Inaugurations deliver critical engagement opportunities

Why a new president focused on positivity and inclusion
By: and | February 19, 2019

More often than not, a university president’s inauguration prompts committees to narrowly focus on ways to spotlight the new leader and their accomplishments. Yet organizers often forget about the community this person will lead.
The ceremony, of course, represents the president’s assumption of office. But it also signifies an opportunity to honor the community’s past accomplishments and to look ahead to new beginnings and growth for the entire institution. If we forget any of these components, the fanfare will lose its true purpose: engaging the community to celebrate the new president.
As inaugural co-chairs for Bentley University’s new president, Alison Davis-Blake, we were fortunate to have a leader who came on board with strong expertise in strategic human resource management and organizational design. Simply put, she understands people and is passionate about creating positive organizations in which individuals thrive. It was natural that the inauguration would be more about Bentley as a Massachusetts-based community—where we were going strategically and how we could come together to get there.
Here are principles that guided a weeklong series of events at Bentley.

Take cues from the president

Given that our new president was interested in a positive workplace and its power to transform an institution, we developed events around that. Find out what inspires your president and build programs around that. The University of Virginia, for example, hosted a walk or run event because its new president loves to run.

The most important part of a successful inauguration is to be inclusive.

Recruit outside talent

Colleges and universities are filled with experts in a number of areas, but recruiting outside experts to speak during inauguration week events will leverage new perspectives and challenge long-held institutional views. In our case, organizational experts Shawn Quinn of the University of Michigan and Ryan Quinn of the University of Louisville facilitated student and staff workshops on positivity in the workplace and positive leadership.

Design events for the entire campus

The most important part of a successful inauguration is to be inclusive. Include the entire campus community in activities that give everyone a voice and deliver messages that resonate. Bentley hosted a week of events that included:

  • Staff workshops focused on how positive organizations improve productivity and employee experiences. During breakout sessions, colleagues asked guided questions to learn more about each other on personal and professional levels. They also identified specific ways in which their work benefits others and how they benefit from others’ work.
  • A student symposium focused on positive leadership and how students can make an impact during their time at Bentley and beyond. They learned to recognize the energy they can bring to the workplace by energizing themselves, by promoting a sense of belonging among co-workers, and by practicing gratitude in a way that can be as simple as saying “thank you.”
  • A Future of Work symposium featured panels on human sustainability and the impact of artificial intelligence and technology on the workplace. Management expert and author Jeffrey Pfeffer, of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, delivered the keynote address, in which he asserted that the level of stress in today’s workplace is toxic to employees and contributes to the country’s overall health crisis. Most important, this symposium brought together the entire campus community for an exchange of intellectual ideas.

Inclusion (or lack of it) is something that makes headlines. Colleges are a critical place to demonstrate its power. What better way to inspire future leaders than to have the leader of your institution embrace inclusion during a milestone moment.

Maureen Flores is vice president for university advancement, and Patrick Scholten is associate provost and associate professor of economics at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.