David Greene, Colby College’s President, on Planning for a Strong Future During Uncertainty

by Suzanne Battit

Posted September 10, 2021

In this month’s At the Helmour Senior Vice President Suzanne Battit sat down with David Greene, the President of Colby College, to discuss his approach to leadership throughout COVID, the college’s commitment to equity, access, and their local community, and what’s top of mind for him as higher education institutions navigate the uncertainties of a new school year.

Suzanne: You’ve had an illustrious career in higher education, holding senior roles at University of Chicago, Brown University, and Smith College. What drew you to Colby? And what has led you to commit to another several years?

David: I felt that the reasons to join Colby were really clear. First, it was a terrific place: incredibly well-run and managed, with strong governance and great faculty. But at the same time, it was a place that wanted to be better. That was important to me. I didn’t want to join an institution that was complacent because that wouldn’t align with how I wanted to approach being president. Colby was ambitious, and that attracted me.

The second piece was that Colby was a place where I could really live my values and do so in a way that I hoped would be beneficial to the college as a whole. I wanted a place that cared deeply about equity and access and was committed to continually working on and improving those efforts. I also wanted a place that was willing to experiment and try new things. And lastly, I wanted a place that believed in the virtue of a liberal arts education and its ability to connect to the surrounding community and broader world.

With every new job, there are surprises – some good and some not. But I’ve found so many wonderful surprises at Colby. The greatest one has been how extraordinary the Colby community is. My wife Carolyn and I say this all the time; we have never been in a place where we have met so many people that we would want to be friends with and that we care so deeply about. It’s a rare privilege.

Being part of this community and holding the role of president – it’s incredibly rewarding, interesting, exciting and challenging. That’s why I joined 7 years ago and that’s why I’ll be here for the next 9.

As we enter a new school year, what’s top of mind for you?

It’s a great question. When I met with my senior team the other day, I told them that we’re entering this year from a position of extraordinary strength. Colby has never been stronger in terms of its academic programs, faculty, students, staff, finances, or senior team. We’re in a great position now – and poised for growth into our future.

Last year was the hardest year that most of us in higher education have ever faced. And we came through it exceptionally well. We had an outstanding incoming class with the highest enrollment we’ve ever had, and we kept all of our students on campus for the full year, with the majority of our classes being taught in person. We demonstrated the ability to prioritize safety while also providing an exceptional education in the middle of a pandemic. It was an enormous undertaking. But what’s even more impressive to me is that we accomplished this while still looking to our future and considering how we needed to invest and change for long-term success. Addressing the challenges of the day to day, while also ensuring the strength of Colby for the 5, 10, 25, 50+ years to come – that was our constant focus.

So, when I look at the year ahead, I know we will continue that work—ensuring every day that our students have an unbelievable experience, that we’re a great employer, that we’re a strong partner to our local community, and that at the same time we’re making investments for the college that will bring success long after all of us are gone. That’s our most solemn obligation to the institution. It takes innovation, creativity, and perseverance – and we’re fortunate to have a team so committed to that.

There’s an extra bonus in this year too. The takeaway from last year that was most powerful to me was that no one took the small things for granted – we learned so much about how the little things in life matter most. For example, when I saw my parents for the first time after not seeing them for a year and a half, it was an amazing moment. Things that once felt routine became extraordinary in our lives. I think our community would do well to remember that – to not take each other or our access to education for granted.

As you just mentioned, during COVID, Colby was truly a leader in its commitment to keep students on campus. What did that decision and experience teach you about leadership? In what ways did it impact or alter your approach?

More than anything, I think it was a values-driven exercise for us. It was clarifying in helping us recognize who we are as an institution and what matters to us. We had to—in a moment of utter fog as COVID hit—decide what was going to guide us when there was not yet a light at the end of the tunnel to provide direction. So, we decided to be guided by a set of principles: safety was number one, the strength of our education was number two, and the other experiences that enrich the education we provide was number three. We decided to do everything in our power to prioritize those principles, and to do right by everyone in our community. That meant, while other places were cutting salaries and benefits or laying off staff, we didn’t. When there was no work our food service workers because the campus was essentially empty, we kept them on full pay and asked them to help serve food to members of our local community instead. When we couldn’t have our facilities team and grounds people all working together because they would be in too close of proximity, we decided to have a staggered workforce where they only worked 20 hours a week, but we continued to pay them for 40. It was about taking care of each other every step of the way.

For me, COVID reinforced the notion that leadership means thinking deeply about who we are and what obligations we hold to our community, on campus and beyond. This approach helped us cut through all of the noise and make decisions with confidence. It also helped us not rush decisions. Not that it was always easy – there was so much anxiety and high demand from people to hear from us about what we were going to do. But to be able to clearly define our priorities and say we’re going to hold off on decision making until we can ensure we can achieve what we need to in the way that we need to – that really grounded us.

You touched a few times on the importance of community, which leads to my next question. Colby has invested heavily in revitalizing downtown Waterville. Can you talk about the importance of this endeavor?

Waterville and Colby have a great history. Back in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, Colby had outgrown its campus that was originally built in the early 1800s, so Waterville residents helped the college buy the land that it sits on now. Then, throughout the twentieth century, Colby was able to build an entirely new, beautiful campus that we still benefit from today. At the same time, Waterville began to struggle because it was a mill town, and the economy was changing. So, for me, it was payback time – we owed it to the city to help.

In 2015 twenty-five members of the Waterville community came together—city leaders, elected officials business leaders, Colby staff—to create a plan for revitalizing the city and creating a vibrant new economy. It’s a plan we have been carrying out over the last several years, and the change we’re seeing is extraordinary. We have about $175M being invested into a four-block area of downtown – it’s a level of investment that this city has never seen before. This investment includes two new art centers, a hotel, multiple new restaurants and retail spaces, and new businesses settling here. We’ve placed 200 students in a brand-new apartment complex downtown, and they’re all working as part of a civic engagement program. There’s a comprehensive infrastructure improvement initiative taking place throughout the city. And now there are all sorts of private investments being made, in addition to the government’s investment, which are supporting new housing– workforce and market rate housing. The population, tax base, and property values are all increasing. We’re seeing a complete change.

Our commitment to Waterville is deep and it’s a partnership we have to sustain. As I see it, it’s about how we can continuously ensure the strength of the city. And of course, Waterville’s strength benefits Colby, but more importantly, it benefits all the city’s citizens. It’s been a source of great pride for folks, who are starting to feel their city come back to life.

Another core aspect of your plan for Colby has been a deepened commitment to DEI, as well as expanding Colby’s global focus. How have you prioritized these efforts?

There’s so much work to do, but we’ve made great strides. Bloomberg Philanthropies recently came out with a report about the top colleges and universities in terms of Pell grant recipients, and Colby was #2 on that list for its growth rate in improving access to low-income students. There’s been a more than 50% increase in the number of students of color at Colby. Furthermore, when you look at geographic diversity, while historically the majority of our applications came from the northeast, California is now the second top producer of applicants for us, and Texas is usually within the top 5. So, the makeup of our school is really changing for the better. And that extends to our global reach as well. Tonight, I’m speaking to our international student arrivals, who are coming from places like Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, etc. – these students are coming from such a wide variety of countries and are representing the breadth of the world in really exciting ways.

We’re focused too on the diversification of our faculty. We’ve hired a number of women faculty in fields where they have long been underrepresented, such as mathematics, geology, and economics to name a few. For the first time in Colby’s history, we have gender parity among our faculty. That’s been really important to us.

But of course, it has to go beyond representational diversity – which is important but not enough. We’re always thinking about access, too: How can we guarantee that all members of our community have equal access to all Colby has to offer? Our DavisConnects program ensures all our students have access to funded internships, research experiences, global experiences beyond study abroad, etc. We’re also updating our campus to make every building accessible. Ultimately, to make real progress with DEI, you need that multi-faceted approach.

Earlier in our conversation, you talked about the strength of Colby’s team. When you first arrived at Colby, I remember watching you do an extraordinary job of building your senior team and placing staff members in roles that you thought were right for them. Not to mention, you also helped launch two first-time college presidents. How do you think about growing and managing talent?

At institutions like Colby, everything relies on having talented leaders who share a vision and are willing to do extraordinary things to make that vision come to life. And I’m really proud to say we have that.

I think a core part of my approach to talent management has been to place people in roles that they didn’t necessarily think of for themselves. If you see that someone has extraordinary leadership skills, you want to be able to use them in ways that are going to be most effective. So, I’ve often positioned people in roles that might be outside of their comfort zones, and that’s worked beautifully. It’s stretched them because they have to learn to become expert at something new, and it’s given them the opportunity to change some of their behaviors to become better leaders over time. For instance, Mike Wisecup is our Vice President and Director of Athletics. But initially, he came to Colby because he had had a really incredible career as a Navy Seal, and I asked him to come work with us because I thought we could learn from each other. Ultimately, his contributions were so strong that I told him I wanted him to stay and that I would find the right spot for him. That’s how he ended up in the role he has now, and he’s been amazing.

I apply this approach to current staff as well. Every year, I change the obligations of our senior staff members – both because I believe it helps them learn and grow as leaders, but also because I think it improves the dynamic of our team. I don’t want us to ever feel static. I want our staff, whether they’ve been here for 30 years or just joined us 3 months ago, to feel like they are experiencing new challenges on a regular basis. That brings out the best in people; it shows them what they’re capable of, and it builds their confidence. It’s helped us attract a very diverse leadership team over time, and it’s given me the joy of watching people blossom, grow, and become extraordinary in their work.

I can imagine how rewarding that’s been – and clearly, it’s produced tremendous results on a number of fronts, including with the Dare Northward campaign. Beyond talent, what else do you think has contributed to Colby’s philanthropic achievements?

We began with a really clear plan and set of priorities for our community to understand and get behind. Being able to communicate the reason for the campaign, the difference it’ll make, how it will enrich the education of our students – that’s been critical. Additionally, we have an unbelievable group of donors who care about Colby and want to see it at its best.

I think of philanthropy as a very personal act. Sometimes, philanthropy can be transactional, but 90% of the time it isn’t. So for me, that work of connecting with people on a deeper level and understanding what matters to them, how they want to make a difference, the role they want to play – it’s an unbelievable gift to have those conversations with people. It’s a moment of true generosity – not just in terms of financial generosity, but in their willingness to open their hearts to you. When we talk about being donor-centric, it’s not about having donors drive our priorities; it’s about understanding what our donors care about and what’s central to who they are and then aligning that with the needs of the college. And if we can do that, then we’ll all feel great.

It’s funny, I always think campaigns are dead and I’m always wrong. There’s something about a campaign’s ability to focus the needs of a community and connect people in a defined period that has unbelievable power. We just passed the $625M mark on June 30th, and we’re on track to exceed our $750M goal over the next two years. It will be the largest campaign ever not only for Colby but for any liberal arts college in America.

Do you have any closing thoughts or words of advice for our readers?

I think it’s been a very trying time for higher education. If you spoke to me six weeks ago, I would’ve said optimism is at an all-time high. But now, with the Delta variant, people aren’t feeling quite as hopeful. We’re all trying to navigate what it means for the new school year, but what’s been helpful to me, at the end of the day, is remembering our mission. We’re going to live with this virus for a long time, so we need to figure out how to balance risk, while always keeping in mind the safety of our communities, the need of our students to have an extraordinary education and of our faculty to carry out their work, and the importance of our community feeling like they can count on us through thick and thin. That’s my focus right now, and I think the American higher education system—if we can all remember those things—will come out of this period stronger than ever.

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.

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