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Dr. Michael Bassis

Dr. Michael Bassis

Westminster College's Sixteenth President

"I become energized when faced with a challenging assignment," said Dr. Michael Bassis. "I thrive on an ambitious agenda. Some friends say I'm addicted to my own adrenaline."

Perhaps that's why, in 1993, after 20 years as a college faculty member and administrator, he left his post as executive vice president and university provost at Antioch University to become president of Olivet College in Michigan. Many described his decision as "crazy." Why leave his position at Antioch to preside over a struggling college that had recently been embarrassed when a campus racial incident made national news?

"His leadership style is highly connected with his creativity. He is very focused. He thinks outside the box, and his is good at creating an engaging process that gets others to think about core issues," said Guskin.

Bassis had already earned a reputation as a skilled administrator at Antioch, where he implemented a new university-wide strategic-planning model and an ongoing academic-program review process. "Michael did a wonderful job in bringing together the senior leadership from the five Antioch campuses to work through some difficult issues," said Alan Guskin, then president of Antioch. "His ability to analyze and work through the organizational and personal issues that emerge from any major change was extraordinarily helpful," said Guskin. Yet, it was Olivet where he became nationally known and subsequently described in The Chronicle of Higher Education as a "restorer of trust at Olivet and a transformational leader."

When he arrived at Olivet, Bassis took an unusual approach: he charged his faculty with the responsibility for the basic
academic direction of the school. Guided by a set of design criteria Bassis provided, the faculty took three months to develop a new institutional vision statement titled "Education for Individual and Social Responsibility." When they presented this statement to the Olivet board of trustees, the trustees astounded everyone when they rose to their feet and gave the faculty a standing ovation.

Next, he asked the faculty to take their vision for the college and articulate what students should be expected to learn. Then he asked them to create an entirely new curriculum focused on these explicit learning outcomes. After six months of sustained effort, the faculty emerged with four different curricula proposals. However, after the first day of a two-day retreat, they could not reach consensus.

"Michael is inherently collaborative," said Guskin. "He reaches out to work with people, and he gets them to work together. Nonetheless, he can make those tough decisions if he can't get consensus."

That evening, after hosting a picnic for the retreat participants and their families at his home, Bassis asked the primary architects of the curriculum proposals to stay. He then sequestered them in his living room and said that no one would leave until they had an agreed-upon plan.

Several hours after the sequester, the group emerged with a synthesized version of the four proposals. The new proposal immediately received overwhelming faculty endorsement; some months later, the board endorsed the Olivet Plan. The plan took the college back to its then-150-year-old beginnings, when many schools addressed character development and social responsibility. Part of that plan included the Olivet Compact, a set of principles that defined what it meant to be a responsible member of the Olivet College community.

During his tenure at Olivet, Bassis reestablished Olivet's long-standing commitment to issues of cultural diversity; secured major foundation support for new initiatives; significantly increased total annual giving and enrollment; and developed partnership agreements with universities, community colleges, school districts, and community-based organizations. Over a period of five years, the college was recognized for the success of its efforts at institutional renewal by the American Council on Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the John Templeton Foundation.

International leadership guru Stephen R. Covey, a Utah resident, observed the whole process Bassis went through to transform the Olivet culture. "Michael is what I call a social ecologist," said Covey. "He understands the human as well as the physical environment, and that creates a culture that is really committed to its values and goals. People connect emotionally. It's a process of involvement and participation; he understands that concept and most people don't," he said.

Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, found Bassis "so outstanding and amazingly effective" that he used the Olivet story in his next book, Living the 7 Habits. "It was such a fascinating story of the transformation of an educational institution that I really wanted to include it," said Covey.

Many in higher education lauded the Olivet model. "We were all impressed and delighted with the educational vision that evolved at Olivet," said Carol Schneider, president, American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). "The work that was done benefited other schools," she added.

Schneider describes Bassis as "one of the most creative people I know in higher education. His leadership style is highly connected with his creativity. He is very focused. He thinks outside the box, and he is good at creating an engaging process that gets others to think about core issues."

Bassis's numerous papers and many presentations on teaching, learning, and leadership in education demonstrate his lifetime passion for the subjects. Even his personal reading reflects that passion.

Books he prizes include The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer and Leading with Soul by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal. "Both deal with the inner landscapes of the work I know best (teaching and organizational leadership). Both offer compelling lessons about finding passion and purpose in work and in life," said Bassis. He is also partial to Greek tragedies and disaster-at-sea stories. "Perhaps they provoke my thinking about how I might act under extreme conditions," he said.

Throughout his career, Bassis has demonstrated his penchant for, if not extreme conditions, then at least extremely challenging ones. "I am not a very good caretaker," he admits. "I am much more comfortable with an ambitious agenda." Not surprisingly, in 1998, with Olivet such a success, he accepted a new position as joint dean and warden of New College in Sarasota, Florida, and dean of the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee Campus. (Warden translates to president.) There he presided over New College's change in status from a college of the University of South Florida to an independent institution in the state university system.

A tenured professor of sociology at New College, Bassis took a sabbatical leave in 2001 to serve as senior development advisor for the AAC&U and as senior scholar at the Institute on the Future of Higher Education (IFHE), Antioch University, a higher-education think tank.

"Over the years, Dr. Bassis has worked with us on various initiatives related to diversity and educating students for social responsibility," said AAC&U's Schneider. "This year he has been helping us with our strategic plan and rethinking the goals of a 21st-century education," she said.

Bassis is one of 14 creative thinkers from across the country selected to work at the Institute on the Future of Higher Education. The institute is focused on the question "Given what we know about likely future social, technological, and economic realities, if we were creating a college or university today, what would it look like?"

During his time at the institute, Bassis produced a paper that is featured on the project's Web site. The paper examines colleges committed to the liberal arts that have broken some of the most fundamental and widely accepted rules for how to structure quality undergraduate programs. A shortened version of the paper will appear in the AAC&U publication Liberal Education. An excerpt begins on page 23.

For at least the next year, Bassis will remain involved with both of these organizations. This summer he will facilitate a panel presentation by college presidents at the AAC&U "Institute on Campus Leadership for Sustainable Innovation" in Virginia. Currently at the Project, he is working with others to develop models of undergraduate education that may result in more learning at a lower cost.

While a trained sociologist, Bassis describes his profession as "educator." "I believe deeply in the power of education to transform people's lives, and I am attracted to Westminster College because it takes that kind of education seriously," said Bassis. "The ambitious agenda I find here, articulated by so many members of the college community, is to make Westminster College known across the country as a powerful place for learning. That's the kind of challenge that gets my adrenaline flowing."

"Westminster is very fortunate to have this quality of person with such a broad and deep experience in the academic world and who genuinely cares for and respects other people," said Covey. "It is really a blessing, not only for Westminster, but also for our community and the state. I think you will see Westminster take off in some whole new ways. I don't know what they will be because they have to be produced by the faculty and the administrators. But you have an unusual catalyst in Michael to help pull that off."