Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler is a force to be reckoned with. In 2011, Tiefenthaler took over as President and has led a campaign to make CC a nationally competitive liberal arts college. Over the past year under Tiefenthaler the college has dropped its admission rate to 15.4 percent, the lowest in school history, and raised $40M in cash and pledges. Tiefenthaler graduated from St. Mary’s College in 1987, and said that very early in her undergraduate career she knew she wanted to pursue a life in academia and administration. Tiefenthaler is in her sixth year as president and continues to seek out “challenging and engaging work” in her professional life.
The Catalyst: A place that I have started with other interviewees in the past is where they envisioned themselves going when they finished their undergraduate degree. Where did you think you were heading?
Jill Tiefenthaler: When I graduated from my small, liberal arts college, St. Mary’s College, I was on my way to graduate school right away. I went to Duke and was planning on being an academic and a faculty member. I did that for quite a few years before I slowly moved into administration. I knew pretty early when I was an undergrad that I wanted to be an academic and I wanted to teach, and I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college.
TC: What do you think influenced that decision, and looking back, do you think going straight to graduate school was the best decision?
JT: What influenced my decision to become an academic was that pretty much right when I arrived on campus, when I arrived at St. Mary’s, I was so impressed by my faculty members and I just loved the idea of my classes, the broad liberal arts, the idea of living the life of the mind, and I also was pretty inspired by the women who were teachers there that had kind of a great, balanced life. They had both great careers, very professional careers, as well as having flexibility in family and hobbies and other things. It looked to me like a pretty good lifestyle. I went straight [to graduate school]. That was common back then, and it’s a lot less common today with this generation. I think our high school years and our college years, to some extent, were a lot less stressful—especially our high school years and getting into college. I didn’t feel burnt out and I was pretty sure what I wanted to do. I do look back on it now and wish I had taken a year to travel and do all those things you want to do. Straight out of grad school I got a job and I’ve been working ever since.
TC: If you weren’t working in the academic realm or the administrative realm what could you see yourself being fulfilled with doing in life?
JT: I always had this little pull to be an entrepreneur. My family owns this popcorn business in Iowa and both my siblings work with my dad, and they’re all very entrepreneurial. My brother has been on QVC lately trying to sell popcorn. It’s always been this little bit of an urge to try my hand in the entrepreneurial world. I grew up working for the business and it’s always been a big part of my life.
TC: When you talk about having a balanced life, when do you think that has been most difficult for you looking back? What does that mean for you now? How can you have a balanced life?
JT: It’s hard now. This is a big job. When you live on campus and you’re kind of in the spotlight, Colorado College is pretty much my life. I grew up on a farm. I’m a hard worker and I like to work. I feel very responsible to the board and the students and the alums and the faculty and the staff to do my very best for the college. I took that commitment. It has been the hardest in this job than any other. There’s a lot of travel in this job, which makes it even harder to balance. My kids are older now, which makes it easier. When I was provost at Wake Forest University, that was also a big job, and my kids were younger and I struggled there to make sure I had enough family time as well. The thing that always gets left aside is the hobbies and fun things. When you’re trying to be a mother and a wife and have this career, that’s the thing that gets left.
TC: In English classes, and arts classes in general, people talk about productive failure. How do you see that concept in your position as president of the college? You feel responsible to all these people. Is that an idea you embrace, productive failure? Or do you just want to do things correctly the first time.
JT: I think productive failure is a great thing to embrace. I think it can be hard when everybody’s watching, right. A big part of that is listening to people and being willing to back off and realize when you have made a mistake, and do something differently. You may not articulate it as much as failure, but ‘Oh, we tried that, now we’ll try something else.’ I do think it’s important to assess, and if you are scared of failing, you’ll never try anything. If you’re scared of ever admitting that you didn’t do it right, you’re in a bad spot because you’ll keep going when you should’ve stopped. I think we’ve done that here and I’ll continue to do that. The only way to not make mistakes is not to do anything. We make mistakes all the time. I’m a fairly decisive person. I think it’s one of my strengths. When you do make a lot of decisions, you’re probability of making some bad ones goes up. I know I’ve made some that I’ve learned a lot from and I can go through my career. It’s not necessarily just the decision, but how you get it and how you implement it as well. I’ve tried to learn from mistakes.
TC: Is there one mistake that sticks out in your mind, that has come up at CC, that you’ve learned a lot from?
JT: I’d say that most of the things that we’ve done that I’ve had regrets about have been around communicating. You think you’ve communicated, but just because you’ve said it doesn’t mean that people have heard it. I’ve tried to figure out better ways to communicate so that you’re heard. Just because you’ve put an email out doesn’t mean you can just check the box and say, ‘I’ve communicated.’ It’s hard and it’s getting harder and harder in our world to communicate because people have so much coming at them. We’re almost deaf, there’s so much at us all the time. It can be a struggle. I’m a very accomplishment-oriented person and so it has been about slowing myself down and paying attention to process and bringing people along.
TC: In your year of listening, do you think there were any issues or concerns that you identified then that haven’t been addressed to the level you’d want them to be?
JT: Two of the most consistent themes about things we needed to work on was one, diversity in the college, broadly defined. Second, helping students make the transition from college to the world of work. That time, it was 2011-2012 and the job market was really tough for our young grads. That was something I was hearing loud and clear, especially when I was on the road and meeting with young alums at events I held around the country. I would say that both of those are things we are continuing to work on, because they keep changing. Even though we’re making progress, it feels like the finish line is extended as well.
Diversity, I think we’ve done some really good work, in faculty, staff, and student diversity. I think we need to continue to work on bringing more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to the college. We have a nice endowment and we’re able to provide financial aid to a good chunk of the student body, but we’d like to be able to do even more for more students. That’s a big part of what I want to focus on in the coming years with the campaign, is raising those additional dollars for scholarships. I’m not satisfied with either of those two I might say. The world of work is getting tougher too, because it’s no longer where employers come to campus and hire people. We shouldn’t put the expectation out there any more that we are going to help you find a job. For one thing, a lot of students want to take some time after they leave college to do something for a few years and then come back. So we have to think more about career development. How do we help you get, not just the first job, but the eighth job? We still need to continue to work on building our network of alums. It’s strong but much more geographically dispersed than a lot of schools. So how do we a better job of using those resources, parents and alums, to help students.
TC: Is there an interaction with a young alum that sticks out in your mind? I was reading the CC Bulletin and there are so many young alums doing pretty awesome things.
JT: Well, it’s interesting, a lot of the young alums I actually knew here as students. Yesterday I was meeting with Tim Bruns, who is one of the young men who started Wadi Climbing*. He was here yesterday back on campus and we were talking about some collaborations between the college and his business. To actually have watched Will and Tim, when they were here with this idea, which a lot of people thought was crazy. To watch them compete for the big idea and then not do well. And then to watch them go and do it all and have incredible success. They are living in Ramallah and they have their own gym, they are hiring people there and really having an impact. It has been exciting to see. It was actually fun to send the judges of the Big Idea back then an email about how it was open. I think a lot of them thought, ‘this is a cool idea, but impossible.’ When you ask them, they will say ‘persistence.’ They just kept at it. They learned the language and they immersed themselves in the culture. They were just like dogs with bones. They wanted to get it done and they got it done, which is pretty inspiring.
TC: Where I am in my life, I think about my future a lot. How much do you do that, or think about what your trajectory as president looks like here at CC?
JT: The average presidency now is only around five years, but I’d say the average really good presidency is sort of 8-12 years, somewhere in there. I’m in my sixth year at the college and I love it here. I still have meaningful work to do and I’m excited about that work. This is not a job you do until retirement. At some point it will be time for someone with new ideas and someone who can bring different talents. It’s hard to admit where you’ve gone wrong too, so it’s good to let someone else pick that up and see your blind spots and improve things. I sort of see myself as being about midway through, assuming everything goes well and the board remains happy with everything I’m doing. I don’t know what’s next, it’s interesting because I’m pretty young for a college president when I started this, so whether that’s another job like this one or a job in a different sector doing meaningful and challenging work. It’s really important for me to have meaningful and challenging work. That’s what gets me up everyday.
TC: Do you have a place that you could pinpoint as the origin of your work ethic? You talked about growing up on a farm, how does that get instilled and when do you embrace that as an individual as opposed to someone telling you you should work hard?
JT: I’ve always just been a hard worker and I think a lot of it is just growing up on a farm. We worked as a family and we had chores and there were always high expectations for work, not only at home but I had younger siblings and I had a lot of responsibility very young. We also had really high expectations in school. My parents were very firm on the importance of getting a good education and having opportunity. I just became kind of driven to get things accomplished and I like work. Sometimes it’s even more fun to enjoy your free time when you feel like you’ve done well or accomplished something.
TC: We talked about this a little bit at your office hours the other night, but I did want to ask you about the divestment issue. Could you talk about your thoughts on the issue of divestment and if it’s likely to happen at any point? What has the board and yourself taken into account in making decisions?
JT: It’s a complicated issue. As we discussed the other day, I really do see both sides of it and I understand the passion, especially on some of our student’s perspective, but I also understand the responsibility many of our board members feel. While you hope you can live in every way the values you care about as an institution, the endowment has really been given over generations and generations to support certain chosen areas of the donors. Somebody who really loves scholarships or really cares about a faculty chair or a faculty development, they give their money to the college and expect that we will do our best to make sure there is intergenerational equity. Where it not only provides a scholarship today but it’s invested so it can provide a scholarship for every student now through 100 years from now. That means that you have to do pretty good investment-wise to be able to raise that value.
We take five percent a year on each of those scholarships to pay, so a million dollars would generate 50,000 to cover about a student scholarship and so you need that five percent, plus inflation to keep it. Somewhere you need to earn about eight percent, and that’s about what the endowment has done over the last decades. Many of our board members are concerned that by limiting the options of investment or screening our managers will lead to a less diversified portfolio or one that does not generate as much return as others. I think also concerns are, many of our board members have been on the board for a long time, and they’ve seen different areas come up from students that they’ve wanted us to divest from. They worry that it may be fossil fuels now, it could be some other area later and then what are you left with in terms of divesting. I think they also wonder what real impact it has on the issue.
While certainly there is something to say for making a symbolic effort or symbolic stand about something, I think many of them think it won’t have as big of an impact, for example, of buying stock and using your proxy vote to get responsible behavior by companies. Also, that we could do more as an institution around issues related to sustainability like stewarding our campus and educating our students. That’s where I think the board has really stepped up big time to help and made commitments like the library to go net-zero and doing the best we can around lots of efforts on campus to reduce our carbon emissions and increase our renewable energy and reduce waste and reduce water use. We’ve made great impact in that area as well.
TC: If you were to envision where the change would come from, if it ever did come, would it be on the economic side of things where responsible and sustainable investment options became profitable? How does the change arise exactly, if it ever does, if not at the level of our board members?
JT: I think the board has always been interested in looking at which of our current managers are and would be classified as social investing. I think impact investing is another change that is happening. I think there are growing opportunities for institutions to be more diversified in their portfolio and to be able to think about these kinds of screens. I also think that in the end it might be more constructive rather than thinking about what negative we’re trying to get out, what positive we’re trying to do with investing.
I see more and more national conversation on that issue in terms of ‘What is the impact of the good things you’re doing?’ as opposed to ‘What are the no-nos.’ I think the conversation will continue. I think the trustees have been open to it and interested in learning and I think students learn a lot from the conversations too.
TC: Sort of off the path of what we have been talking about, but what’s a movie that always makes you cry?
JT: Probably one of my favorite movies and one that would, you know, I cry at a lot of movies actually and even some commercials. The Piano with Holly Hunter, Schindler’s List was another one, it doesn’t take a lot.
TC: What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
JT: I’m reading “The Underground Railroa.” It just won the National Book Award. I just loaded up my Kindle with the finalists from that for my Christmas Break. I just finished “The Crown” on Netflix. We lived in London many times and I enjoyed that. That was a good series, kind of fun and easy to work out to. I would recommend it. I also just finished another one. I like the BBC shows on Netflix and I just finished “Paranoid.” If you want a kind of mindless British thriller, it was kind of interesting as well.