Telling the Story Again… And Again

By Sarah B. Drummond

When I was a campus minister and Urban Education PhD student at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee (UWM), Chancellor Nancy Zimpher cast a vision whereby UWM would become Wisconsin’s #1 urban university through partnerships in the city. She described this strategy for innovation as “The Milwaukee Idea,” and the program played a significant role in moving UWM from “Not Madison” status to “Top-Notch Urban U” during the time I was there.

Chancellor Zimpher, who now serves the State University of New York system, adhered to John Kotter’s leadership theory, which includes the concept that the leader has to force the message of change (see Kotter’s Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press). Because people hold on to what they know so tightly that it is hard for them to internalize new ways of thinking, leaders need to repeat themselves… a lot. Chancellor Zimpher talked about the Milwaukee Idea so much that I heard a student made a bobble-head likeness of her that, when touched, would repeat the expression, “The Milwaukee Idea,” until the head stopped bobbing. I thought this was wonderful, and Chancellor Zimpher might have, too. Leadership requires covering the same ground again and again, never taking for granted that a new idea has penetrated sufficiently until the change is in the rearview mirror.

Four months have passed since we at Andover Newton shared with our constituencies that we would need to make radical changes in order to move onto a sustainable path. This week, as I was drafting some language for an external organization about why we’re doing what we’re doing, I realized that it had been a long time since we’d shared that rationale internally. I’ve witnessed some instances where the message has faded and thus bears repeating. Here is what I offered by way of rationale for Andover Newton’s bold new vision:

1. Enrollment continues to decline, despite herculean efforts to recruit students into current programs and expand audiences through new programs.

2. The sprawling physical plant has become not just unmanageable but unsuited to the School’s educational mission.

3. Sales of portions of the campus have provided amounts of capital that were quickly absorbed by rising costs and revenue declines.

4. The School has passed along financial strain to students who graduate with significant debt that affects their abilities to serve congregations.

5. The School’s historic mission to educate effective and thoughtful religious leaders, which has never been more important, has become diluted amidst efforts to keep the institution afloat.

6. The institution as a whole is showing signs of strain that come from chronic financial anxiety.

Even as I read these reasons why we need to take a courageous new direction they return more clearly to my mind. Even though I wrote them myself! Because we’ve left the well-trodden path of the status quo, we all need reminders of why forays into the unknown are worth it.

They’re worth it. Repeat: They’re worth it. Repeat…

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