How CSU Built One of the Most Diverse Cabinets in Higher Ed


How CSU Built One of the Most Diverse Cabinets in Higher Ed

Episode 81. November 23, 2021 .

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EAB’s Sally Amoruso talks with Colorado State University President Joyce McConnell about ways to drive greater diversity in higher education leadership. McConnell traces her own journey to becoming the first woman President at CSU and shares her thoughts on effective ways of recruiting and cultivating diverse talent.

Amoruso and McConnell also touch on the importance of building a culture of trust that empowers staff at all levels and from all backgrounds to speak openly, to listen, and to collaborate in ways that encourage the best ideas to rise based on merit.


We laid out a very inclusive process not only for recruitment externally, but hearing voices on campus. - Dr. Joyce McConnell




0:00:11.8 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to "Office Hours with EAB". We're fortunate to be joined today by Joyce McConnell, the first female president at Colorado State University. McConnell talks about her own journey to higher education leadership, and about the difficult, but ultimately rewarding process of creating one of the most diverse cabinets in a higher education during her first year at the helm, a process made even more complicated by the onset of a global pandemic. Thank you for listening and enjoy.


0:00:49.3 Sally Amoruso: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. This is Sally Amoruso. I'm a chief partner officer with EAB. And today I am joined by the president of Colorado State University and my dear friend, Joyce McConnell. Hi, Joyce.

0:01:02.8 Joyce McConnell: Hi, Sally. It's so great to be with you today.

0:01:06.5 SA: Oh, I'm thrilled that you're here. Joyce is the first woman president in CSU's long history, and I anticipate that our conversation today is gonna be fairly wide-ranging, but we are gonna spend the majority of our time learning about Joyce's efforts to drive greater diversity, equity and inclusion at CSU for thoughts on leadership and mentoring the next generation of leaders, as well as her own somewhat nontraditional journey to higher education leadership. But before we dive into all of that, I feel like every time I interview a university president these days, I have to start with a question about the current phase of the pandemic. So let's start there. Has campus life at CSU begun to normalize, at least to some extent this fall, and how's the team preparing for a possible winter spike in new cases in light of what we're seeing across the world, Joyce?

0:02:01.6 JM: I'm just delighted to say that we have resumed most of a normal residential campus experience, including football, which has been wonderful, and basketball and volleyball, but we did institute a vaccine mandate within Colorado law, which allows for three exemptions: Personal, medical, and religious. And we also have a mask requirement, and I want a comment on the mask requirement, because part of your question is, what are we doing to prepare for winter spike? And what we learned from our researchers last year is that when our students were masked, that there was no transmission in the classroom, and we were able to do that research through our contact tracers, and so we just had a few cases pop up after Halloween. And what we learned is they went unmasked to the small Halloween gatherings.

0:03:06.5 JM: And so what we've learned from our really important pandemic research is masks matter, and that's our most important tool. And then the other tool that we're using to try to eliminate any spikes is that those people who are not vaccinated, for whatever reason, we're asking them to test twice a week, and we have pods all over campus, so they're very convenient and people and just pop in and do a test and we do our own processing, so the results are very, very fast and then we're able to contain it. So I'm feeling very optimistic. We have almost 6000 students in our residents halls this fall. Last fall, during the peak of the pandemic without vaccination, we had 4500. So we've been through this drill and we succeeded and we're prepared to do it again.

0:04:02.8 SA: And are you finding the students are compliant because they still wanna be there on campus and for the campus life to continue?

0:04:11.0 JM: It's so amazing, Sally. The students are so happy to be back. The residential experience is really meaningful to them, that energy that they get from one another is so powerful, and I've gone to many events where the students are there and they're masked, and I ask them how are you doing, how's the semester going? And every one of them has said, "Thank you for bringing us back. This is so important. And we're having such a good time." In terms of education, the faculty said that they're experiencing the students as being much more curious and thirsty for knowledge than pre-pandemic. So fascinating.

0:04:57.2 SA: Well, they had a period of time where they really began to appreciate some of the things they probably took for granted in the past, and so bringing that lens probably brings a new energy, too. Let me shift you to the conversation for today, which is around DEI, and as we mentioned earlier, you were the first female president at CSU, and you have had a somewhat nontraditional journey working in higher ed. Can you walk us through your journey into the preparation that led you to this presidency?

0:05:31.6 JM: Well, thank you, Sally. I think the most important thing for me to say about my journey is that I had amazing mentors and sponsors. I've been very, very fortunate. What people ask me often though, were my sponsors and mentors women, and I am a law professor, and when I entered the profession as a law professor, there were not many female leaders in legal education. So the answer, when people ask me were my mentors and sponsors women, my answer is no. Mostly they were men. And I was very, very fortunate in building relationships where they saw things in me that I didn't see in myself, and they elevated me and supported me, and it's been quite a remarkable journey. But I did start out as an assistant professor on the tenure track at the City University of New York School of Law. And then I visited for a year at the University of Maryland after I received tenure at CUNY, and then I got recruited to come to West Virginia University where I then spent most of my higher education career. So I arrived there in '95. I became the president here in 2019 at Colorado State University.

0:06:55.5 JM: And while I was at West Virginia University, I first became the associate dean for academic affairs, and then we did a national search for dean, and I became the dean of the law school. And I did that for six years, and then when Gordon Gee became the president of West Virginia University, he asked me to be his provost. And funnily I told him no. I said, "Gordon, I don't wanna be your provost." [laughter] But he convinced me, and so I served as provost for five years, and then became the president at Colorado State University. But I'd like to tell this story about me becoming a president because it's a great story in higher education leadership. We had our living presidents at West Virginia University come and present on higher education leadership, and they all agreed in the course of the conversations they were having off the dais that I had been provost long enough and I should become a president, and they joined around me, it was really amazing, and they said, "We're gonna help you become a president," and I thought it would take a year or two if effort to find a presidency, and from the time they said that to the time I was made an offer at Colorado State was only about 90 days.

0:08:26.0 SA: Remarkable.

0:08:26.0 JM: So it's just an amazing story. The one thing I do wanna say, though, and as by way of advice is some of the advice they gave me and it was just so great was have a list of what you know that people are looking for for the next stage of your career. So for example, when I was gonna move from provost to president, before I had made that move, I asked Gordon, "What's missing from my portfolio? I asked other presidents what's missing?" And they said, "More budget, more budget information and skills, and making hard decisions and athletics," because I hadn't had that. So I very purposely sought opportunities out to learn in those spaces, and I think it made a really big difference.

0:09:20.4 SA: Joyce, I wanna go back to two things you said early in your comments. One is about the fact that you had many mentors and sponsors who were men, and I think that's a really important point when we're thinking about under-represented minorities or women who are in fields where perhaps there are not always people who look like them or who are of their gender in the ranks above them, and that men can be terrifically powerful and effective allies and mentors and sponsors. So I appreciate you bringing that up. The other is that you said your mentors and sponsors saw in you things that you didn't always see in yourself. Do you think that's important when you're thinking about cultivating and supporting talent, particularly diverse talent?

0:10:11.4 JM: Absolutely, Sally, I do believe it's very important. We often, when we are in supervisory positions, will see things, a spark of talent, a spark of interest, a curiosity, an ability to analyze something in a different way, and we should never ignore those. Those are like these telling moments, and we can seize on those and help people who might not otherwise even realize that that's a spark and really nurture that and use that to help them see themselves in a different way, in a different position. I think part of what's interesting in terms of diversity, and when you're in a profession where there isn't a lot of diversity, like I was in law teaching, it's so important for... Because our self-identity may not see ourselves in those roles. But if other people see us in those roles, that really matters, and over time, I think it builds confidence for people who may not have mentors that are just like them.

0:11:30.6 SA: That's right. And I think for minorities where you're feeling othered, really, you don't always see the possibilities as much as seeing the confirmation that you're othered you're not quite fitting into that next step. That's a huge point. I've seen you do that with talent all around you, supporting and identifying ways that they can expand and grow even in advance of them recognizing that. Let's talk about your early days at CSU. How did you think about building your team?

0:12:07.9 JM: It's such a great question. So the president of CSU who preceded me is now the chancellor of the CSU system, and of course, he wanted to bring the people who he valued on his team with him, and so when I moved into the position, there were gaps in the team, and so the first thing I had to think about was, how am I gonna fill those gaps? Now, I will say that it was made more complicated by the fact that the pandemic happened and we went fully remote only seven months after I started. So the whole idea of how do you build a team became a new world for me because I had to figure out how to build a team on Zoom and fill positions on Zoom, which is not something I would have ever imagined doing before, and we were so invested on campus in-person interviews. But in thinking about my team, I knew that I really wanted to surround myself, first of all, with people who were very diverse, because I really believe not just in diversity of identity, but I believe powerfully and diversity of skills, diversity of vision, diversity of whether you're a big thinker, a big vision thinker or an executor.

0:13:33.2 JM: I thought about all of those things, and I knew what I wanted to do was to build a talent pool that could actually work together in a very powerful way, and so I was looking for some very specific things, very specific for very specific roles. And here I am, 18 months later, and I have the most amazing team. And we love working together and we think of ourselves as the Dream Team in higher education.

0:14:07.4 SA: So tell the listeners about your team, and in particular draw out the intersectionality that you have as you've described the diversity across this team. So do a little bragging here. You deserve to do that.

0:14:22.3 JM: Okay, well, first of all, I brought two people with me from West Virginia, so I made that first initial decision of I needed to bring some support with me who could just jump right in and who had my voice and knew how to keep me on track, which is another conversation. [laughter] But it was very important to bring them. And they are both White women. And one of them is a parent and one of them is not, just to be talking broadly about diversity. One is older, one is very young. And so those are the only two people I brought. And then I started thinking about what do I need to fill? And I needed a vice president for marketing and communications, and I ended up hiring a woman who is an African American woman, who is also a lawyer, who also has spent a large part of her career in higher education, but not all of it. And so I got in that hire, I got incredible talent, an unusual background for marketing and communications, someone that I could really work with, and I also was able to bring some diversity to the team. It turned out to be very, very important. And then I also hired a woman who is also a lawyer, so one of the jokes for a while was that I only hire African American women who are lawyers, which is not true.


0:16:00.5 SA: It's a small pool for higher ed.

0:16:04.7 JM: But we do have three lawyers on my very close team. I'm one, obviously, and our Vice President for Strategy and our Vice President for Marketing and Communications. And that's been very helpful to us, I have to say. And part of that is just the way in which lawyers think and plan and do has helped us communicate with one another. But the Vice President for strategy actually came from the Office of the General Counsel at the University of Missouri system, which is fascinating because it gave her a perspective on a whole system, but a very different system. Each one of our people are from actually large universities, but different universities that I had experience with. So the provost came to us from Cal Poly, and she's phenomenal, and she actually is a scientist herself. And let me point that out in terms of diversity on my immediate team, because I have a JD and an LLM. No one in the immediate team has a PhD which is somewhat unusual.

0:17:18.2 SA: Unusual.

0:17:18.3 JM: For higher education. But the provost, obviously, has a PhD and our vice provost have PhDs. And what's interesting is that team and how she formed that team. But she's older, she's had a tremendous amount of experience in the academic space, and one of the reasons I wanted her is I'm not a scientist, but she is, so it gave us that balance on the team, and she's a really good executor. Because she spent so much time doing hard science research, she's extremely methodical about how she approaches things, and I am not. [chuckle] And so we have just built... So it's racially diverse. It's diverse in terms of gender. If I go one more ring out, in terms of my vice presidents, we have a diversity of training, a diversity of thought, diversity of institutions. So pulling all of that together means that we're really fresh. I just feel like we're constantly moving, we have great ideas, and then we have people who can actually execute.

0:18:41.0 SA: How did you manage to assemble this amazing team, also preserving the objective around diversity, when we hear so much grumbling about how hard it is to create and cultivate diversity across the university?

0:18:57.6 JM: It's such a great question. We were very, very careful about choosing search firms, and we actually were very intentional about what we asked the search firms to respond to, in our RFP process, and we laid out a very inclusive process, not only for recruitment, on the external link, but hearing voices on campus. So that the formation of ideas about what kind of skills and energy and vision we needed from our candidates, was coming both from the firm itself, from the questions we asked, and then the process that we asked them to use on campus. We used a very inclusive process, which I think made a huge difference. And I also wanna say that the search firms, once they responded to the RFPs that we selected them, and they knew how serious we were about building a diverse pool, we had a wonderful collaborative process, with the search firms, and we just kept building diversity in the pool.

0:20:09.8 JM: And sometimes that means you have to be willing to look at candidates maybe who had a different path, and I am willing to do that because I had a very different path into the presidency. And I find that where people may not have been as linear in their choices, but may have taken more of risks along the way in their own journey, that those are people that are gonna bring something to the table, that they're gonna be resilient, that they're gonna be visionary, that they're gonna be risk-takers. And all of that builds, I think, a very important... It allows you to step into a pool and see the diversity and the breadth of skills and know that you want it.

0:20:58.8 SA: So you said that the conversations are now fresh. I would love for you to just share with any observations you have on what this diversity has brought to the team, how you see that enriching the conversation, but also, as the president, are their responsibilities that are incumbent upon you in leading a diverse team, that may be instructive, as well?

0:21:26.2 JM: The first thing that I really had to do and I really meant it was, I had to let people know that I was actually really serious about hearing from them, no matter what they were thinking, no matter, and that they had to tell me the truth, that they had to be truth-tellers, and that they couldn't let hierarchy and the fact that I was the president stop them from telling me what I needed to hear. That's hard, that's hard for a team to get to that point, and that's part of what I mean about freshness is, we have gotten to the point where they'll tell me, "You're really off base here." And I feel bad for any leaders who aren't surrounded by that, because I grow every day and I make better decisions from that. So that was the first thing I did. The second thing was, I really focused on the culture of the team and started really doing some culture work around how do we talk to one another, how do we engage with one another, how do we have fun together, how do we not judge one another's ideas? But rather stay open to curiosity, and learning to ask questions of one another that are not judgmental questions, but questions that are giving someone an opening to tell more.

0:22:55.1 JM: We also worked on empathy and confidentiality. We had to work on making sure that everybody understood what that is. And now, with my operations team, which is all of my vice presidents, we have at the end of every meeting what we call cascading communications, and we review what communications can leave the room. What communication should leave the room, and that we're responsible for educating others and what are things that can't leave the room because we're not ready, and that's been a very powerful tool for all of us. So those are some of the things I did. I think that when I say fresh, Sally, part of what I am talking about is the kind of synergy that comes from great minds and great hearts. And in terms of the diversity space, what I would say has made a huge difference, is we have a lot of diversity at the table. And so conversations about diversity and equity and inclusion and belonging are not one-off specific conversations. They're in every conversation, they're in every conversation of, “Who does this impact? How does it impact them? How can we mitigate that impact? How can we make the impact better? Can we make different choices?” But we're always testing against, “Who is it good for and who is it harming?”

0:24:31.0 SA: That's so interesting. I've been having some conversations about how representation is different than inclusivity, even diversity, but, what you've talked about is how representation across the leadership team can lead to more diversity-sensitive conversations and considerations around decisions which makes complete sense.

0:24:55.2 JM: I think having them as factors that you check against is actually really helpful because it means that, like I said, you're not having one-off conversations, it's part of the thread of everything you do.

0:25:11.2 SA: How did you create the psychological safety, which is the first element that you talked about? You wanna hear from people, you wanna hear their honest opinion, and that sounds all well and good, but you are the president and people are often reticent to bring views to the table that may be unpopular. So how did you move from saying that to actually creating the culture that allowed for that?

0:25:38.3 JM: I think working on the culture change with the group was very important. Also creating safe space myself. So I have to be very careful about how I respond to anything in the moment. The idea of the shadow of the leader, the shadow gets past whether you want it to or not. And so thinking about, for example, how do I approach people when I need something? How do I ask for help? How do I say this isn't what I wanted when somebody delivers something to me, but help them understand what I do want. I try to always, even when I'm making really hard decisions, and I've made a lot of them since I've been here. I always try to pause and think about the human being and still make the decision I'm making and even deliver hard news. But never let go that they have a heart and experience and a context and they might be in pain and being able to bring empathy and respect their dignity. I think makes a huge difference even when you're delivering really hard news.

0:27:02.2 SA: You've always been such an active mentor and have just the longer view on leadership continuity. Can you share your personal views on mentoring and how you've established an environment for that kind of leadership succession as CSU?

0:27:19.0 JM: Absolutely. I would reflect back on my experience of leadership succession at WVU, because the previous provost had actually started a women's leadership mentoring program, and started with a small cohort. I think there were about 15 of us, selected leaders around campus, and we trained in a certain methodology of leadership mentoring. And then each one of us then took a pod and then we trained those people who were in those pods. We ended up having quite a pyramid of leadership, which allowed us to really begin to see a succession plan, and how we could actually literally move people through ladders in the university. And I've taken that and I've adopted it for Colorado State University. I should say that that mentoring group at WVU started because of an NSF ADVANCE grant. And so if you think about the significance of what NSF has been able to do, developing leadership, with ADVANCE grants is incredible.

0:28:35.5 JM: So when I got to CSU, we didn't have one, and so I got a team of people together, and they worked really hard, and we now have one. We are working on leadership training, culture change, we're identifying leaders deep into the organization, and figuring out how to move them up and around and give them a better view of what it means to operate a university that is a very complex and large organization or enterprise, I like to call it. And so one of the things we did recently, Sally, and it was so exciting, is we actually dug all the way down to the department heads. So we had about 300 people, on a zoom call, in which we just went through basic issues that a university faces in terms of governance and budget, just as a way of reaching really deep into showing people the big picture, not just their little piece. And it helped. We got such powerful feedback from that.

0:29:47.0 SA: Beautiful, that's wonderful, really paying it forward. And in a conclusion, I would love for you to speak to some of our listeners who are thinking, "How do I build that kind of diversity? How can I advance inclusivity and inclusive excellence across my team?" Any pieces of advice that you would have for our listeners and university leaders?

0:30:13.6 JM: Well, I do think it's very important to create relationships of trust. I think building a basis of trust means that you're not just going to initially build some diversity, but you're gonna be able to sustain it, and what we don't talk enough about sustaining the diversity that we create. I think that's really, really critical. I think always being very intentional matters, so always looking at who's at the table and really thinking about all of the different factors that go into making a diverse and inclusive group of people, and understanding that sometimes because we come from different experiences and different identities, that sometimes we have to give people grace. Grace is something that helps us build trust and I believe in really creating a culture where people are truly listening, not just the, "Oh yeah, yeah, I hear you." But truly listening and, again, not judging, but trying to understand by asking questions, and being more curious. I also think we need to think about identities in a more intersectional ways. So for example, my provost is from a large institution, Cal Poly. She's a scientist. I am not, as I said earlier. But she's also first-generation college student. I was not.

0:32:05.3 JM: My experience comes from my parents who were first generation. I think having people on my team who may not have grown up with a lot of money, may not have grown up with families with elite credentials, people who went to different kinds of educational institutions, so they can bring that experience is really important. One of our vice presidents comes from an HBCU, where she worked for a number of years. So having that HBCU perspective is really important. So the intersectionality of identities, I think is really, really important. And it's really important not to look at a person as only that identity, but to think about all of the humanity embodied in that one person, all of the experience, all of the difference, all of the distinction. And when you think of people like that, it's much richer, and I appreciate that richness.

0:33:16.6 SA: Well, we celebrate your team of amazing leaders and all of their diversity and intersectionality and experiences, and we look forward to taking some of your insights and wisdom forward, and thank you for being here and sharing that with us.

0:33:36.4 JM: It's been so much fun, Sally. I love talking with you.

0:33:41.8 SA: Thank you.


0:33:50.4 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we host a conversation about racial healing and the importance of addressing institutional legacies marked by racial oppression. You won't wanna miss it. Until then, thank you for your time.

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