Committed Leadership and Enacted Values in Higher Education

Committed Leadership and Enacted Values in Higher Education

In my book, Leadership that Lasts: Seven Actions toward an Enduring Impact, the second action that I identify is “Commit.” That chapter focuses on the need for leaders to lead from the right set of values. I draw a distinction between espoused values, like those contained in pithy mission and vision statements, and enacted values that are visible in the behaviors of organizations over time.

In mission statements and other documents, elite universities have long boasted of their commitment to attracting students from diverse backgrounds. But for decades, some have done no more than go through the motions of espoused values that obviously don’t have deep roots. Their efforts to recruit socioeconomically diverse students were more about image than real commitment.

I became aware of a select group of institutions, including Franklin & Marshall College and my alma mater, Princeton University, after talking with F&M President Dan Porterfield and reading an interesting article in the Washington Post last fall.

A handful of colleges like F&M and Princeton have taken deliberate steps toward significantly expanding opportunities for low and moderate-income students. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber and his predecessor Shirley Tilghman, for example, have sought to significantly increase the proportion of Princeton students who qualify for Pell Grants. The proportion of students receiving Pell Grants, which target low and moderate-income families, is a key indicator of economic diversity in higher education. (I care particularly about this measure as I benefitted from Pell Grants as a student at Princeton in the late 1980s.)

In 2001, only seven percent of Princeton students qualified for Pell Grants. After concerted effort by Eisgruber and Tilghman’s administrations, Princeton has increased that proportion more than threefold. In the fall of 2017, 22 percent of Princeton’s freshman class qualified for Pell Grants – a percentage higher than that of state universities such as the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. “If we’re going to be excellent,” Eisgruber told the Washington Post, “we’re going to need to bring in talent from all backgrounds.” At F&M under the leadership of Porterfield, who will become president of the Aspen Institute in June, the percentage similarly hovers around 20 percent for recently admitted classes.

Eisgruber and Porterfield are both leaders of the American Talent Initiative, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported coalition focused on increasing income diversity among students in well-respected universities.

It’s unusual to find such a clear-cut case of significant organizational change as a result of strong values-based leadership. Princeton, F&M, and other colleges are enriched by the increased socioeconomic diversity of their students, and Eisgruber, Tilghman, and Porterfield deserve credit for leading the way.

(To learn more see and “How an Ivy Got Less Preppy: Princeton Draws Surge of Students from Modest Means” at