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Connelly Seeks Positive Morale, Stability At LU

FARMVILLE – Marge Connolly knew exactly what she was stepping into when she agreed to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Finnegan, becoming interim president following his unexpected resignation this summer due to health issues.

The shoe fits comfortably because the career banker was on Longwood's Board of Visitors for eight years, through June 30, including a stint as the board's rector.

And because she is comfortable with very large organizations. Connolly, who hosted community leaders for a breakfast presentation Tuesday morning, served in top leadership positions for Barclaycard, Wachovia Securities, and Capitol One Financial Services.

She believes those eight years on LU's board will be “hugely helpful” in successfully fulfilling the duties of a university president, interim or otherwise.

“First of all,” she said in an interview with The Herald, “I'm familiar with the specific issues associated with Longwood. I'm familiar with the broader issues related to higher education in Virginia. And probably most importantly I have relationships, relationships with key members of faculty, with staff, with other board members and I think that really has enabled us to get traction very quickly.”

She understands there are nuances to the job of being an interim, someone not hired to take the university off in a new direction-a caretaker, in a sense, but moving forward to confidently achieve the university's goals.

“Yes,” she said of those inherent subtleties, “I think a lot of it is trying to catalyze and optimize a lot of the activities that are already underway. So it really is providing leadership and sometimes acting as a convener. But there is a stated mission, there is a stated vision, and there are lots of great activities but how do you really bring them to fruition?

“So I think as an interim that's a key role to play. Not creating a new strategy, per se, but defining what are the strategic initiatives and how do we line ourselves up and organize ourselves and align resources in order to get those things done,” she said. “And this is where I think my business background is helpful. My financial background has been in financial services but it's been oriented toward operations, which is very much about how you utilize assets and resources to deliver the best results,” she said.

Expanding on the way her business background can help Longwood now, she said, “I've been in charge of large complex organizations and clearly there's a breadth associated with a university, so I feel that the skills I developed in business…are very helpful here.

“Being familiar just with balance sheets and financial management, obviously was a very big deal in my prior role,” she observed, “and extremely important here. And then, lastly, a good portion of my prior role did involve external stakeholder management and whether that was government relations kind of activities, investor relations activities, community relations, those things, again, have a very important role in an interim president's job as well.”

Connolly, who defines leadership as “being able to create an environment that allows folks to bring their very best to the table,” believes Longwood offers students a rare environment to achieve, to grow intellectually and also as a human being.

The greatest challenge facing the university, she said, is getting the balance right, the balancing act of offering the benefits of a smaller institution of higher learning with the best of what a larger institution has to offer.

“I actually think that Longwood is capable of providing students with what I'll call the best of both worlds. You truly can have it all. And by that I mean the kind of intimacy and personal attention associated with a smaller university but at the same time the breadth of experience associated with a large university,” Connolly explained.

“So we really have a growing, diverse set of academic offerings. Our advances in athletics provide, I think, for additional great experiences for our students. We continue to grow the campus…But we haven't lost, and we can't lose, the caring and in some ways nurturing kind of environment that we've been able to create and sustain for years,” she continued. “I think this is our 174th year, so how do we continue to combine both of those things, with financial pressures, new technologies, etcetera; but I think we can, I know we can, do it.”

Maintaining that advantage requires valued contributions from all corners of the campus.

“It's about getting everybody involved and focused on delivering exactly that. And there will be thousands of individual moves that we'll have to very thoughtfully take in order to get that balance right, so I don't know how to describe it to you in a bullet point at this stage of the game, but, again, I absolutely believe we'll be able to deliver that and I think that's going to be a real distinctive advantage for the school,” she affirmed.

Longwood's great strength, in fact, is the university's “focus on the student,” she said.

An individual focus.

A focus on the person.

Not an accumulation of enrollment statistics but a gathering of human beings joined in a common endeavor.

And all of that happening right in the center of the Town of Farmville.

Assessing LU's relationship with its hometown, Connolly doesn't hesitate.

“I think it's good. I've had the opportunity to meet a number of the leaders in the community and all of them have told me they felt there was a good relationship there,” she enthused. “And I think we all also agree that there's more we can do.”

Transparency is a vital component of the relationship.

“I think it's clear that we are a large presence in the community and therefore virtually anything we do is going to have an impact on the community,” she said. “And I think that overwhelmingly that impact will have a tendency to be positive. But it still requires, at times, planning. And so I think the degree to which we can be transparent-and I don't think we tried to not be transparent; I think it's have we invested enough in engaging and communicating? I don't think there's ever been an effort to hide,” Connolly continued, “but I do think we can put more energy into ensuring that we're communicating our plans and activities in a clear and proactive kind of way.” (See page one story on Connolly's remarks to Town Council)

Longwood has a powerfully positive impact on Farmville and the surrounding region and Connolly believes the ripples can be expanded and enhanced.

“We do believe that we would like to have some incremental growth. And we're not talking about huge growth. At this stage of the game we have a target of 5,600 students as kind of our stated strategic target over the next several years. I think that growth does have a tendency to bring in positive economic activity, so I think that's one mechanism,” she evaluated.

“I also think that a lot of the (academic) programs that we provide enable us to actually deliver service to the community,” she said.

The Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Connolly points out, “provides a venue for people in the community to both appreciate art but also learn about art, and I think that's great. So there's a list (of positives). Probably the biggest positive impact that I think we have, and can have, is through our teachers, meaning the students that we're educating to be teachers. The better we can make them, the more that we can engage in schools, and subsequently the more that we can provide support and continuing education to teachers I think that is a hugely leveraged impact. Those people go out and they impact 30 kids who grow up to be future leaders and that's a very big deal, and obviously we have a long history and deep roots in that field.”

Connolly, meanwhile, is addressing Longwood's great need for a successful interim president to continue the institution's forward progress.

Someone suggested to Connolly that she consider offering herself as interim president and it made sense to her.

“The suggestion came up, having been rector and very involved with Longwood, and also being between jobs at this stage of the game. I looked at the situation and said, 'Well, I think this is something I'd like to do and I think it's a way I can continue to create value for Longwood.' The other factor was that my time on the board was going to be up…so I looked at this as a way to continue my relationship.”

How will she evaluate her interim-ship when it ends? What will constitute success?

“I think that we will be able to clearly state what we have delivered around goals, around student success,” she answered. “I think we will have some more streamlined internal (processes) which will lead to efficiency and I think that we'll have a general mood on campus that absolutely is about 'Yes, we can. Or Yes, you can have it all and we can deliver the best of both of these two worlds.”

And would Connolly be willing to be considered for full-time appointment as president of Longwood?

“I think it's premature to state that. I've been here a couple of months,” she replies. “What I want in the long-run is what's best for Longwood. If I come to believe that I offer that best then that would be something for me to discuss with the Board. Right now, though, I really want to focus on creating that stability and that positive morale on campus this year.”