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Secrets of the Presidential Turn-Around: A Leader for the Long Haul

A Leader for the Long Haul
Dr. Luns Richardson
Morris CollegeDr. Luns Richardson is reluctant to consider himself a sage, but when it comes to institutional transformation, his higher education story merits recognition. Compared to the others featured in this series — all who have been at their posts for less than 20 years — Richardson is a seasoned veteran. Now in his 28th year as president of Morris College, he admits he never planned to stay this long.
“I thought I’d be here for about five years,” he says.
But Richardson stayed because the magnitude of what he set out to accomplish was not a short-term project. When he arrived at Morris in 1974, the college wasn’t accredited, its annual budget was a meager $1.7 million, only about 28 percent of the faculty held doctorates and there was a burning desire on the part of faculty and staff to move the then 66-year-old institution in a new direction. Though he could have begun by laying off the existing management team to bring in his own, Richardson chose to use the talent at hand. With accreditation as his immediate objective, he laid out a strategy and a timeline for achieving that goal and went to work.
“We achieved our initial accreditation in December 1978, one year ahead of schedule,” he says. Since then, 10 new buildings have been added to the campus; 90 percent of the original structures have been completely renovated; 15 new majors and an ROTC program have been added to the academic program; and 65 percent of the faculty now have terminal degrees. Today, the college’s annual operating budget is $16 million, and Richardson is proud to note that throughout his tenure as president the school has operated in the red only at one time: the first year.
While fiscal responsibility is necessary for college presidents to master, Richardson cautions that money should always be viewed in its proper context.
“Money doesn’t always solve the problem. Those (institutions) that are ailing need to take a good look at the institution, analyze the situation and compare it with how things are done at those (institutions) that are successful … you have to have a vision and, of course, there must always be an infusion of finances to get the institution on the right track,” he says.
Presidents also have to be good planners, which, Richardson says, means they should never plan in a vacuum and must actively resist the temptation to make plans too rigid.
“A long-range plan is never cast in cement; it is fluid,” he says. “You should look at (the plan) every year and make changes to meet the ongoing needs.
One of the unfortunate developments Richardson sees shaping up in today’s higher education environment is the shortening tenure of college and university presidents. This is especially damaging, he says, to institutions that have fallen upon tough times.
“The development of an institution is an ongoing process,” he says. “The president has to have a deep commitment to the institution and what it stands for.”
In his experience, the most effective presidents are people who know how to win the confidence of those around them, are comfortable and competent cultivating relationships with a wide array of constituencies, don’t shy away from fund raising and, above all, recognize that “the academic program is the core.” 

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