with the institution’s chief business officer to revise business practices, develop sustainable funding models, and right-size budgets and revenue streams to support mission and stability.
Along the way, I also learned the value of the old adage: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Coupled with that was aggressive attention to equipping internal stakeholders —faculty, staff, students—with enthusiastic messaging so that they could convey positive impressions to external constituencies. Because I knew from experience that an institution’s president becomes its highly visible brand, I went everywhere, both on campus and off, interpreting our plans for change.
As an active presence on social media, I took every opportunity to use this tool to communicate results. We developed a daily blog, regular morning e-mail briefings to all stakeholders, and monthly e-newsletters. The combination of these messaging methods proved highly effective in building support and enthusiasm for our plans for campus transformation. As we reached our goals, these avenues of communication provided instant updates—not only to external constituencies but also to vital internal ones.
Higher education today faces unprecedented changes, challenges, and scrutiny. Few institutions can afford to rest solely on their reputations. Yet sadly, each year we see several established, well-regarded institutions go extinct. Although it’s tempting to second-guess their strategies, in many cases attention to key trends and indicators and a commitment to needed change—well before a downward spiral—would have proved critical. In fact, assertive action toward campus transformation will most often enhance perceptions of institutional quality and boost business-model viability, thereby positioning an institution for strength.
Trustees and presidents are expected to facilitate change. Together, working from sound plans and forward-thinking strategies—and bringing key stakeholders, including the business officer, into the process—they can do more than ensure that an institution will survive. They can help it thrive.
SCOTT D. MILLER is president of Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia Beach, Va.