While The American College President Study reports a downtrend nationally in average leadership tenure—from eight and a half years in 2006 to an average of seven years in 2011—Trine University President Dr. Earl D. Brooks II completes 15 years at the helm, with ongoing plans firmly in place for years to come. When Brooks stepped into leadership 15 years ago, he was the youngest college president in the state. Now, he ranks second on the list of longest tenures at Indiana colleges and universities.
Why is Trine celebrating Dr. Brooks’ tenure? What has defined his success over the past 15 years? His list of accomplishments is too long to enumerate here, but some highlights include:
To celebrate what has been accomplished under Dr. Brooks’ leadership, however, must lead naturally to a discussion of why he has been so successful. “I started in the classroom teaching, which I still love,” says Brooks. “You never grow tired of that exposure to young people.” After teaching biology and physiology, Brooks worked his way up from classroom professor to department chair, then to school dean. At universities in Tennessee and Delaware, he served as both vice president for academic affairs and executive vice president/chief operating officer, eventually becoming immersed in the various operations of a college campus.
But three years into his role as chief academic officer at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, Brooks awakened to the crucial function of fundraising and development. Consequently, his academic history and his fundraising experience together produced a love for administration that prompted his desire to pursue the presidency. “I’d learned through that process the two most critical areas for the success of an institution,” says Brooks: “The enrollment aspect and the fundraising aspect.” He attributes part of Trine’s success as a team to understanding and focusing on those two priorities. “Financially, enrollment and fundraising drive the institution.”
The fact that higher education has seen drastic changes during Dr. Brooks’ tenure emphasizes its focus. “Higher education has become more and more of a business,” he says. “We’ve learned to operate like a business.” Schools are becoming consumer-driven now, which makes the student a customer. “Kids arriving today need an education with a career in mind.”
Trine’s astonishing 99.7 percent career-placement average for graduates is hardwired directly to the school’s career focus. “We’re fortunate to be a school that is more professional-oriented in our degree offerings, which gives us a clear advantage,” says Brooks. Possibly the greater advantage for students, however, is the school’s connection to local business and industry. By arranging practicums and internships with local companies, the faculty sets up its students to gain valuable experience outside the classroom and to build relationships with potential employers. “The key to success today—particularly on the education side, but also the job-placement side—is that linkage to business and industry,” says Brooks. In fact, all new programming at Trine is seen through the lens of its potential for career outcomes.
If Dr. Brooks had a word of advice for his peers, he might add two elements to the list of reasons why he has succeeded as a leader. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Be bold,” he says. “Be bold in your vision, stick to your beliefs, listen to the market but don’t be afraid to take a calculated risk.” Second, drop the long-range planning. “I’m not sure that long-range planning fits higher education,” he says. “Ten-year plans don’t fit, so we’ve adopted a philosophy we call a rolling three-year plan.”
Here again, a look at why Dr. Brooks has succeeded must be cut short, primarily because the president would rather talk about who has made him successful. “People make the institution. You try to hire great people with talents greater than yours and not be threatened by that,” he says with warmth and a wry smile. Indeed, the plaque on his desk reads, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Whether luck or talent, Brooks has the knack for attracting good people to an organization at all levels—faculty, staff, board of trustees, donors and, of course, students. “You need good people to lead an amazing transformation,” he says.
And while Brooks is no longer in the classroom, he still finds multiple ways to engage the students. He maintains an open-door policy with them, an ideal that one might question until Brooks hands you his business card, which includes his home phone number. “That connection with students is something that just never goes away,” he says.
This year, Trine University is celebrating the 15-year tenure of its president, Dr. Earl D. Brooks II, and for good reason. He has done much and he has gone far, and for that, he deserves a fair share of the credit.
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