Otterbein University realizes its potential by reaffirming core values

 

The second year of Kathy A. Krendl’s presidency, Otterbein University moved from quarters to semesters, and she kept hearing about the pain of new curriculum preparation.

“I decided I would be part of the pain and teach one of our first-year seminars,” Krendl says. “So I teach a first-year seminar on women in leadership. The first-year seminars are all thematically based. We have the same leadership objectives, but we layer on top of it curriculum content.”

Krendl started as a high school English teacher and has continued to teach, even as a college administrator.

At Otterbein, she’s used her seminar to expand the university’s footprint and commitment to women, which is particularly relevant at a school where the first two graduates were women and where Krendl is the first women president.

Six years later, she’s still teaching the Women in Leadership course at least once a year.

“There are not many presidents that teach on a regular basis, but it keeps me plugged in,” she says. “It’s been awhile since I was 18 years old and left home for college. It keeps me grounded in terms of what this is all about.”

Krendl hasn’t been afraid to step in and lead the university in new directions, to help it stay relevant for higher education. Just like she wasn’t afraid to step in, teach a class and experience the pain of curriculum preparation.

Here’s how Otterbein — which has annual revenue of $66 million and more than 300 faculty and staff — is recommitting to its core values.

A foundation for the future

When Krendl came on board, the recession was in full swing and costs were significant.

The affordability of higher education was in question across the country. The 18- to 22-year-old population was in decline. Fewer students were academically prepared for a college education.

It was time for a fresh look.

“We had been very dependent on 18- to 22-year-old students from the immediate region,” Krendl says. “That was not going to be a viable future for us. Everybody wanted to come to Central Ohio and recruit those students, who were well prepared and coming from strong school systems.”

Otterbein needed to diversify its population and create more support structures for its students. Instead of just focusing on undergraduate education, there was untapped potential in the graduate and professional studies areas.

“It was something that we needed to address in terms of building on our foundation for the future,” she says.

The current strategic plan was almost done, so Krendl says it was time to hit the restart button.

“Many institutions are repositioning from a defensive mode,” she says. “We’re trying to do it from a vision perspective and realize what we consider to be our potential.”

In order to reposition itself, Otterbein had to first build a foundation with vision and mission statements. Then, the university’s leadership was able to create a new strategic plan, master plan, academic plan and enrollment plan.

Krendl says it took a long time and a lot of discussions to lay that foundation of mission and vision. You can’t expect it to be an overnight project.

“I went from department to department here. I talked at senate. I talked with our alumni council. I talked with alumni at events. I talked with the board repeatedly. I talked with community members,” she says. “We really did a very thorough job of getting the voices included in the conversation.”

Influences from the past

As an outsider, Krendl was fascinated by Otterbein’s history. So, she spent time trying to understand the core and heart of the institution.

She found examples of inclusion and innovation. Otterbein was one of the first institutions founded with equal graduation requirements for men and women. African-American students were admitted prior to the Civil War, and Japanese students came from the internment camps during World War II.

But as a college of opportunity, what did that mean for the 21st century? Access and affordability.

There has always been a focus on experiential learning. The first firemen in Westerville were Otterbein students. In today’s world, experiential learning is done through internships and partnerships with the community and corporations.

“Getting in touch with the core make-up, profile and history of the institution, and determining how that translates into a contemporary context was critical to our ability to move forward,” she says.

Otterbein’s progressive and innovative history helped her reconsider the organization’s major strengths. And that’s also why every new employee’s on-boarding process now includes talking about those core values, and the university’s vision, mission and history.

“I knew that higher education was facing some significant challenges, and it made a lot of sense to me to look back at the past innovations and how we thought about positioning the institution,” she says.

Terms like branding and marketing didn’t exist then, but you can find examples of core values and what they thought was important. By resonating with Otterbein’s history, Krendl says they were able to re-embrace and reaffirm what they stood for as they went forward.

Identifying priorities

As you strategically plan for the future, Krendl recommends a triangulation process.

First, look to your strengths. What fits in your vision and mission? Where do you have existing organizational strengths, an established reputation and unused capacity?

Then seek out opportunities. In the case of Otterbein, she says most of its graduates want to stay in Ohio, and many want to remain in Central Ohio.

So, in order to identify areas of opportunity and determine how students can have successful careers here, Krendl spoke with employers, potential supporters, the city of Westerville and area school systems. The university’s MBA program routinely does research projects for nonprofits and for-profits, so she spoke with that group about the challenges they face.

Only then should you consider the competition to ensure you’re not duplicating what exists.

“We have a number of well-established higher education institutions in the region and we don’t want to duplicate,” Krendl says. “We want to create something that’s unique to Otterbein.”

Following that process enabled the university to come up with innovative ideas that met real needs, because like so many other areas of business — timing is everything.

For example, one of Otterbein’s assets was a 60,000-square-foot warehouse used for storage, swing space and rentals.

This facility will become a regional economic development hub that incorporates science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics programs. Business partners, regional and city officials and area high schools will have a presence in the Innovation Center, too.

Throughout a strategic planning process, you must also be willing to admit when you’re wrong, Krendl says, because you’re going to make mistakes.

“Don’t be afraid to make the mistakes. But just realize it as early as possible, and make whatever adjustments are necessary,” she says.

Something that aided Otterbein was a dashboard that lets the university’s leadership see if the institution is reaching its goals.

“One of the things we learned was we weren’t investing enough money in enrollment management, so we started doing some things differently,” Krendl says. “Buying some new tools. Hiring some help to help us figure out how to realign our financial aid packages.”

So, seek help where you need it and where you don’t have the in-house expertise.

A process built for buy-in

It’s not easy to make changes, but it’s a lot easier when you use the whole community to help — whether that’s an internal community or outside stakeholders.

In order to identify priorities and get buy-in along the way, Otterbein has a unique grass-roots model.

A new idea can come from anywhere, but then it goes to the faculty’s curriculum committee. Once the committee signs off, the idea goes before the University Senate.

This recommending body is able to vote on new programs and investments. It has an equal number of faculty and students, as well as representatives from administration and the support staff.

“It works from the bottom up, so the proposals come through the curriculum committee to the senate itself, and then from the senate to me, and from me to the board,” Krendl says.

Everybody is educated on Otterbein’s opportunities and strengths regularly, which creates a conversation.

“I’ve been at several institutions and I’ve never seen a process that is so community based and has so many voices at the table in the decision-making process,” she says. “That really strengthens our opportunities for success, because you do have that buy-in from everybody who has been participating in the process.”

Even though it adds layers, the school is still fairly nimble. A new systems engineering program was approved within one year after the idea was first proposed.

The people involved are sensitive to deadlines, because they know higher education has to move quickly. But they don’t want to cut corners in the process, she says.

“There is, with each of these initiatives, a very concerted effort to have conversations upfront, to provide the data, to provide the answers to the potential of a new program,” Krendl says. “It’s a pretty serious process and it’s worked well for us.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Shepherd in change with a mission and vision tied to your core values.
  • Identify priorities by focusing on strengths and opportunities.
  • A community decision-making process creates buy-in.

 

The Krendl File:

Name: Kathy A. Krendl, Ph.D.
Title: President
Company: Otterbein University

Born: Spencerville, Ohio
Education: Bachelor’s in English literature from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; masters in journalism from The Ohio State University; doctorate in communication from University of Michigan.

I taught at Ohio State when I was writing my dissertation at Michigan, so it was an interesting year.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I had five siblings and we operated a product market from our farm. That’s the way we all worked our way through college.

I learned teamwork, because we were all paying for each other’s college educations. I was fourth in line, so we put my brother through school first and then two sisters and then me.

My job was driving tractor, and we all had different jobs. It was not something that any one of us could have done on our own, but it was something that we learned to rely on each other’s skills, talents and determination to get each other through college.

What is the best business advice you ever received? I guess I would go back to that farm lesson. Build a strong team and work together, work in collaboration with one another. Support each other’s strengths and hold each other accountable.

If you weren’t a university president, is there another job that you’d like to try? I love teaching. I have always loved teaching, which is why I have never given it up.

I suppose I would go back to teaching. Some of my high school students have gone on to do amazing things. It’s watching that potential. It’s seeing kids light up. It’s seeing them realize what they have the ability to do.