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July 06, 2016

Jeff Weiss takes over Lesley University on July 1, 2016. (Courtesy of Lesley University)

Not many college presidents come from outside the Ivory Towers. Jeff Weiss, who took the helm at Lesley University on July 1 is one of the few. 

Most of the 51-year-old's experience comes from leading the Brighton-based consulting firm Vantage Partners. Before that, Weiss taught at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business and West Point Military Academy. During his career he's worked with community leaders to resolve international conflict -- from post-apartheid South Africa to the Middle East. 

As part of our Leaders in Higher Education series, Weiss recently sat down with On Campus' Kirk Carapezza to talk about his leadership approach and some of the challenges facing Lesley.

Interview Highlights

On Weiss' leadership style:

My leadership style tends to be collaborative. I'm a firm believer in getting lots of input and listening to input; understanding what sits underneath the input; understanding the diverse group of views; understanding what's driving those views. Then I try to pull together something that is visionary and competitively advantaged and has real impact, and then hopefully rallying people around what that is and getting a team excited about how to implement it successfully. It's important to always keep in mind that you'll never get it perfect the first time. The most important thing is to keep learning and keep adapting. 

On challenges facing Lesley:

After the number one challenge --  educating students effectively -- we need to be able to have the funds to educate our students. We need to be able to have the funds to be able to build infrastructure, to be able to to support our faculty and our staff and our administrators. Most significantly, we need to be able to create good programs, and the right kinds of programs, curricula and courses for our students. We need to be able to work more across the institution. We need a whole variety of things. So the number one challenge -- after making sure that we are educating people more effectively and that we can measure that and say that we are advantaged in a way that is different from other institutions -- is being able to make the cost of education affordable, and being able to raise money to be able to do the things we want to do.  

On priorities at Lesley: 

Having spent my career working around the world, I am a huge believer in helping students become members of the world. At the same time, I think we need to focus on creating better access and affordability for students in our local communities in Boston, Massachusetts, New England and so forth. And so, while I am a huge believer in international programs, international students and so forth, I also believe that we need to be able to engage those who are in most need in our local communities and in our regional communities.

On what higher education can learn from the military:

I think one of the most significant things -- and truly one of my goals at Lesley -- is to take a school that has really done amazing things and is very, very focused on transformative education and social impact, and really adding a leadership development piece to it. 

That's one thing we do very well at West Point because we teach people to be critical thinkers, we teach people to engage diverse perspectives, to appreciate diverse perspectives, to be able to make good decisions, to negotiate, to collaborate, and so forth. Each of those aspects, I think, are critical to the development of future leaders -- not just military leaders and government leaders, but leaders in design, leaders in education, leaders in science, and leaders in business. 

On cutting costs:

I think one of the reasons we haven’t been able to control the costs of higher education is that in a quest to be more competitive, schools have built up more and more and done more and more and more. I do have an open question -- as a person coming from business -- of whether every school needs exactly the same number of things. Does every school need six of this and 12 of this and four of this and that runs up costs? Now, to say it, faculty are the engine of our university, so as I think about costs, that’s not where I think about cost.

When I talk about being competitively advantaged, to me, that is not about what are the six great new things we can do, they’re about what are the six great things we can do and the 12 things we're going to stop doing. Those may be big numbers, for the first year or two of a new administration, so we may not do six minus 12, but that’s critically important and that is about doing more with less. You can do better, and still do it in a more cost-effective way.

On being a Boston native:

I grew up in the Boston area -- actually in Newton during the busing crisis in Boston. It had a huge impact on my life and how I think about the good and the bad of education. To be able to live through a time in Boston and end up, hopefully, in the final chapter of my career at a school that is so focused on helping our community, bringing our community together, and working on social justice, is just totally inspiring.

Earlier: In Competitive Higher Ed Marketplace, Colleges Rebrand

On Campus intern Shirley Wang contributed to this report. 

confronting cost, technology and innovation, new business models, increasing access and success, global competitiveness

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