Q&A with Richard L. Morrill

Before officially assuming the presidency of the Teagle Foundation on January 1, 2010, Rich Morrill spoke with Cheryl Ching, Teagle's Program Officer, about how he sees his new role, the Foundation's work, and current issues in higher education that are especially relevant to the improvement of undergraduate student learning and engagement. The following Q&A is an excerpt of that conversation, which was recorded on December 2, 2009.

What interested you in the position and what experiences and expertise would you bring to it?

Well, to be perfectly honest, I had not been considering moving into the position of president. I think a lot of it is a combination of circumstances. As many would know, I've served on the Board for a long time, since 1989, and during that period, I've had the privilege of serving for many years as the Chair of the Program Committee and then more recently as the Chairman of the Board. While all of us at the Foundation knew for some time Bob Connor's plans to retire at the end of 2009, I in fact was still hoping that he would extend his term of service for another few years. For a variety of reasons, that didn't prove to be possible. And at that point, in the midst—I think—of the worst of the international financial crisis of last year, the Board turned to me and asked if I would be willing to assume the responsibility. And although it certainly was not part of any plan I had, as I thought about my background and my interests, my long service with the Foundation and the current travail in the economy and in higher education, I thought it would be something I should do.

I bring to this responsibility, in many ways, a kind of culminating sense of the purposes of my own academic career, as well as the positions of responsibility that I've held. And so it's a chance to move into a foundation world that I know reasonably well from these many years of service, involving the translation of ideas and ideals into program opportunities principally for higher education. The track that we've been on under Bob's leadership is one, of course, that I have actively endorsed and have in fact participated in at least some form helping to define and shape—at least at a Board level—and therefore I'm very comfortable with where we have gone and what the opportunities are for the future.

Many of my interests, both as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a college president have focused on the broad issues of student learning. I tend to use language about those issues that is quite traditional, although I try hard and will encourage others to try to give reasonable precision to the language that we use about liberal education. For me it is a powerful form of education. It is, in language that is often used, "transformative" because it addresses fundamental capacities and powers of the human person and seeks to enable development in a whole range of different forms. That to me is enormously energizing work. It is, again, an underlying purpose of what has brought me into this profession and kept me in it now for quite a long time.

How do you understand the Foundation's work and the way it works? To your mind, what are its strengths?

The Foundation has been able, certainly under Dick Kimball's leadership (Teagle president from 1987 to 2002) and under Bob's leadership, to have a quite sharp focus in its philanthropy. This has allowed us to probably have a disproportionate influence in the areas that we have addressed in our grants. I think that for a number of years we were quite well known in smaller college circles as a place that tried to develop capacities in the institutions that we supported. Under Bob Connor, we have tried very hard—and Bob gets much of the credit for this—to keep a very sharp focus on the issues of student learning and on how we know whether students are making progress. With that sharp focus, I think a lot has been accomplished. There has been a catalytic influence that has gone well beyond what one might anticipate for a rather small foundation. The forms of influence show up in many ways, including through what our grantees accomplish, the way they communicate with others about their experiences, and the way they work together. The collaborative model, I think, has helped to spread the influence and the work of the Foundation. And what I take to be a really creative communications program—again much of that is explained by Bob's unusual capacities to communicate—has given us a higher profile that I think would be predictable.

Your answer to the last question touches on what can be described as some "signature" elements of the way the Foundation works, such as funding collaboratives and, as you described, a "creative" communications program. Do you think these are things that you will continue during your tenure or refine in other ways?

I think every Foundation has a basic responsibility to try to use its funds in ways that advance a purpose, fulfill a cause, and in the process obviously to make a mark. It's just given, I think, in the nature of philanthropy. I suppose that an institution that has reasonable but not large resources like Teagle is particularly conscious of that kind of question of influence and—if you will—catalytic presence. So I think that is certainly something that I will be focusing on with the staff: how do we continue to share our resources in ways that make a difference, that we capture ideas that are emerging, that we give a chance for grantees to explore them, and that we have an active communications program to advance important discussions in higher education.

It's very difficult to penetrate into the whirl of everyday campus business, and so it's important that we find ways to do that. And one of the ways we have done this, of course has been and I think will continue to be through different kinds of collaborations. We've also worked with other foundations on a number of our projects. That's always a very useful way to move a project forward. We have also involved our grantees in lots of conversations with each other and with staff. At times, in fact, we have been, I think—and I hope we will continue to be—something of a "working" foundation, in a sense that we don't simply sit back and sign checks. We engage with our grant recipients in thinking through what they might wish to do, in responding to ideas that they have, in helping to move forward collaborative work that gives each individual institution more confidence in what it is doing. We offer them a wider range of both support and a kind of realistic check on their own work.

Let's turn now a little more broadly: What current issues do you think are the most critical in higher education and how do you see those issues intersecting with Teagle's work?

Well I think it's hard to pick up a paper or a magazine these days that touches on higher education, and sometimes even in the general press, that does not have some kind of focus on the broad questions of access to higher education, the quality of higher education, and the unavoidable question of the affordability or cost of higher education. Now, we have not chosen to focus exclusively on the interaction of those three variables. We do in fact have programs that address the access question in our own location of New York City where we, I think, have an exemplary program of college opportunity for students in high schools to go on to college. We therefore have addressed that broad issue both recently and in much of our earlier work as well. We have also focused most intently on one way of articulating the question of educational quality, and that is through continually asking how we can improve student learning. That obviously is one dimension of the quality question, but over the past several years, the Foundation's timing has been superb in trying to give that question the attention that it deserves. It obviously touches on many related questions that have to do with the ways in which institutions of higher education function, but certainly that has been a critical question. The question of affordability has not been our central preoccupation, but it conditions and shapes the context in which we have to consider the questions of student learning going forward.

I can add another point on this. I think that as all these questions continue to interact, one of the areas the Foundation has worked on and that I have particular interest in is the ways in which robust improvements in student learning can be institutionalized. The decision-making processes of colleges and universities are intricate and delicate, and often the very best ideas make much less progress than they might because they get caught up in some of the byzantine machinery of decision making. That obviously touches on lots of questions of process and of leadership, of faculty engagement, of the role of the administration, of the leadership of the institution, and of the board of trustees. And there, I think, should be ways in which we can continue to find the different venues within an institution that move critical issues to the top of the agenda. And one of those critical issues is the quality of student learning. How do we then embed that within the life of the organization in ways that relate to the existing values of the institution? The work of institutionalizing has to show deep respect for the independence of each person in the process, as well as invite their participation in a broader sense of communal enterprise. We've a lot experience, I think, on institutionalization because we've touched on many facets of decision making, but that's an area that we should continue to explore. We can assist our grantees in thinking about new ways that the preoccupation with the quality of student learning can take up permanent residence in the inner workings of a campus.

Do you have any general thoughts or words to our grantees and others in the Teagle community?

From all the feedback that we've received, I think I can say that we have initiated a series of programs and projects that have benefited our recepients. I think the general directions in which we have been moving will be ones that I think we should continue to focus on. There is certainly a good reason to, broadly speaking, stay the course. At the same time the world is always changing and pushing up new issues and items for the agenda. I've asked, for example, how do we continue to institutionalize in different forms the work that we've been doing? In addition to that, though, much of what we should be doing must be the result of our continuing process of tracing the broad social and educational forces in the environment, of thinking through again what we really do stand for as a Foundation, and of how we can then innovate and respond as new conditions develop. So over the next six months or so, I hope to spend a good chunk of my time in conversing with people within the Foundation—certainly with the staff and the Board—and then among our grantees and important sources of influence in the wider environment, exploring what they believe and think are opportune directions for us. That would help us shape the specific programmatic emphases that we will develop. Again I think they will be largely consistent with what we've been doing, but you always want to be able to think strategically and innovatively about new challenges and be responsive to the persons on the line who are really making things happens, out on the campuses and in the different community organizations. We need to hear their voices and we need to take steps that advance our agenda in doing important work to advance higher education and undergraduate student learning.