[Editor’s Note: As of July 1, Lesley University will have a new president– Jeff A. Weiss. Recently, our Senior Writer Chris Anderson sat down with President-Elect Weiss for a wide-ranging interview.]
What attracted you to Lesley?
I have watched Lesley grow over many years, having been part of the neighborhood from both my days as a student [at Harvard Law School] and growing a consulting business headquartered in Harvard Square. I am first and foremost attracted to Lesley for its rich history. It has a history of developing and delivering transformative education and innovative education. I find that exciting and critically important today. I admire Lesley for working hard toward making education affordable and more widely accessible. I find very attractive our commitment to the community, working with our neighbors, being a resource to the community, and having real impact in Cambridge, Boston, and nearby. I hope and expect we can do a lot more within our region, but also well beyond New England. The diversity of people, thought, and what we teach, each attracts me. We balance great teaching, scholarship, and applied learning outside of the formal classroom in a wide range of areas, many of which focus on developing students for success and impact in the creative economy – think about our excellent programs, for example, in design, art, creative writing, education, and expressive therapies. We are focused on developing people, on developing leaders, who will have impact in their professions, in their communities, and in the world beyond. We are focused on having a real impact on social justice – not just studying problems, but working on solving them. The Threshold Program excites and inspires me. I have deep interest in the Urban Scholars Initiative. I could go on and on. I’ve spent my career helping leaders effect real change and seen how people, dialogue, thinking, creativity and problem-solving can be truly transformed, and what the results of that can be. Lesley feels like a great fit for who I am and what I deeply care about.
Can you describe your first day on campus when the board introduced you?
There were a number of things that struck me over the course of the day. The first thing, while meeting people and interacting with the community, was, “This is an exceptionally cool place.” I know that may not be the most sophisticated language for a university president to use, but for those of us in our 50s, “cool” has developed real meaning – different and exceptional in a very positive way. It occurred to me, and this was reinforced by my son Sam who shared the same reflection with me the day after, here is a university whose identity is not singular, but is actually defined by its diversity – of students, of learners, of areas of focus, of thought, of programs, of schools and even of campuses. The second strong impression was, “Wow, so many faculty and staff have been at Lesley for decades, and each person has a different story on why they love it here.” The third was that faculty, students and staff alike are doing a wide range of very interesting things. So whether it was talking to faculty about their scholarship or teaching, or students about their curriculum and what they are doing outside of the classroom, or meeting wonderful people who have come back to finish their undergraduate degree, or having a chance to speak at least briefly with two students who are part of the Urban Scholars Initiative, hearing even the top line of people’s stories was exciting and inspiring. People asking tough questions and taking innovative approaches is exciting. The fourth was how much variety of background, perspective, and experience we have to draw on, as I spoke with such a range of different kinds of people. To me, understanding and leveraging differences is the key to learning, problem-solving, and innovation. These are all critical elements for outstanding learning environment – difference, commitment, passion, openness, experimentation, and the desire to ask and explore complex questions and grapple with important challenges. On top of all of this, I felt an enormous sense of warmth and a very good sense of humor, both of which are very important to me. I was very moved by how welcoming everyone was to me and my family, including my wife Gerri, my son Sam, and my parents. As I shared that day, I am a firm believer in “not taking ourselves too seriously, but taking the world around us – both its opportunities and problems – and our role in addressing them very seriously”.
Given Lesley’s history, it has had a long commitment to feminism. How does teaching at the US Military Academy – where there are far more men than women students – prepare you for leading Lesley?
I have spent my life teaching, working as colleagues with, advising clients, and having deep friendships with both women and men. At Vantage, we had many more women consultants than men consultants for many years. The leaders (clients) I, personally, have worked closely with over time at top companies and health systems have, in fact, likely been many more women than men. At Tuck, not only were my classes a mix of women and men, but they were a mix of people from all over the world. At West Point, you are right than we indeed overall have many fewer women than men, but my classes have always had both women and men, and the West Point Negotiation Project (which I helped to found and run) has a very diverse group of both student members and student leaders. To me, learning occurs best when it is among people who have different backgrounds, experiences, thought processes, beliefs, challenges, and perspectives. Ensuring these differences can be heard (people have a real voice), understood, engaged, learned from, and addressed in constructive dialogue, problem diagnosis and solving, and real action is what is critical. I am very proud to be part of a university that began as and excelled for so many years as an all women’s college (by the way, my wife is a proud graduate of Smith College, my aunt of Wellesley College, and my mother was one of three women in her medical school class), and which has, as you asked about, a long history of and commitment to feminism. Effecting political, social, and economic equality is of critical importance, and is at the core of social justice. We at Lesley need to continue to be a leader in not only understanding the roots of inequalities, but in developing solutions.
Lesley is a community with an acute awareness of social justice. What does that mean to you?
Well, it means a lot of things to me; this commitment is in part what brought me to Lesley. Social justice starts with the understanding that we live in a world with tremendous inequalities. There are inequalities in how people are treated, in the opportunities people have, in the available to them, and the list goes on and on. Social justice to me is about working to change those inequalities in fundamental ways. I’ve spent good parts of career working helping people understand each other and their differences, build trust and respect, and engage in joint problem-solving, often aimed at how to resolve a form of inequality or one of the roots of inequality. The work my colleagues and I have had the honor or engaging in over the years revolves around effecting human rights and freedoms, access to education and core resources and infrastructure, resolving disputes and reducing violence, and changing unjust systems and structures. To me a commitment to social justice (which, by the way, requires a wide range of disciplines, from design to science, art to social science, education to law) is about, as I have shared above, not only being aware and developing a new understanding of key problems, but of working on solving them, and doing so in an interdisciplinary manner. That’s why I am so excited to join Lesley which has a history and community which goes well beyond words to action, to having a real impact both within our community and well beyond. I believe we not only need to be focused on doing this work at Lesley, but on preparing our students in the wide range of disciplines in which we focus to have a real impact on social justice in their careers as they move beyond Lesley into the world around us.
Lesley is a school known for its creativity. Can you give an example in your life that required creativity?
I had the honor and privilege of coming to West Point about a dozen years ago with an idea. The thought was that maybe there was a way of helping our students – future leaders in the military and beyond – see the value of and building skill in solving problems, influencing, and managing conflict through negotiation. It was simply an idea, an aspiration. The idea lead to a course. We began with a section or two, and mostly focused on business negotiation cases. Then we started to develop military negotiation cases, modify content to address what we were learning from those coming back from leading in Iraq and Afghanistan, developing new modules, and deciding that to be powerful the course needed to be very applied. We build a final exam that was a simulation that would test knowledge acquired, but mostly skill built over the course of the term. The simulation involved negotiating a series of challenging scenarios in a mock Iraqi village. That sparked the question of wondering what the final exam would look like. The course grew into one of the most popular electives at West Point, and the simulation grew into a capstone event which later was the basis for our being awarded the teaching prize for innovation. We now hear back from years of graduates who often share, “I’m so glad that I not only went through the course but also that we had that final simulation. Whether or not I did well on that final exam, I learned a great deal and it sure was helpful to have experienced and learned from those challenges in a safe environment before I faced a very similar but real one just last week. Thank you.” We and others quickly realized that there were many other cadets at West Point who would never be able to take the elective, and eventually a series of lessons on negotiation were also developed for one of our core leadership classes that everyone takes before graduation. As well, we began to dream bigger, and explore if we could possibly also help future leaders outside of West Point and experienced leaders out in the Army. On “shoestring budget”, we started a conference for cadets from West Point, the other U.S. service academies, certain ROTC programs around the country, and the Royal Military Academy of Canada. The conference has become an annual, expected event. I believe it is in its seventh year. Then we asked ourselves if could we build a West Point Negotiation Project (a mini center/think tank) to involve more West Point cadets in learning and doing, and over the years this has often involved up to 100 students annually engaging with outside speakers, doing research and writing, helping to teach others, and engaging in internships all focused on negotiation. The Project also works on providing educational materials, advice, and training to those out in the active Army, and after a number of years, remains very engaged in training special forces officers and those engaged in reconstruction and peace keeping efforts, developing negotiation handbooks and other materials, providing negotiation advice to senior leaders, helping to advance the way the Army teaches negotiation and helping the Army shape the way military doctrine addresses negotiation and conflict management as a key leader competency. All of this began as a thought. All that has been accomplished is a result of working with other faculty members with passion, energy, real commitment, great ideas, diverse experiences, and the ability to be innovative; all of us truly working together as a team, often in an interdisciplinary manner, and always focused on finding ways to get things done that have not been done before and most often with very limited resources and almost no budget. It also come from challenging students to think and work in different ways, and giving them the freedom to go make things happen. As a result we now have hundreds, if not thousands, of leaders approaching negotiation in a new, disciplined, and skilled manner who share amazing success stories back with us on a regular basis.
In all your life travels, what’s been your favorite vacation destination?
Of all of my travels (and I have spent much of my career on the road), my favorite place to come home to is New England and, specifically, to our home Maine. For me, that is a place for family, quiet reflection, reading and writing, and hiking and kayaking. We love the outdoors, and time in Maine is always rejuvenating. I have had the pleasure of working in many parts of the world, and, on occasion, taking some personal time in various places. Wonderful times in Italy, the Netherlands, in France, and in Hong Kong all come to mind. I enjoy the art, the people, the culture, and the various forms of beauty in each of these, and so many other, places. I enjoy hearing people’s stories, learning about their history, and exploring their experiences and beliefs through not only what they share with me, but through their art and architecture. I’ve worked with people from all over the globe, had wonderful experiences and learned tremendous amounts in my travels, and have good friends spread throughout the world. There is no question that this has shaped not only my word view, but also how I engage and work with other people.