Q&A: Margaret Drugovich, New Chair of ACE Women’s Network Executive Council

September 26, 2016

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Sook-Yi Yong, senior program manager for ACE Leadership, recently sat down with Hartwick College (NY) President Margaret L. Drugovich to talk about the most pressing issues facing higher education, her path to becoming a college president, and her plans for the ACE Women’s Network, a national system of networks within each state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia that works to advance and support women in higher education.

Sook-Yi Yong: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. This is a good opportunity for us to get to know you as the new ACE Women’s Network Executive Council (WNEC) chair. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? What should we know about President Drugovich?

Margaret L. Drugovich
Margaret L. Drugovich

Margaret Drugovich: I came to my presidency through a somewhat nontraditional route—enrollment and communications rather than academic affairs. I think less traditional routes to the presidency will become more and more the case. But I really started my career in research; I worked in healthcare policy research and then went into institutional research when I jumped over from medicine to higher education. As I mention to our students all the time, acquiring good research skills is always a very important foundational preparation for any kind of career. It certainly was for mine.

I really built my portfolio over time: I had the habit of never saying “no” to an opportunity that interested me, so I was able to build a broad portfolio of skills that really helped me. But in fact, there is no way to completely prepare for the presidency. There are always gaps in people’s knowledge and understanding, but I think that my research background, my background in enrollment, and the different kinds of institutions at which I worked—some traditional liberal arts colleges, others not—gave me a broad enough portfolio and perspective that I could learn the other things I needed to along the way.

I’ve now been the president of Hartwick for eight years. The board of trustees recently offered me the opportunity to remain for an additional eight years, which I have accepted.

Congratulations on another eight years!

MD: Thank you!

Could you touch on what you consider some of the joys and challenges of being a president?

MD: The biggest joy that I’ve experienced in the presidency is watching our students learn and grow. It’s truly a privilege, year after year, to be associated with an effort that helps students discover what their true potential is and realize it, and to find things that they never knew existed. I just love that. I love it when our students actually find career paths and opportunities that, when they came to us, they had no idea that it was something they would become passionate about. I think of a young woman who came to us from a fairly rural community and left us to study to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics. I know from talking with her and understanding who she was when she came to us that she couldn’t even have told you what astrophysics was, and yet she’s going to get her Ph.D. in that discipline at a really fine graduate institution on the east coast.

I also really have come to appreciate spending time with incredibly generous donors. In July, we finished a six-year campaign that we called “The Campaign for Hartwick Students.” I got to spend time during the fundraising part of the campaign asking donors to sit and talk with me about why I saw Hartwick to be a worthy investment. It was very, very encouraging and inspiring to spend time with people who are truly generous, who are true philanthropists.

It’s interesting that you mention fundraising as one of your joys. At a lot of our ACE regional and national forums, fundraising is something that our participants bring up that they are scared of or nervous about, and they don’t know where to start. You’re giving a different perspective on fundraising that I find very interesting.

MD: Of course, you’re speaking to me after eight years. When you start fundraising, especially when you start a lot of assertive fundraising in a campaign, it can be overwhelming at first. To some extent, the only way to really get comfortable with it, like anything else, is to just do it. You also have to understand why you care. That’s key, and I think sometimes we overlook that. There is actually a lot of preparation that goes into it, but the joy really comes from being with people who want to make good things happen.

One of the other things that I’ve really enjoyed about the presidency is learning from my colleagues, both at Hartwick and nationally. This community of individuals who serve as presidents across the country really is a joy to spend time with, because these are all very smart, very dedicated, very hard-working, and very inspiring people who want good things to happen for education throughout the United States.

What are some of the challenges of being a president?

MD: We’re in a time of shifting sands. I came to the presidency in 2008 and, right after my inauguration, everything collapsed economically. So there were many challenges, and not just because our endowment lost value. That certainly was a challenge, and colleges that depend on draws from their endowments to help them fund their operating budgets every year all felt that.

I think the more pervasive challenge that created was that people across the country lost confidence in the future. It doesn’t mean that they were skeptical about the future, it’s just that, psychologically, they stopped being confident that they could predict the future—whether they could have reasonable assurance, based on their experiences to date, that they would be able to take care of their families and that their incomes would increase. So, I think that most of the challenges that colleges have today are economic, as higher education really has economics at its center.

What is your greatest leadership lesson learned?

MD: Four words: Keep listening, keep talking. People are very busy, and one of the traps you can find you fall into as a president is that, after the studies have been done, after your senior group has really thought about it, after you’ve consulted with a lot of people and issued that penultimate document, it’s really foolish to assume that people will be able to and will take the time, be inclined, or even understand that it is important to review major policy pieces or descriptions of why things have to be done. You really have to talk about it again and again and again.

Communication really is key to the presidency.

A second lesson which I think is incredibly important for any president is to keep your board really well informed and very well prepared. When I first came to Hartwick, I asked the executive committee of the board if they would be willing to meet with me on a monthly basis. So, for eight years now, every month we convene a meeting of our board of trustees executive committee (though all members of the board are invited to listen in and participate as they wish).

Someone mentioned at one of our events that it’s also important to keep the board happy, so I can see how keeping the board well informed would lead to that as well.

MD: Yes. What is happiness? Happiness, if you’re a board member, is not having a crisis every month. You don’t want a crisis, but the way to avoid crises is to be prepared. As I’ve said to my senior leadership team many times, we can manage any challenge that comes our way, and that’s what we’re here to do. The issue is, we should never be surprised, because when you’re surprised, you cannot manage a challenge effectively. So a happy board, I think, will be a board that feels well prepared to deal with the challenges.

It doesn’t help that, in social media these days, everything that happens is being reported on immediately, in real time, and you are asked to react or respond immediately.

MD: We’re being asked to respond, but all we’re really able to do is react. The public is incredibly impatient with any delay. I’ve seen presidents who wanted to spend a little time thinking, and even a delay of a day signals to people that they don’t care. This has not happened to me, but I’ve watched it happen to other presidents, and I think it’s a real phenomenon. Students in particular, young people who are used to using social media, much of it—not all, but much of it—is top-of-mind awareness, it’s instantaneous, and that speed of reacting is what people have become accustomed to, but it’s not the same as responding.

This actually leads to my next question. What do you currently see as the greatest issues currently facing higher education in general, and those facing women leaders in higher education in particular?

MD: I think that the greatest challenges are how to make higher education affordable and create a sustainable model for funding your college so that you can continue to protect your core and innovate. It’s difficult to innovate if you’re always innovating through savings or reallocation. And because it’s hard, colleges and universities are not really used to stopping things. It’s always been an incremental process, just like learning is. But budgets are not incremental.

I also think that a rush to find easy answers to very complex problems of funding higher education is problematic. I did an interview with a reporter from Politico yesterday who asked me to comment on Secretary Clinton’s proposals to provide a free public education. If it were easy to provide free education, we would have done it long ago.

With regard to women in particular, I think that women and men need to understand that women do not need to be more to be equal. We don’t need to be more perfect; we don’t need to be more transparent or more understanding or more patient or more compassionate or more intelligent just to be equal. I think it’s time for people to recognize that simply being a woman is enough or, often, more than enough to get the challenge done. I think that starts with women believing that, too. I do believe that women are held to a different standard, and I think that they need to understand that they don’t need to be more of all of these things in order to be prepared and to be enough. That’s why ACE’s Moving the Needle Initiative: Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership is so incredibly important.

What would you like to see change in higher education?

MD: What I’d like to see is more focus on quality. I sat on the U.S. Senate Bipartisan Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education, and one of the things I realized as we were deliberating about the recommendations we could make to at least slow the amount of costly regulation that was coming at higher education, was that the conversation about quality really wasn’t there often enough, wasn’t in any space often enough. I’m not sure whether it’s because everybody takes quality for granted, or they can’t really afford to think about it because when you’re trying to make your financial engine run, quality isn’t a very efficient fuel. But it’s important—it’s key.

The other thing I’d like to see change is to stop having this conversation that a broad-based, liberal education is not good preparation for a career. I think that is absolutely wrong. The data that organizations like AAC&U have shown demonstrate that, in the long run, a broad-based, liberal education that allows you to develop your thinking and reasoning skills and your communication skills is absolutely the best preparation in the long run, even if you decide to go into the sciences. Some of the political suggestions that have been made . . . for example, one of the major candidates for president is suggesting that students should only be able to get federal funding for degrees in fields where jobs are available. So that means, I guess, jobs in STEM and not in the humanities. It’s painful for me to hear national leaders suggest this, because the data prove otherwise, and we need judges, we need teachers, we need historians, and we need artists.

Another thing I’d like to have changed, obviously, is that taxpayers realize that private colleges are their best friends. Every year, almost without fail, every innovation that’s going to happen on our campus, every major fundraising effort, is going to be done through private dollars.

I’d like to talk a little more about your pathway to the presidency. What opportunities have you had along the way that helped to advance your career, and was there one person you would consider to have been your mentor along the way?

MD: That’s a really interesting question, and an important one. The thing that most helped me advance in my career was that the people I worked for saw my potential and kept giving me new challenges. Sometimes, those challenges are hard to say yes to, especially when they take you into areas where you don’t feel confident. But the only way to feel confident is to build your competency, and the only way you do that is by doing it. In that way, there have been a number of people who have invested in me, guided my decision making along the way, and, in some ways, saw more of my potential than I actually saw in myself: Bill Trueheart, president at Bryant University (RI) . . . Tom Courtice, the president who hired me at Ohio Wesleyan University . . . even my spouse.

Another way that my organizations have supported me is through financial support to continue my education. I think that anyone who works at an institution that is willing to support their continuing education, they should definitely take advantage of it. Professional development seminars are certainly helpful, especially when they’re focused seminars. And ACE offers so many of those learning opportunities.

When you think about your experience on your pathway to the presidency, was there any one particular incident or episode that you consider to have been a turning point for you, or possibly something since you became a president in 2008?

MD: I didn’t grow up thinking, “Boy, I’d love to be a college president.” I don’t really know anybody who does that, but I suppose there’s somebody out there who has always set that as an aspirational goal. For me, it was coming to a crossroads after I’d been a vice-president for 10 years, and I felt like my portfolio couldn’t expand any more in that particular setting. I really had to ask myself, “Okay, so what am I looking for? Am I looking for a new community? Am I looking for a new institution? Do I just want to try my hand in the state?” These decisions are never single moments. They’re always complex.

My decision to go to Ohio Wesleyan was not just because it was an important opportunity and I’d been at my former institution for nine years—it was because my family lived in Ohio, and I wanted my children, who were small at the time, to have access to my parents. I was always looking for something to keep me interested, another puzzle to solve, another challenge. Much of what you have to do in higher education administration on a daily basis make you think “Wow, was that really worth my time?” It’s all important, it all fits into a matrix which helps these great organizations continue to thrive, but there are some things in academic administration that just are not that inspiring, so one of the ways I balance that is to continue to seek new challenges.

That could be said about most jobs, that there are some aspects that are just not that exciting.

MD: Exactly! That’s why I think it’s difficult for students to go out and get their first job. Most students I know, no matter what job they get, are disappointed because there’s just so much that needs to be done every day that isn’t particularly inspiring. As I’ve also always told my own children, all work is good work. You want to be in a position to actually do work that inspires you.

When I look back on my own career, I did not really go through that kind of disappointment and disenfranchisement—I started working very early because I grew up on a farm and helped my family, but then I worked outside of our home when I was 14, and I’ve worked every year since. So long before I graduated from college, I already had a pretty realistic view of what it’s like to work in the world. I think those kinds of experiences for high school students are very important to help set their expectations correctly so that they are not disappointed. Did you work when you were young?

No. I’m from Malaysia, and it’s not that common for us to work in high school. I was a clerk when I finished high school and started college, but when I moved to the U.S. to finish my degree, I did work in the cafeteria for a semester, then in the computer labs. It was interesting, and I felt like I learned a lot, actually, even doing something as simple as serving someone in the cafeteria line.

MD: It’s one of the things that worries me about increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. I’m very concerned that some young people are not going to get the opportunities they need to learn how to work because they won’t be given the jobs at $15 an hour. Anybody who’s hired a young person knows that it’s not going to be a perfect experience, but most adults are willing to help them learn. It’ll be difficult with a $15 an hour minimum wage to assure that all those students get those kinds of building experiences.

Even the overtime rule, too; there’s concern about that as well.

MD: Yes. That has had a very important impact on higher education and will continue to. We’ve been planning on that since last October. It’s costly, and it is going to impact our employees. Unfortunately, while the intention is good, and giving people a fair wage is important, I think it’s going to result in fewer job opportunities. That’s my fear.
Or even cutting back on hours.

MD: Yes, that’s right. There’s no magic formula here. The federal government might say that, as of December 1, you now have to do this, but there is no buried money out there to fund that. It’s going to be funded by shifting resources (which means cutting), or it’s going to be funded by cutting back on employees.

When did you first become involved in the WNEC, and why? I saw that you were a presidential sponsor for New York.

MD: I got involved with WNEC because a very inspirational woman, Kim Cline, who is currently president of Long Island University, asked me to get involved. So many of us look at people we admire and, when they suggest that something is important for us to do and they make a good case for it, we step forward.

So, as the new chair, what are your plans for the ACE State Networks?

MD: This is a really important time to follow through on the work that’s being started and has been set up now with the Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership initiative. One of the ways that we can strengthen the state networks, and the principal way that the WNEC can help to do that, is by supporting the chairs in every way that we’re able.

The executive committee is going to focus its energy in two areas: supporting and offering opportunities for mentoring to the state networks—offering support through sharing of information, through our quarterly meetings, offering the liaisons from the executive committee to the state chairs—and then supporting strategic initiatives like Moving the Needle. We’re going to continue to provide and sponsor good educational opportunities through webinars and also through the annual convening of the state chairs at the time of the ACE Annual Meeting. I just wrote an article, actually, for the Network newsletter, where I address three or four simple things that people can do at the state network level, and even at the institutional level, to assure that Moving the Needle has the kind of national support it needs to be a successful effort. Because at the end of the day, what will make a difference for women in higher education is to have access to these opportunities.

What wisdom can you share with our future leaders? What’s the one, single most important piece of advice you would give?

MD: My advice would be to stay with the issues that you care most about so that your work continues to inspire you. Anyone who feels like they’re a slave to their work really needs to move on and find that space in which they find more inspiration. There’s always certain “nitty-gritty” stuff that needs to be done every day, and you and I have talked about that, but it’s really important to have your work add something to your life, to the way you look at the world and think about it. So I really would encourage women who are considering this to really remain open-minded and flexible to new opportunities. For instance, if I have the honor of being invited to serve as the WNEC chair, it’s something for me to really think about. Can I do it? Can I fit it in? Is it important to me? I said “yes” because it is. Every time I’m invited to do something on a national level, that’s something I have to think about.

Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Drugovich. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me today.

MD: You’re welcome, and good luck in your work!

Margaret L. Drugovich assumed her role as the president of Hartwick College in July 2008. As a scholar-practitioner who believes that productive organizational change can happen even in the most highly legitimized environments, she has presented her research on transformational leadership, consensus making structures, innovation in higher education and regulatory compliance at various national meetings. Prior to Hartwick, she previously served as serving in various senior administrative and research roles at Ohio Wesleyan University, Bryant University, and the Brown University Center for Gerontology and Health Care Research. She has served on various educational advisory and governing boards, including the NAICU Committee on Accountability, the Board of Trustees of the New York Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, and the U.S. Senate Bipartisan Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education. Drugovich earned a Doctor of Management degree from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, where she also served as a Fellow of the Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations. She received her Master’s degree from Brown University and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Albertus Magnus College.

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