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A Deeper Study of Higher Education Leadership

A Deeper Study of Higher Education Leadership

A Conversation With Mark Milliron, President, National University

The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) studies all aspects of higher education, and we learned about an unusual approach to leadership when Dr. Mark Milliron, president of National University, joined us on our Weekly Wisdom Podcast. President Milliron shared his broad experience in leadership positions, the workings and role of a board of trustees no matter what the institution, and the ups and down of leading actual people, the backbone of any organization.

Hands-On Lessons in Leadership
Over the years, President Milliron found his way into many leadership positions. He credited his frequent career transitions to serendipity, curiosity, and seeking opportunities to make a difference:

"There's an incredibly clear red thread through my career. If it wasn't for the education opportunities I had and the right people showing up at the right time, there's no chance I'd be doing the kind of work I'm doing now. I've dedicated my life to helping more and more diverse students be more successful in the world of higher education so that they have more opportunities in their lives. That 'more, more, more' framework is the core purpose of everything I've done, and every step I've made in my career has been trying to help that trajectory become more of a reality for more people.

"My doctorate was in leadership, and I fell in love with leadership in lots of different areas: business and industry, the military, sports and coaching. In academia, I've always been enamored with folks who can work the art of leadership in a really clear way, all kinds of models, all kinds of people who've inspired me to think, 'If I could just steal a little of that, a little of that.' I think you put together the picture that makes sense for you."

Lessons of Board Membership
For President Milliron, leadership goes beyond sitting at the top of a hierarchy. He shared some of his experiences on the boards of numerous colleges and educational nonprofits:

"At the League for Innovation, we would bring the board members and trustees together and talk about how you build a great board relationship. Nothing was more instructive than watching five years of those. I was on the early board of trustees of Western Governors University and was a part of the group that helped envision what that could be. It was amazing being a part of that larger conversation. And I've been part of probably 30 other boards, including corporate boards.

"Now I'm on the board of Civitas, I'm vice chair at Bennett College, and I'm also chair of the board for CityU at National. Those perspectives absolutely help me understand how we create a great board relationship. And one of the most important things is let boards play to their superpowers. Be servant leaders. Involve the board deeply in the strategic work, engage them in the policy and advocacy work, and help them help you create the right kind of infrastructure to do amazing work. But that doesn't just happen. That is a shared process."

President Milliron explained how this approach has already made a difference at National:

"Our board has adopted a focus on how everything we do is around championing student success, building trust, advancing inclusion, embracing accountability -- and I love our last one, which is 'make things better.' That's everything from big innovation to the policy that allows people to do their life's best work. When a board sings and does great work and doesn't get in the way, they're empowering the organization."

Drilling down into his own experiences, he added:

"Early in my career, I realized that practices are wonderful, but if you don't have the right enabling policies, they're never going to take hold. You also need great leadership skill. The advice I always give is get on some boards, especially boards that are functional, that are doing good things, and just show up and understand the process and the dynamics of policymaking. You'll start seeing the interplay of institutional policy crafting versus state, federal, organizational, and programmatic policy frameworks. You understand this is a Rubik's Cube, you've got to be able to twist and turn, and if you've never played the game before, it gets really tough."

Quote by Mark Milliron re: needing policies that support practices, and also needing great leadership skill.

The Biggest Leadership Challenge
Whatever the organization, leadership is ultimately about leading people. President Milliron told us how this human factor has been the hardest challenge to navigate as a leader:

"I've been incredibly blessed to work with inspirational and meaningful folks. And one of the hardest things is when your team members let you down, those moments when you realize everybody's got feet of clay, and people are complex for all kinds of reasons. They come with their superpowers and their blind spots. I had my heart broken by folks who were really close, and that's hard because you thought that person was one way and they turned out to be another way. Sometimes that's somebody who works for you, or with you, or somebody you work for. In all those cases, it hurts because it is almost like the end of a dream.

"Now, in that process, I've learned the power of grace and of understanding that people are complex, and to still be willing to engage with them. I've kept a relationship with some of these people, and they've turned out to be impactful folks in my life. So, again, even though somebody breaks your heart, it doesn't mean you write them off. It means you think about the moment and make sure you can understand what that might mean going forward."

Leadership Wisdom Received and Shared
Given his unusual trajectory, President Milliron has collected many nuggets of valuable career advice, three of which he shared:

"Nathan Hodges was one of the first presidents I worked for at a small college in Western North Carolina. We co-authored an article together, and we ended up with this frame: the core of good leadership is getting grounded, getting real, and getting going. Getting grounded is working collectively with your teams around your mission, vision, and values. Getting real means data to understand what's working and what's not, and being willing to face brutal facts. Then you get going. You test, try, tune, collaborate, pull ideas together, and work towards achieving those mission and vision elements. I love that frame. It's been fundamental to how I've approached leadership.

"Jerry Sue Thornton, a longtime chancellor of the Cuyahoga Community Colleges, used to talk about how you can be right and lose badly. I've known people who've won arguments and destroyed relationships. They've won the moment but can't lead their way to the right place. And I think that, as a leader, it's not about being right, it's about figuring out how to do the right things in the right way.

"And the last one is, we need to do fewer things at A level, not more things at B and C level. Make the main thing the main thing. We had that conversation at Western Governors all the time. Bob Mendenhall, the president, and Sam Smith from Washington State would focus on that idea of focus, focus, focus. They picked the things they were good at, and they went and executed on it."

President Milliron also shares his own wisdom with future leaders just starting their journey:

"One: I've fought competitive martial arts for years, and I learned the power of balance. It's leadership from the inside out, where you've got to do your work internally and take care of yourself. That really matters because of the second thing: you're onstage nonstop. That doesn't mean you're giving keynotes. It means your emails, tone of voice, how you approach meetings. Every little thing is being watched by people who want to do good work, and they want signals that they're going in the right direction. You need a level of mindfulness that is exhausting. So you've got to have that yin and yang between self-care and awareness about how you're driving yourself forward. And the last thing is I'm a big believer in rookie courage. I think it's really, really healthy. Just be a rookie every year, learn something that stretches you out of your comfort zone. It's unbelievably healthy for your brain. It's healing and comforting and wonderful, and you end up getting to a much better place."

Recommended Reading for Leaders
We always like hearing about leadership-themed books that inspire our guests. Thanks to recommended reading assignments from his monthly University Leadership Council, President Milliron has a lot of them:

"Recently we've been reading Extended Mind by Annie Paul, which is amazing; Range by David Epstein, which is phenomenal if you're a champion of liberal arts. Because we're a military-affiliated institution, we love The Wisdom of the Bullfrog, which is a neat book by William McRaven. And the newest one that I'm absolutely in love with is the Poetry Unbound collection -- powerful, just unbelievable poems. I would encourage you, as a leader, there's real power and healing in the reflection and recharge coming out of that reading."


Note: This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on July 17, 2023 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Links Mentioned in This Episode
University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Mark Milliron
National University
Weekly Wisdom Podcast
League for Innovation in the Community College (an international nonprofit working to increase student success and institutional excellence)
Western Governors University
Civitas Learning (an EdTech learning platform for higher ed)
Bennett College
CityU (City University of Seattle, member of the National University System since 2022)
Nathan Hodges (an 11/21/14 interview with Former President, South Central Community & Technical College, Bowling Green, by University of Kentucky Libraries' Nunn Center for Oral History)
Jerry Sue Thornton (President, Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland, Ohio)
Robert Mendenhall (Former President, Western Governors University)
Samuel H. Smith (President Emeritus, Washington State University)
Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy) by Admiral William H. McRaven
Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World by Padraig O Tuama

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Mark Milliron, President & CEO, National University
Dr. Mark David Milliron serves as President & CEO of National University (NU), one of the largest private, nonprofit universities in the United States. NU is designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and has a 50-year history of innovating around the needs of military, working, and other nontraditional students. The faculty and staff at NU have catalyzed the careers of community difference makers in service industries such as education, healthcare, business, cybersecurity, law, and criminal justice with education initiatives (including Harmony SEL, Inspire Leading in Learning, and Workforce Education Solutions) that reach millions of students, teachers, and other working professionals each year. In addition to his work with NU, Dr. Milliron serves on the boards and advisory councils of education organizations, such as the Trellis Foundation, Bennett College, the Global Online Academy, Civitas Learning, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and ISKME/Open Education Resource Commons. He also holds an appointment as a Professor of Practice in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. In 1999, The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education named Dr. Milliron a Distinguished Graduate for his service to the education field. In 2007, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) presented him with its prestigious National Leadership Award and inducted him into the AACC Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the United States Distance Learning Association’s Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2016 he was chosen by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the Top Technology Innovators in higher education; and in 2018, he was listed by EdTechDigest as one of the Top Influencers in the education technology field.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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