Chapter 6: Guiding Cycles of Transformational Innovation

by Pamela R. Fox, Ph.D.

Posted on January 31, 2018

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Founded in 1842, Mary Baldwin University (MBU) celebrated its 175th anniversary in academic year 2016-17. It was a year of celebration and reflection upon our deep foundation. It was also a year of metamorphosis, culminating eight years of significant changes following the 2008 global economic recession.

Over this period, Mary Baldwin built a new branch campus, housing new doctoral programs in physical and occupational therapy, physician assistant studies, and online programs in RN-BSN and the Master of Health Care Administration degrees. The institution's overall academic structure was reorganized under a four-college model with a Provost and accompanying governance changes. Our adult and distance programs were brought fully online. New graduate programs, including an MBA focusing on sustainable business, and new undergraduate majors launched. We established a mutually beneficial partnership with the Heifetz International Music Institute and strengthened other ties, including our graduate program, in collaboration with the American Shakespeare Center. The creation of the Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement brought our mission of empowering leaders to pursue lives of purpose in a changing world to the forefront of our year-long celebration through 175 acts of significant service. An $80 million dollar campaign funded many of these innovations. Thus, our 175th anniversary celebration opened on August 31, 2016 with our official change from college to university status, appropriately reflecting the institution's growth and evolution.

Innovation, both in the disruptive and sustaining senses of the word, is part of the Mary Baldwin University DNA. Throughout our history, we have been and remain tuition-dependent with a modest endowment and limited reserves. Like many other similar institutions, MBU is subject to shifting external trends in the economy and higher education and has experienced continuous cycles of alternating confidence and challenge. Innovation has been our consistent response to these structural and cyclical challenges—not the occasional concession to challenging circumstances.

Innovation has been our consistent response to these structural and cyclical challenges—not the occasional concession to challenging circumstances.  

Each innovation has extended our mission to new markets of students, diversified the financial ecosystem, and resulted in renewed competitive advantage and creative relevancy. Throughout, we have remained committed to access and affordability for women and men of promise to exceed their expectations. This was embodied in Mary Julia Baldwin herself, who was the first student in the Augusta Female Seminary in 1842. A shy orphan with a facial deformity, she graduated in four years and returned in 1861 as the principal—turning a failing school during the Civil War into a thriving seminary renamed for her in 1897. Mary Julia imprinted our institutional identity with the foresight and courage to seize possibilities and to continually evolve.

This spirit drove the seminary to become a four-year liberal arts college in 1923 and later fueled a succession of changes beginning in the 1970s: the campus doubled in size; we started the first adult degree program in Virginia in 1977; a program of radical acceleration for girls as young as 13 launched through the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted in 1985; the first graduate program in education opened in 1992; in 1995 the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership welcomed its first students as the only all-female military cadet corps in the United States; and a far-reaching effort to build a diverse and inclusive student body through creative programming and recruiting in the late 1990s helped create a residential campus that is currently more than 50% students of color.

This cycle of innovations was largely additive, meaning that signature programs were designed to bring new cohorts of students, which functioned successfully to grow revenue and enrollment above the base of the core College for Women. Following the 2008 global recession, however, the women's college core was experiencing decline in net revenue and facing mounting obstacles in recruiting from the diminishing pool of women interested in single-gender education. The financial chemistry required rebalancing, and a multi-faceted plan for growing enrollment to 2,500 students was launched with the goals of breaking the cycles of volatility and positioning MBU for a sustained and stable future. In short, the Board and the administration resolved to embark upon an extended period of transformational innovation. Additionally, under-enrolled undergraduate majors were consolidated or eliminated.

This cycle of innovations was largely additive, meaning that signature programs were designed to bring new cohorts of students, which functioned successfully to grow revenue and enrollment.  

Two major new directions emerged and are now in place: the creation of a new campus to house a new College of Health Sciences, and the opening of the main campus to residential men and a coeducational environment.

Navigating this process of transformation required our internal culture to fully comprehend the urgency and necessity of simultaneous layers of far-reaching changes. It demanded a fragile balance of listening, planning, and acting to sustain the transformation through a period of questioning the need for change by many on our campus and in our alumni community. It required changes at the executive leadership level and within the Board to embrace new talent and perspectives from outside higher education. A distributed model of leadership and cross-functional teams versus isolated units and departments enabled a focus on processes and new ways of doing things. All aspects of the organizational architecture evolved, including new models of faculty contracts and blended teaching loads across in-seat and online instruction.

As I survey how far the institution has traveled in a relatively short time, I have the deepest and most profound respect and admiration for the dedicated community of Mary Baldwin.

Creating the way forward was anchored in this approach:

  • The Board endorsed guiding principles and transformational criteria for each major initiative. The guiding principles and criteria were informed by external scans, internal data, integrated financial planning models, and market research.
  • Collaborative working teams of trustees, alumni, administration, faculty, staff, and community members were formed to advanced iterative phases of feasibility. Each stage of feasibility research addressed key challenges and risks.
  • Board approval was granted only when feasibility demonstrated compelling evidence that the new initiative would succeed and requisite funding was committed.

As a signature example, the process toward creating the Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences began in February of 2011. The first students entered the new campus on June 14, 2014. The following eight transformational criteria grounded the whole process. We determined that all new programs must:

  • Enhance our distinctiveness and complement the mission of Mary Baldwin University
  • Bring a new market of students to the University
  • Enhance the position of the undergraduate program
  • Generate significant net revenue for the institution
  • Be initially funded by donor-backed investments
  • Generate a new donor pool, revitalize our alumni donor base, and assist in the funding of campaign priorities
  • Incorporate community programmatic partnerships
  • Leverage business development opportunities and promote regional economic development

When the first graduates of the professional programs crossed the commencement stage in May 2017, all the criteria had been met or exceeded. The initial lead gift of $15 million generated not only other significant gifts, but extensive community support through Augusta County, the regional hospital Augusta Health, and an outside developer who built a large residential apartment village adjacent to the new campus. Tuition revenue from the new programs is nearly $10 million this fiscal year. Synergies with our online program and in attracting new men and women to the residential programs are supporting enrollment growth. The region is particularly proud of the fact that our new 30-acre campus, which was situated on a gravel road in late 2011, is now the aperture with the hospital directly across the street to a new business corridor and a $17-million publicly funded connecting road joining two main routes and interstates.

The current period of putting into place a vibrant coeducational campus is a work-in-progress.  

The Board continues to utilize this approach to our ongoing transformation. The current period of putting into place a vibrant coeducational campus is a work-in-progress. This fall, MBU welcomed a small number of pioneering residential men to our coed University College that functions as a complement to the ongoing Mary Baldwin College for Women. While the College of Health Sciences is no doubt of transformational scale, the difficult but necessary decision to admit residential men after 175 years is more disruptive to our broad community, especially our loyal alumni who are understandably passionate about the values and education they gained from the College for Women. The horizon of transformation is also longer for such a major shift, as our new cycle of planning looks toward 2025.

In conclusion, Mary Baldwin University has faced head-on many times the need to evolve through additive or transformative innovations. In the recent cycle, it has been essential to utilize a consistent approach to managing layers of simultaneous change through our process of Board-established guiding principles and criteria and collaborative engagement in multi-stage feasibility studies.

It has been essential to utilize a consistent approach to managing layers of simultaneous change.  

In creating a small, distinctive coeducational university for the 21st century, we have put into place structures that serve pre-high school students (both online and in residence), coed residential students, online students and working adults through degree completion and certificate programs, and graduate students through post-baccalaureate certificates and doctoral programs. The synergy is a key differentiator for Mary Baldwin University. Residential students may accelerate their time to degree and reduce debt by taking online courses in the summer or by studying one semester online while working, thus accommodating the personalized path with some unpredictability and swirl from within our constellation of programs and delivery options. Students pursue four and five-year master's degrees by moving through their undergraduate coursework seamlessly into our professional graduate programs.

We are complex for a small university, but still dynamic and agile. As we look out to our bicentennial celebration, we aspire to continue to offer transformational opportunities to the most diverse spectrum of students through outstanding career and life outcomes.