Interview with Christopher Fiorentino, President of West Chester University - Part III


Christopher Fiorentino

Click here for Part IPart II

A public university offering high-quality undergraduate and graduate education programs

Dr. Christopher Fiorentino is the President of West Chester University, a public university in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1871, WCU began as a private institute focused on pedagogy. Today, the school is one of Pennsylvania's 14 state universities and offers over 200 undergraduate and graduate programs covering diverse liberal arts, science, and engineering topics and fields of study. In 2009, U.S. News & World Report ranked WCU 69th in the Master's Universities (North) category. Dr. Fiorentino is the 15th person to serve as the university’s President. His inauguration will take place Friday, April 21, 2017.

EDWIN WARFIELD: Let’s talk about your leadership style. What are your goals and your vision as President?

CHRISTOPHER FIORENTINO: Transformational leadership is hard in any setting. In higher education, it’s even trickier. While people might think of universities as being on the cutting edge—maybe there are research endeavors that are on the cutting edge—but they’re very status quo-oriented. Very often, you will find that faculty would prefer things to stay just the way they are. What I’ve always tried to do is to create a vision for what we could be. When we went through the business accreditation, I really challenged the faculty. I said, “Are we doing the best job that we could be doing for our students? Because we are here to educate these people. We are here to support their future success. Could we be doing a better job than we’re doing?”

That led to some very interesting discussions. In one meeting where I was getting a lot of resistance and people were saying that they felt that we were doing a good job, I actually suggested that maybe I was going to get them t-shirts that said “West Chester University: We’re Good Enough.” They were very offended by that and I said, “Well, what are we going to do about it?” Part of my challenge, and again alluding to some of the entrepreneurship, a lot of it was based on the fact that we never really seemed to have enough resources to do what we needed to do.

I solved the resource problem. I got them plenty of money and so I took away their complaint about not having the resources—“We can’t travel to conferences, we don’t get support for our research”—and I said, “Here it is.” I painted the picture of where we needed to get to.

In a situation like that the advice that I received from more experienced persons than I had been at the time was that you can’t launch a new initiative like that only after you get significant buy in—you have to get what you think is the critical mass to get started, and you have to get the work, and then you have to try to bring people along as you go. That’s what we did. We started off, we had a few people who were early adopters, and over time more people started to get with the program and realize that this was a good idea. That started to create pressure on those who were resistant, and eventually the group of resistors were smaller than the group of supporters, and they started to feel more and more lonely, and eventually we had everybody pulling in the same direction.

At this point, the business faculty, which was very resistant to change when we started this discussion 10, 12 years ago, now has totally embraced this. They own this accreditation. They own the quality of this program. Frankly, the new faculty we were recruiting would not be coming here if we didn’t have this demonstration of a commitment to quality.

That, really to me, is what a leader can do. If an organization is going to change, somebody has to knock it off balance, somebody has to move it away from its comfortable equilibrium. That’s really what the transformational leader has to do: you have to get people into a position where they’re uncomfortable with the way things are and they’re committed to being better. That’s what we are working on at West Chester right now.

Connect with Christopher on LinkedIn

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