Reimagining the University of Lynchburg and Building Partnerships with Lynchburg with President Alison Morrison-Shetlar
ELEVENTH PRESIDENT, UNIVERSITY OF LYNCHBURG
Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar
President Alison Morrison-Shetlar describes herself as a “servant leader.” She is the first person born outside the U.S. and the first woman to serve as the University of Lynchburg’s president. Her term began in August 2020.
As the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold in the U.S., the then-president-elect launched a fledgling effort to sew cloth face masks for the University community. The initiative, which she called “Sewcial Hornets,” eventually involved more than 360 “voluntailors” — students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and friends of the University — who made over 8,500 masks.
President Alison, as she likes to be called, spent her first official day in office serving the greater Lynchburg community at Building Our Community Together, an event that brings together area universities, nonprofits, and other groups. In partnership with her favorite nonprofit, Samaritan’s Feet International, and the University’s Master of Nonprofit Leadership Studies program, she handed out free shoes and socks to about 400 local children.
Raised on the Scottish Isle of Bute, President Alison says she was “just an average kid.” Her father was the county clerk, her mother was a homemaker. At Rothesay Academy, she played basketball and field hockey and competed on the track and field team in the high jump, long jump, and 100-meter dash. At age 18, she left home for Dundee College of Technology — now Abertay University — where she earned a Bachelor of Science, with honors, in biology and chemistry, and a PhD in biomedical sciences.
As a first-generation college student, she originally wanted to be-come a laboratory technician and get an associate degree. Dundee’s president encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry instead. She graduated second in her class.
She went on to do postdoctoral research at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London, then became chair of the molecular biology unit at the Max Planck Institute in Dortmund, Germany, and a teach- er-scholar at Bochum University in Bochum, Germany.
In 1993, she followed her husband, Robert Shetlar, to the U.S., where he had a postdoctoral position in Connecticut. Over the next 20 years, she held teaching, research, and administrative positions
at colleges and universities in Maine, Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Most recently, she served as interim chancellor at Western Carolina University.
On their first day in the office at Lynchburg, President Alison and her husband, the “first gentleman,” announced a new endowed scholarship to support student success.
They also adopted a “first dog,” black Lab puppy Molly, who will accompany them as they hike the campus trails and in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Meanwhile, President Alison is working with the campus community and city partners on three University pillars: leadership development; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and innovation and collaboration.
The latter includes a think tank and research hub for the Lynchburg community.
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. It’s Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation: transforming leaders, transforming organizations, transforming lives. We have been doing this work for 32 years. Nonprofits include local charities, religious organizations, educational organizations, lots of entities. We’re a for-purpose enterprise. We are focused on the purpose of philanthropy, helping others. It’s the love of humankind.
I have a special guest today. We have had all kinds of guests in the seven and a half years we have been doing The Nonprofit Exchange. I don’t think we’ve ever had a university president. We have the president of the university right here in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is not a native of Virginia. Welcome, Dr. Allison Morrison-Shetlar. Please tell people about who you are and what your passion is for leading.
Allison Morrison-Shetlar: First of all, thanks very much for inviting me, Hugh. This is a great opportunity. I love talking about leadership. That’s fun to do. I look forward to questions if anyone has them as we go through.
I am originally from Scotland, hence the accent. A lot of people say I don’t have an accent anymore, but that’s not true when I go back to Scotland. They definitely know I have an accent. I have been in higher education for about 38 years. I started teaching during my Ph. D, which I did in Dundee, Scotland. I was fortunate enough to go and work in London for three years, where I really got involved in the arts and the theater scene there while doing research. I am a biologist by training. I had the great fortune after being in London for about three years of moving to Germany. I moved to the Max Planck Institute there to do research. I was there for about seven years and met my husband there. He is from Kansas by the way. That is an interesting story that could be held for a later time. He is also a biologist. We were there together for six years and then came to the United States.
I have worked in some fabulous places. I started off at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I moved to Georgia Southern University and then the University of Central Florida in Orlando before moving to Elon University. My last gig was at Western Carolina University as provost and interim chancellor. Then I moved to the University of Lynchburg to be the president.
My passion is in leadership and higher education. I have had a wonderful career being able to support the transformation of institutions. I have enjoyed the whole career trajectory that has led me to be at the University of Lynchburg, which is an amazing private institution in Lynchburg, Virginia with about 3,000-3,100 students. A third of those are graduate students. We do a lot of leadership development and of course have a strong nonprofit program there, too.
Hugh: Absolutely. Dr. Jimmy Roux is a close friend of mine. He is very passionate about what he does as well.
Allison: He’s fantastic.
Hugh: You’re fortunate to have him. You’re actually a leader of leaders. I had the pleasure of working with all of your deans at one point under your previous provost. It’s a high-performing group. In my previous position as the president of Lynchburg Symphony, I had the opportunity to work with many of your musicians who became dear friends. I know that your programs are high caliber. Not only are your professors, adjunct faculty, and deans skilled, but they are really passionate about the work in a small university.
Lynchburg is on the western side of Virginia. We are in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We can look on both sides and see the mountains. It’s a town of eighty-something thousand people. You have to add the universities to that population. It’s a nice-sized city, not too big, not too small.
You came here to visit. When you had the conversations, it was before the pandemic hit. At what point did you say yes, before the pandemic or during the pandemic? We are talking to you at the tail end of the pandemic, we think. If you’re with us on this podcast in some other year, we are broadcasting in June 2021. What is the timing of your saying yes? What was the hook that made you say yes?
Allison: My on-campus interview was in October 2019. I fell in love with the city of Lynchburg, the surrounding area, and the people I met there. The actual announcement of my presidency happened in November 2019. I was fortunate to be able to come to campus and visit campus regularly between November 2019 and when the pandemic hit in March 2020, when things closed down. I had the opportunity to come to basketball games and walk across campus and meet lots of people before I moved full-time to Lynchburg, which happened in July 2020. I became the president on August 1 before President Garren retired after 19 years.
It was just the environment, the people. The university itself is an amazing, comprehensive university founded in the liberal arts. Tremendous passion for servant leadership in the community and on campus. These are my values, the values that I hold dear to me and have been involved in all my career. Also, our affiliation with the Disciples of Christ is really important. The values that Disciples of Christ have that permeate the whole of our institution. But it was the people, the students.
When I sat in one of those wonderful red Adirondack chairs, and started to have conversations with people, you could see the passion for the university, for making the difference in the lives of others. That’s what our programs do. I knew I had come home when I sat in that red Adirondack chair and talked with the SGA president, Davion Washington. He said to me, “I love chatting with you here.” I said, “I love these red chairs.” That’s what started the Red Chair Chats that I am now doing regularly, sometimes two to three times a week, with populations in the community and further beyond. Red Adirondack chairs are a big thing on Lynchburg’s campus.
Hugh: That’s so important. For me, the anchor for leadership is in relationship. You didn’t come into a disaster. The pandemic was its own kind of thing. Ken Garren had certainly been a fine leader. You came into a strong university with a strong program and a well-run institution. You didn’t have to come fix things. Rotation is really good. It lets a new leader come in with new vision and can add their skills to those that preceded. You’re in a good situation. But we had this thing called a pandemic that makes things iffy. What is the biggest challenge in leading coming out of that kind of situation? There are a lot of leaders who are frustrated, thinking about quitting, saying, “I don’t know what to do.” What is the wisdom you have to share with people about how we take this and make opportunities out of crisis and move forward?
Allison: I firmly believe never waste a good crisis. They are great opportunities to look at things a little differently. I think the pandemic has given us some tremendous opportunities to do things we hadn’t thought about or were thinking about but hadn’t quite got to. Coming into the university, the first thing I had that was marvelous was a strong leadership team. They are called the executive council; they are all my VPs and the athletic director that report directly to me.
I started coming to the university in November 2019. Right from the get-go, every time I came to campus, the leadership team got together. We started talking about the future of the institution. The many conversations I had between November and March, and then when I went online and had even more conversations with alumni and current and previous faculty and staff and community members, three things emerged from those conversations: leadership development, innovation and collaboration, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those have become the three pillars of my presidency.
These didn’t come from just me; they came from those conversations and the previous strategic plan. Coming to the university, it was wonderful to be able to say, “What are we doing in leadership development? How can we enhance that? I know we are an innovative campus, so what can we do even more to be innovative? How can we use what we have learned during the pandemic to deepen and strengthen what is happening on our campus and in our community?” My leadership team, just fabulous people, dedicated to the success of the institution, working hard all together to move us in the same direction and make sure we attain the goals we have set. For me, having that leadership team in place allowed me to see their leadership potential and management styles and how they worked with their leaders. Across campus, I would say every single person at the university is a leader and takes pride and passion in the success of the institution. You couldn’t ask for a better team to come into.
Hugh: I know a lot of those people, and you are so right. They are committed to the job that they’re doing. I of course don’t know them all, but those that I do know.
The title you gave us is “Reimagining University of Lynchburg.” I’m a Methodist; my wife works for the district of the Methodist Church. Methodists have this rotation system. You have a new leader coming in who has their gifts and talents. As you reimagine, how do we respect the systems in place, but how do we add our skills on top of that? You have come into a strong situation. For leaders that are maybe starting in a new position, and they see some opportunities, there has to be some sacred cows or traditions that you have to understand before you start to want to change. You have been there almost a year now, I think. What does “reimagine” mean? How do you respect tradition but also help people transform to embrace your vision for the future?
Allison: You always have to keep the mission of your institution very much at the heart of what your discussions entail. For me, keeping the mission of this institution was easy because it’s something that- I wanted to be here, I wanted to move the institution forward. Making sure what you are doing is mission-centric is important. Sometimes you get mission drift. You think, “Maybe we’ll go in this direction or this direction.” Well, is that really what we’re here to do?
The University of Lynchburg is such a special place. Students, faculty, and staff say it’s a special place. There is a secret sauce at Lynchburg. I’m not going to tell you what it is. It is definitely something that keeps people there. They want to be there. They’re successful. A lot of it has to do with leadership development and making sure we are giving people the skills, abilities, opportunities, and resources to be successful.
For me, again, coming in having had all these conversations, I knew that if we were going to continue on this upward and forward trajectory, we had to rethink what we were doing. The pandemic has promoted a lot of those kinds of things. How are we interacting with each other? Face to face clashes was the essence of being at the University of Lynchburg. In March, that all went away. The key component of face-to-face is those relationships, the relationships that the faculty have with the students, that the staff have with the students. We define the Lynchburg experience as a group of experiences that allow students to grow and develop. At the same time, faculty and staff grow and develop alongside them.
A reimagining is building on the foundation and looking for those opportunities to move something forward in exciting ways. The three pillars I mentioned earlier, they have garnered a lot of excitement on campus. People see themselves in those three pillars and see how they can contribute. That is the key. You want everyone to see that they have a part in the future of an institution. That creates that excitement, synergy, energy, and forward movement.
Hugh: Very well stated. Speaking of students, we have a university classroom watching under the tutelage of Bob Hopkins. He is their professor and a thought leader, author, and primary philanthropist. Let’s shout out that class. To be in a university class and listen to a university president speak about what it’s like from your side to run this institution. Everyone has answers to how things ought to go, but there is only one leader. That leader sees it from a holistic perspective.
Let’s drill into leadership. I find that is one of the most misunderstood words in our vocabulary. Everyone has a definition of leadership. I am going to change my background from SynerVision to another one. When you and I first contacted each other, I was president of the Lynchburg Symphony. Here is me at a Christmas concert in front of the symphony. In 2018 and 2019, I directed the symphony.
Let me give you a couple of things and respond to what we teach here. Let’s see if you have some synergy or if you have a better idea. People perceive a conductor as a dictator. I gotta tell you, you got a little white stick and a bunch of union musicians who are professionals, you can’t make anybody do anything. One of the most misunderstood concepts of the leader is that they are the boss and tell everyone what to do. Actually in my world, the leader is the influencer.
There are four pillars. 1) You influence people because you have a strong foundation. You know where you’re going. You’re very clear on your mission and your skillset. 2) You build relationships. You listen. You have to have a pillar of the foundation of where you’re going and your relationships. 3) You can’t do anything unless you have effective systems. We know how to rehearse. 4) Care for self. If you have come to the workplace as a balanced person that is rested, ready to go, and clear, you can’t do anything else. These are Hugh’s transformational leadership principles. How do you respond in your world?
Allison: I think it’s very much the same. The key there is listening. Not just listening to what you’re doing but listening to what others are doing and how you bring that together. I see the university as a fabulous symphony. You can’t have one more important instrument than another. They are all working together. They all have to be good at what they do. Everything that somebody does should be respected and valued because it contributes to the larger entity, which in my case is the institution.
A lot of similarities and money in university. You have to know your own abilities, the things you’re good at and not good at. Surround yourself with people with strengths and characteristics you might not have. Again, it’s not all violins. It’s not all oboes. You have to bring a group of people together. They have strengths. You have to allow them to express those strengths and listen to them and make sure there is harmony in what they’re doing. If you have discord, whether it’s in a symphony or an institution, if it continues, discord can reveal new ideas and new things. If you ultimately are moving in the right direction, eventually that harmony comes out of that discord and things move forward.
I see myself as a servant leader. If I layer servant leadership on what you’ve just talked about, then I see my role as leading from in front sometimes. I have the baton. Bringing people together. We’re singing the same tune. We’re moving in the same direction. Sometimes you have to be out front and gather people. You have to be the champion or face for a particular cause or institution.
Leading from beside is where you can bring people with different strengths around the table. Listen to what they’re saying. Give them resources. Understand different perspectives. There is an opportunity to come together to be able to support each other and recognize that we come with different strengths, personalities, and opportunities.
My favorite place is leading from behind. That’s where I see strength in others. If there is an opportunity, I’d rather put them forward to lead from in front or from beside. I want to make sure they have the resources they need, that they have the respect and are valued for what they do, and that they get the accolades. They get told, “You did a great job. We appreciate you for what you’re doing.”
Putting that on top of your motto is synergistic. It’s making sure everyone contributes to the whole, that everyone’s voice is heard, that we respect diversity, equity, and inclusion, that we respect innovation, but collaboration is what makes things happen. Moving things forward in a collaborative spirit with expertise that I may or may not have is how I have grown as a leader and how I have helped others grow as leaders.
Hugh: You are an energy field. You’re visionary. You’re passionate. You’re committed. You’re gracious. It’s time, and it’s been past time, but you have stepped up in a new era for women leaders who bring a different kind of expertise to the workplace. I am glad you are here in Lynchburg. You bring a different kind of energy, strength, and vision because it’s not the same old thing. It’s building on tradition, but it’s giving it a fresh look. I am so pleased you have come to Lynchburg and shared with us today.
I love the quote by the British composer/conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams, who said, “Music did not reveal all of its secrets to just one person.” You could say that about education, leadership, or a number of things. Even though we have had guests speak on the same topic, we get different stories because there is a different perspective. There is a background and wisdom of how you share and how you come to this opportunity. Who we are is a collection of what we’ve done through history.
Let’s talk about collaborations for a minute. I believe that that is the second most misunderstood word in our language. You have spoken at some organizations like my Rotary club. It’s not a huge place, but it’s a diverse place. How do you build connections? How do you see collaborations enhancing the work that everyone does separately and together?
Allison: The great thing about coming into a community is you have to learn about the community before you start to see how you can make an impact on that community. It was wonderful. Largely because I was online, I was talking to community members very easily. Sometimes an hour at a time, one on one, getting in-depth understanding on what was happening in the city of Lynchburg and the region. If I had done that face-to-face, I am not sure I would have been able to meet as many people as I actually have. That sounds strange because it is all about relationships. Those relationships are often built by being in the same room together and having conversations. I did have that opportunity prior to the pandemic hitting us in March to meet quite a few of the community members. But I used the technology to reach out to people and say, “Hey, I’d love to talk to you. What are the needs of the institution?”
The University of Lynchburg is Lynchburg’s university. We are there to serve our community. How can we do that? Are we doing it well? I wanted to understand. I did a lot of listening. I have spoken to probably about 300 community members: parents of students, students who are in the community. I got a feel for the city and region.
From that, I had the opportunity to do what I call a convening. I love to bring people together around the table. I love to have people talk about what the needs of the community are. I have been working with some fabulous people, like Reverend Owen Cardwell and Dr. Roger Jones. The three of us along with Treney Tweedy and Ed Holloway got together quite a while ago and thought, “How can the University of Lynchburg step up and be more involved in the city?” We generated a group that will be fully announced later on this month called Lynchburg Tomorrow.
It is a convening of influencers in the city who are interested in coming together and working together to help the city be more successful, to identify areas of need and see where our students are, who are also servant leaders and very much involved in servant learning through internships and practicums within the community. They are learning how they can continue to give back through their programs, working with their faculty to make a difference in the lives of others.
Lynchburg Tomorrow has really started to bring some amazing things together, whether we are dealing with access to affordable health care, healthy foods, or leadership development. These are the three main things that have emerged from Lynchburg Tomorrow, where leaders have said these are the kinds of things that we need in our community. How can we work together to do it?
It’s been fabulous. I have learned so much about the community. I have learned so much about the needs. It’s not a case of coming in and saying, “We’re here to help. Let us help you.” It’s, “What do you need? How can we use the expertise on our campus to make sure your needs are met?” That’s been hugely exciting and got me into the community in a time where I wasn’t there physically, but I really feel like I am part of the community now.
Hugh: I guess so. That’s magical. Lynchburg, for people to have a benchmark, before the Civil War, was one of the wealthiest cities. Now I don’t know what the current statistics are, but I think we have the highest rate of poverty in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In my zip code, which is -01, it’s even higher than Lynchburg. It’s about 41%. Everywhere I have lived in multiple places, I used to move to a new job when I was music director at mega-churches. Every city in which I lived, I wondered why organizations didn’t work together.
Collaboration is misunderstood. It’s how we have this “Let’s give to you, and how people give back to you.” Especially in the nonprofit sector, we want to be protective of our volunteers and donors. People do volunteer at more than one nonprofit and give to more than one nonprofit. If you put your efforts together, you could impact more people and leverage those dollars to go further. What wisdom do you have to share with listeners about how you approach a collaboration and have that active listening conversation with people?
Allison: I think you bring people together around a common goal. You make sure everyone understands what your goals are. If people are not interested in that goal, then they don’t come to the table. If they are interested in the goal, how are we going to get to that goal? I am a great believer in starting with the end in mind. What is it that you want to achieve? How do you pull that back to be able to say, “Who needs to be at the table to be able to achieve those goals?”
For me, collaboration is part of the convening process. I bring people together around a common goal and then set a framework where everyone can have the opportunity to brainstorm freely around the needs of the institution or community. From there, you start to see themes emerging.
Through Lynchburg Tomorrow, we have three or four themes that emerged from the very first three-hour conversation we had with 21 influencers in the community. We hone that down to say, “Okay, if these are our themes, what is our asset mapping toward those themes?” Who is involved in access to healthy food? Who is involved in healthcare? How can the influencers bring the right people to the table through another convening to share our goals? Who are the people who are doing that? Bring them together. See how we can work together.
That is where Lynchburg Tomorrow is becoming successful. We are bringing people together who have been in silos, who have been doing their own thing, working with their own population. It’s been hard to assess the total impact of that. Through asset mapping, you can bring the right people to the table and have the conversation. The University of Lynchburg is a neutral entity. Having a neutral entity means it can be a free flow and an exchange of ideas and information.
With collaboration, you need to have the willingness to collaborate to start. Once you get that, having a goal in mind and then working toward that goal will mean you will be successful. Being able to assess that you have been successful is one of the things we find very hard to do. We like our programs. We want them to be successful. If they’re not as successful as we think they should be, maybe our data is not being used the way it should be. That is a strength of this university. We have a tremendous number of people who can help assess whether something is working or not. Not say, “You shouldn’t do that.” Instead, “Here are things that are more successful than other areas, so let’s focus on those and impact more people.”
For me, collaboration in the community is making a difference in the lives of others. We need to be able to show we can do that.
Hugh: That is such a refreshing vision and articulation. People talk about it but don’t really pull it off because they don’t have that understanding of the value and how it values everybody. It’s a win-win.
I want to talk about self-care, personal growth. How do you manage yourself? Those kinds of topics. James Allen wrote a little book called As a Man Thinketh back when it was all male-dominated. He said, “People want to change their circumstances but are unwilling to change themselves. They therefore remain bound.” I want you to talk about how you open up your horizons as a leader and how to get feedback that will help you.
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Dr. Allison, it’s tough being a leader. It’s a pleasure, an honor, a duty, and a delight. But it’s hard work because you have to make decisions. How do you continue working on your skills? How do you care for yourself as a leader in this high-profile position that you have?
Allison: Leadership is a lonely place. Don’t let it be lonely. I am always very careful to find people I can share my thoughts and ideas with in complete confidence, often people who are not affiliated with the university, but I can brainstorm and talk a little bit about what’s going on without attributions. To be able to get that context of, “Am I doing the right thing? Are these decisions that are ultimately being made the right things for the university?”
I will say having a strong leadership team is so very important for one’s own self-care. Why I say that is if you have a strong team who know their work, know what they are supposed to be doing, are working very closely together, when they make recommendations to me, they have been carefully vetted and thought about. I am a data-driven person. I love to have data to back up any decision that is going to be made. Once that team comes together with a recommendation, I feel strongly I can come to it with fresh eyes. I can question. I can seek new perspectives. At the end of the day, the decision is not really made by one person. A good decision is made over time with lots of perspectives. I am very fortunate I have a strong team that makes sure we are moving in the same direction and working together.
For my own self-care, I love to be outdoors. If you have been on the Lynchburg campus, you know it’s a beautiful area. You can walk all around on trails associated with the university. There is the Claytor Nature Center in Bedford County. It’s 491 acres of fabulous land at the base of the peaks of the mountains. When I need to think, when I need to get away a little bit, I go for walks. I can walk around the dell and be reflective and think about what decisions are going to impact the institution. Are they the right decisions? Talk with people. I love to do meetings by walking. I love leadership by walking. I love to go to other people’s offices and talk with them there. For me, it’s great to get out of the office. It’s great to have these conversations because it gives you different perspectives. Nature just grounds me.
My self-care is making sure I get some exercise. I walk. Most of the time, while I’m doing that, I am thinking about the future of the institution. I am thinking about the right things to do. Some of those hard decisions have to be made, but if they are grounded in good data, after great conversation with different perspectives, I can sleep at night about the decisions we make at the University of Lynchburg knowing that it’s the right thing for the university.
Hugh: Love it. Should we see if we have any audience questions?
Hugh: I’m going to connect with Bob Hopkins. You have students watching Dr. Shetlar today.
Bob Hopkins: Yes, we have eight fabulous students. I don’t know them well. Our first day was yesterday. They walked in today not knowing exactly what to expect today, and I didn’t know either until I talked to you, wondering how I was going to get on your 2pm. Fortunately, you allowed me to bring my students.
Hugh: Yay. Have you and your students generated any questions for our guest today?
Bob: Yes, we have. I’m not sure. Here is a question from a student. She wants to know how to start her own nonprofit organization and how to be a good leader of that organization.
Hugh: I think she has the expert in that as her teacher. There are certain leadership aspects. Dr. Allison, what kind of advice would you have? You do have a strong nonprofit leadership graduate program at the university. Enroll in that. What is another answer?
Allison: I like that answer a lot. We do have a very strong nonprofit leadership program. Jimmy Roux is an amazing faculty member and does a tremendous amount with his students in the community. To start a nonprofit, you really need to make sure you are meeting a need. A lot of people start, “I want to be able to do this because I have a passion for it.” If you don’t know that that is a need within your community, it would be difficult to start something that was going to be successful.
The other thing about leadership in a nonprofit is working with others in that area so you are not duplicating but actually enhancing the experience you want to provide. We are talking earlier about access to healthy food. In Lynchburg, there are a lot of organizations working on poverty and food insecurities. Working together, they can have a greater impact. They may not be impacting the same population, but together, they can have a greater synergy.
When you are thinking about starting a nonprofit, think about the need. Think about whether you can deliver what the support is. How can you sustain it? It’s easy to start something and have an immediate impact. How can you sustain it over time?
University of Lynchburg has been around since 1903. We are pretty good at sustaining the educational model toward our population. However, education has changed. If you’re not willing to change the way you do things to match that change population, it’s not going to be a sustainable model. Higher education, we are always changing. Nonprofits, you always have to change. You have to be aware of what’s happening. You have to be aware of your impact. As I mentioned earlier, if you do asset mapping in a particular area of interest, you can find the other organizations that are doing the same kind of thing and work together with them to have that greater synergistic impact.
Hugh: I do know that when Jimmy Roux interviews people that want to start one, he asks those kinds of questions to help them think through. Bob, do you have another one?
Bob: I do. This is Andrew.
Andrew: I had a quick question. As a leader, how do you defer from the potential and purpose for individuals on your team? How do you call out the potential moving forward?
Allison: The way I am interpreting that is how to identify the potential that people have. How can you help them become the strong leaders you think you know they can become? If that is the essence of what you are talking about, being able to identify someone’s strengths and provide them the opportunities to hone those strengths is a great part of being a leader. You can provide people the resources to be successful. A lot of people don’t know that they have the potential to be a leader.
Identifying them and showing them that they do have those strengths and maybe providing those opportunities is how I got to where I am today quite honestly. I didn’t think about being a president. I didn’t think about being a provost, a dean, or a chair, or doing research for many years. It was through people who saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself and then opened the doors so that I could have new experiences. I have been fortunate to live in Scotland obviously. I grew up there. I went to London to do research on growing skin for grafting purposes. Then moving to Germany after that. I would never have done that if someone had not said, “I think you have the skills. I think you have the potential. Why don’t you come and join this team?”
It’s nice to be in a leadership position to be able to say that to others and to step aside and let them grow and shine and have a positive impact and make a difference in the lives of others. It’s a great thing to do as a leader.
Hugh: That’s probably a bigger question than we thought of, but it’s a great question. As I think back, I’ll be 75 this year, I had plenty of opportunities when I was nothing but potential. There were people who said, “I think you can do it,” and then I walked into the space. It’s important for leaders to give opportunities to other leaders,
Bob, can we have one more?
Bob: Yep. This is McKenna.
McKenna: Howdy, I have a question. This being a private university, do y’all have any Christian leadership or ministry programs?
Allison: Thank you for the question. We are affiliated with the Disciples of Christ and have been for a long time. We have other ministries on campus as well. We are welcoming of all faiths. We want people to be valued and respected for who they are when they come to campus regardless of their affinity group. We want to make sure we are providing these resources for people to find their opportunity for self-growth, self-reflection, and for them to continue their passion. Our focus is with the Disciples of Christ. But again, we want to make sure everyone feels respected and valued for what they contribute to the university.
Hugh: In addition to being a professor, Bob Hopkins is an author. His book is Philanthropy Misunderstood. It’s a marvelous book. Bob, do you have a question for our guest today?
Bob: Yeah. I really appreciate this topic. Maybe we will do this every Tuesday because I think this is really valuable for our students to hear from a leader like Dr. Allison.
I am very curious about this idea of what kind of people you surround yourself with. I haven’t talked to the students about that, but I usually tell them if they are smarter than you, you need to be hanging around them. If they’re not quite to your level and lower, you probably need to rethink your associations. You might be wasting your time. You need to find people smarter than you. What do you think about how you pick people to hang around with?
Allison: There are two things that happen. Sometimes you come into a team that is already formed, as I did at the University of Lynchburg, and immediately see that they have amazing strengths. Together, they work very well in support of the future of the institution.
When you are building a team, it’s an opportunity to identify strengths you may not have. I have built teams. I have inherited teams. Teams have changed under my leadership. Depending on the direction that you want to go in, the main thing is you want to surround yourself with people who don’t have the same characteristics as you have. Or maybe they do, but they look at things in a different way. I use the metaphor of looking through different lenses. Let’s have a problem and bring a group of people who can look at a problem together with different lenses because the ideas that are generated by those different perspectives are often much better than the original idea that was put on the table.
Building your team is a really great thing to do. Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes people think they want to be part of your team, and when they actually get involved, they realize this is not for them. And that’s okay. I don’t see that as a failure. I don’t see that as anything other than a learning experience. Every time you go into a team, the learning experience that happens can always help you grow and develop. Even if at the time it feels a little negative, it’s still a good thing.
We’ll close by saying the thing that people don’t think a lot about when they bring a team together: it’s great to have people who read against the grain; that’s the term I use. Don’t go with the flow. Criticize, maybe forcefully sometimes. Some people shy away from that because they see that as discord and disagreement. I see it as looking at things from a different lens. I listen very carefully to those people who do not agree with me. Often they can be correct. I can change my mind. Another key characteristic of a good leader. Someone who can change their mind based on the evidence they have.
Hugh: Perfect. Bob, remind me what the institution is that you’re teaching at today.
Bob: I am at Collin College.
Hugh: I am going to go to Bedford to Legacy International. Mr. Rash. What would you like to ask today?
J.E. Rash: Thank you for your beautiful presentation and your insights, which we resonate with. I do have a question for you, but I have to precede that with some parental pride. Both of my daughters graduated from the University of Lynchburg, where they received a superb education. One of my daughters went to receive her Masters from GWU in International Relations. Samah who was the Hill Awardee and majored in biology by the way and first in her class a year ago will be going for her Masters at Yale in public health. In addition, my wife has been teaching at the Westover program in IR. This year, I believe we have had four interns from the university at our nonprofit. We have roots at the university. I want to thank you because thanking you isn’t sufficient. We are committed to supporting you at the university. We are so happy that you are there and grateful that you are here today.
Now to my question. I’ve worked at Legacy International for four decades. It has been at the forefront of change across many areas in STEM education for women and entrepreneurship and social innovation and public health, etc. You can see that work online.
Here we are today at an inflection point in so many areas: environmentally, socially, politically, culturally. I have always felt that the focus must be on comprehensive, pluralistic education. A long view to changing entrenched attitudes and a lack of knowledge especially of “the other.” I know this is a big challenge at universities. Students tend to silo their interests. You have spoken about that. How are you encouraging your faculty and staff to address the pressing issues of this time whilst being aware of the need for balance and the political correctness that is always hanging over the head of the universities and faculty members?
I realize you’re from Scotland. I’m sure your view of education is from a different perspective. You have been speaking brilliantly about different perspectives, which I have fully embraced for the last four decades. Since we work on five continents, not only with international staff, but with a history of cross-cultural and international necessities, curriculum development, presentation of new ideas, acceptance, breaking down those silos is important. Tell me about your approach to this inflection point that we find ourselves in, both academically and socially.
Hugh: You have about a three-hour answer to do in five minutes. It’s a big question. Go ahead.
Allison: Thank you for the question. Yes, it’s great to hear the family connections. Of course, I know some of those.
It’s tough these days to make sure that you’re doing the right thing. The main thing about a liberal arts education is it comes from lots of different perspectives. A liberal arts education is not a series of courses to my mind. Liberal arts education is a way of teaching, helping people think through the difficult things that are happening. Making sure that we have comprehensive and courageous conversations. We have a fabulous leader at the university in Dr. Robert Canada, who is our VP for Inclusive Excellence. To be able to be nimble enough to say, “This is happening in the world today, so let’s talk about it today or tomorrow,” not “Let’s wait a month or two months or put it into our curriculum for next semester.” Universities have to be nimble. Any educational system has to be nimble if you are going to address social issues that occur.
The one thing about being a president is everybody wants you to comment on everything. That dilutes the message that you are trying to send. I mentioned before in a liberal arts education, everyone’s points of view need to be listened to. They need to be heard and synthesized into your beliefs, the data that you have. You have to have the conversation. It’s not a conversation with yourself; it’s a conversation with others. That conversation has to be respectful.
One thing I have done throughout my career is create environments where people can have respectful conversations and learn from each other. They can respectfully disagree with each other. They have to listen. They have to learn that ability to synthesize information that they may not agree with or have heard before and reflect on that and see how that affects them personally.
In our curriculum, interdisciplinarity is key. That is a wonderful thing about liberal arts. You really get to see an issue through multiple disciplinary perspectives. When you go to one class and are talking about the history of something, you go to another class, and you could be talking about the science of that same thing. It’s a rounded education. It’s not a siloed education.
At the University of Lynchburg, as you know, we really do react and discuss and interact with social issues at a pretty high level and at a great depth. That helps our students when they go into the community and have to see some of these social issues actually occurring. They are much more able to address it, react to it, and be appropriately involved in helping support move that social justice issue forward. We have amazing centers on our campus that allow anybody to find a passion and follow that again by coming together with people who may have different voices and different opinions but can respectfully listen and learn from them.
Hugh: Great answer. I am amazed by the work Legacy International is doing and has been doing. It’s a legacy that is important in our world. The work of nonprofits is more important today than ever before. We need to step forward. We can’t expect others to do it. We can’t expect the government to do everything. We can’t expect businesses to do things.
Forging ahead, looking at collaboration as public, private, corporate, nonprofit, education. This is an inspiration for me as a leader to branch out from what I am doing and think in new ways. You have been a strong influence on me today and I’m sure on others. Even though I have done this for a lifetime, I have learned things today.
It’s amazing that all your talking points are exactly what we teach here. It’s a good track to be on. Thank you for sharing today. What thought do you want to leave people with today?
Allison: As a leader, you need to work with people. We have talked about that. The University of Lynchburg is here to support and be with people, work alongside people to support the success of our community and our campus. I would love people to reach out to us. I would love to talk with more people and be immersed in the community even more. To my mind, we are all on this planet to help make sure that we are successful, that our community is successful, that others are successful. If you are thinking about nonprofit leadership, think about the impact that you can have and how you can sustain that impact. We are here to make a difference in the lives of others. If you can spend every day knowing that you are impacting other people’s lives positively, then you are having a very good day.
Hugh: Well spoken. An inspiration today. Thank you so much for being our guest today.
Allison: Thank you very much. It’s been a fabulous opportunity to meet you all. Thank you for the questions, and thank you again for inviting me.