Cleveland Liberal Arts Leadership Summit Recap

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Cleveland Liberal Arts Leadership Summit Recap

On April 26-27, we gathered higher education leaders on Wisr’s home turf for the Cleveland Liberal Arts Leadership Summit. With Career Services, Alumni Relations, and Advancement professionals from 8 different liberal arts colleges in the room, our discussions alternated between big-picture thinking, like re-evaluating the role of Career Services, and tactical implementation of strategies, including cross-functional alumni engagement efforts.

Summit attendees told us that they continue to struggle in two critical areas:

  1. Introducing the importance of being an engaged alumnus to students
  2. Actually engaging (young) alumni in meaningful ways

While it may seem like these are challenges facing Alumni Relations alone, a truly impactful and sustainable approach demands cross-functional collaboration from peers in Career Services, Alumni Relations, and Advancement. Our speakers, Denny Meadows and Katie Webster, aimed to share new perspectives for addressing those challenges in their engaging presentations. A panel of local employers also presented eye-opening insights into the ways employers actually source talent… and their methods may surprise you.

Career Services Re-Boot

Denny Meadows, Higher Education Strategist
SilverFern Advisory

As a strategist and advisor, Denny Meadows has a knack for seeing what’s possible and a passion for making it actionable. Prior to founding SilverFern Advisory, Denny was a successful strategy and finance executive at many recognizable retail brands, including Nordstrom, Target, and Marshall Fields. Since 2013, she has been on a mission to help colleges and universities succeed in igniting the talents and passions of their students.

cross-functional alumni engagement effortsA graduate of Amherst College, working with liberal arts colleges is close to Denny’s heart. To kick off her interactive session, she led liberal arts leaders through an exercise to evaluate the positioning – literally and figuratively – of their career centers. This involved rating their physical location on campus, reporting structure, and priority relative to other strategic initiatives at their universities.

With that primer, she reviewed the impetus, implications, and imperative for the new role of Career Services.

The impetus for change is driven by five primary forces:

  • Price – Significant tuition increases
  • Content – Mismatched goals between colleges and employers 
  • Public Sentiment – Growing gap in the perception of college’s value
  • Demographics – Shift in the definition of a traditional student
  • Future Relevance – Major economic and technological changes

cross-functional alumni engagement efforts

While the state of higher education may seem dismal, she prompted the audience with a simple but profound quote: “Never let a crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you didn’t think you could do before.” Career Services can be a secret weapon on campus. It matters deeply to parents in their college evaluation process. After all, career outcomes is the most direct measure of the ROI of a university degree. Career Services is the critical bridge that helps students successfully transition from their liberal arts college experience to the professional world. 

Denny highlighted that with the growing impetus for change, one of the biggest challenges for teams can be focus.

Defining the problem set is the first key to success.

Once the problem is defined, teams can identify what success looks like, what obstacles exist for students, and the constraints and opportunities Career Services faces in solving the problem. 

Once a Career Services team has identified what they are trying to solve, they can begin the analytical process of determining recommendations for change, the resources required, and how to sell the solution to both their department and students. 


Local Employer Panel

One benefit of hosting the Liberal Arts Leadership Summit in Cleveland was that we were able to convene a panel of successful, Cleveland-based professionals representing several industries and career paths for an open Q&A with the higher ed leaders. Our panel consisted of:

  • Christy Corfias – Cleveland Indians – Manager, Strategy and Analytics
  • Elizabeth Brake – Venture of America – Senior Director of Employer Relationships
  • Laura Morrison – Cleveland Scene – Web Editor
  • Bill Hubbard – Thompson Hine LLC – Partner and Chair of Lawyer Personnel Committee
  • Kelly McGlumphy – GOJO Industries – Public Relations Senior Manager 

The local employer panel gave the attendees a chance to talk to professionals – many of whom graduated with liberal arts degrees – about the skills and experiences they expect from interns and college graduates, how universities can do a better job of preparing students, and the back channels they pursue to source talent. Here’s a highlight of the thought-provoking comments shared by our panelists:

  • In smaller organizations, it’s common to focus recruiting efforts on the alma mater of the hiring manager because they are familiar with the relevant classes and extracurriculars that would make prepare a candidate for success in the role
  • Professors / faculty members are often the individuals with the closest relationships to students on campus, so reaching out to them (and not Career Services) for referrals gives an employer a more comprehensive account of a student
  • Career Services may offer great programming, but students are not required to participate. Go where students are required to be – make career development part of the classroom
  • In a time where many question the value of a liberal arts education, it is worthwhile for students to develop data analytics skills to supplement their liberal arts degrees
  • While some debate whether “journalism is dead”, there are several in-demand career paths that can stem from a journalism or English degree. For example, roles in Public Relations, Marketing, and Communications require many of the same written communication skills as a journalist


Making the CASE for OWU 

Katie Webster, Director of Alumni Relations
Ohio Wesleyan University

In her current role as Director of Alumni Relations, Katie Webster oversees the programs and initiatives of the Alumni Relations Office at Ohio Wesleyan University. She is responsible for working in partnership with the Alumni Association Board of Directors; supporting the 45th, 50th, and 55th reunions; creating meaningful engagement opportunities for alumni and the campus community; and coordinating communication with alumni. 

In the past year, Ohio Wesleyan University made an innovative and forward-thinking organizational structure change: they moved Career Services and Alumni Relations under their Advancement division. This has uniquely enabled OWU to leverage career-related opportunities in their approach to engagement. Why does this matter? OWU is in the middle of a major capital campaign to raise $200 million. Unlike a single-purposed campaign, the Alumni Relations team is charged with “connecting today, to create tomorrow’s campaign”. As part of this effort, the campaign includes milestones for a broader base of donors, increased alumni engagement, and better tooling to measure and manage alumni engagement. 

To accomplish those milestones, her team launched their “Make the CASE” initiative, a vehicle to increase engagement, volunteerism, and the donor base.

cross-functional alumni engagement effortsThe acronym CASE stands for:

  • Career Development
  • Admissions
  • Social Events & Service Opportunities
  • Engagement and Participation in Giving

In parallel with identifying creative opportunities for alumni to directly engage in ways that are most meaningful to them, OWU has established “small”, “medium”, and “large” ways alumni can connect to each other and help the University.

The grid correlates to a score for each activity, giving the Alumni Relations team a way to quantifiably measure alumni activity and its impact on increasing the donor base. Unsurprisingly, the most successful engagement efforts rely on data to drive decision-making and help leaders better understand the needs of the students and alumni they serve. 

cross-functional alumni engagement efforts

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Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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