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Sue Cunningham, President, Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Sue Cunningham President, Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Sue Cunningham’s career has taken her to England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, and even Hong Kong, she claims Berkeley, California, as her birthplace. Due to a “brain drain” from the UK and Europe to the United States, her father, a microbiologist with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Cambridge, was recruited by the University of California Berkeley, and it was there that Sue was born.

When Sue was nine, the family moved back to London where she studied at the prestigious Godolphin and Latymer day school. Work in the theater world, and ultimately, advancement, followed, culminating in a position that has her calling the States home once again. Sue is the newly appointed president for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and in this interview, she discusses the illustrious career that helped land her there.

Q. You graduated with honors from Middlesex University in London with a degree in the performing arts. How and why did you get into development?

A. When I look back now at my career, my early work in the performing arts makes sense in terms of the skill set it has given me and the opportunity to be where I am now. If you would have asked me when I was 21 years old and ending my undergraduate experience, “Can you see yourself as being president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education?”, I would have had no inkling of that being my career trajectory.

I fell in love with theatre when I was in high school. The performing arts curriculum at Middlesex offered a perfect combination of being able to study theatre, music and dance not only practically, but also in terms of its literature, theory and history.

I went on to work in stage management at Theatr Clwyd in North Wales. For me, the enjoyment of working in theatre was very much tied in with delivering great productions as a close-knit team. It was about working together on a project which had big ambitions, serious deadlines and tight budgets. You needed to be utterly diplomatic in making sure the actors were where you needed them to be and ensuring that the show ran smoothly, night after night. For someone in their twenties to have that level of responsibility, along with the excitement of working in a field that I was passionate about, was a great opportunity.

Q. Those skills that you learned in terms of organization and team building obviously transferred into your development and advancement work.

A: Theatr Clwyd was an exciting place. It was run, for most of the years I was there, by an artistic director named Toby Robertson who had worked in London in the 1960s. Then he left the country and came back to the Theatr Clwyd job from Canada. Once there, he brought many of the people that he’d worked with in London—actors including Vanessa Redgrave, Rex Harrison, Timothy Dalton, and Derek Jacobi—an impressive array of actors, both emerging and actors who were already well known. It was a very interesting experience.

Q. You then went from the theatre world to the development world at Ffotogallery in Wales. How did that transition happen?

A. In my experience, stage managers, apart from those working on Broadway or in the West End of London, tend not to go beyond their 30th birthday. It’s a very, very enjoyable but very full-on role.

During my time at Theatr Clwyd, I was promoted into arts administration. When I moved to South Wales, I considered different roles in arts administration, and the position of development manager at Ffotogallery, which was Wales’ national photographic gallery, came up. As in many arts organizations, if you’re working in administration, fundraising and external relations are part of your role. This was my first opportunity to fundraise in addition to being responsible for marketing, communications, exhibition touring and education programs. I very much enjoyed my job and the opportunity to play a key role in developing the organization.

I moved from there to run the development office for the National Museum Wales, which is composed of museums around the country. At the time I was there that included everything from the Welsh Folk Museum, which is a wonderful collection of buildings from around Wales brought there to be saved from demolition or decay, to a museum of the Welsh woollen industry to a slate museum in North Wales to a fabulous gallery in Cardiff, which had both geological and natural history exhibitions. There was also a marvelous collection of impressionist art there, collected by the Davies sisters from across Europe in the early 20th century.

One of the delightful things about being at the National Museum Wales was that the Museums’ Director, Colin Ford, had also come from a theatre background. He and I really connected. I organized, for example, the launch of the new corporate identity of museums with a theatrical event with sound and lights. We brought theatre into the museums. It was an empowering experience.

Q. You then moved into higher education with the director of external relations role at the University of St. Andrews. What prompted you to make that switch?

A. This was the first role for which my mother was immensely proud because I was ‘head-hunted’ for the position! (laughs). The role was leading the External Relations Department, initially as deputy, but then taking on the director’s position six months later. I managed the publications team, fundraising, alumni relations, communications and events.

I don’t know if you’ve been to the University of St. Andrews, but it’s an impressive place, a beautiful place. And for me, it also represented another chance to discover and immerse myself in a different culture. Having lived in England and the U.S. and Wales, it was great to have the opportunity to experience Scotland for the first time. I also enjoyed preparing for my first fundraising Campaign.

Q. Were you intimidated at all by the fact that it was a completely different sector?

A. A little. But in some respects, if you grow up in an academic family, there are some very familiar aspects to the university sector even if you haven’t worked directly in it yourself. I remember sitting down with my father and asking, what do I need to know moving into the university sector? His answer was: the key thing that you need to understand is that academic institutions are for academics, run by academics, and that you should never lose sight of that.

Q. And is that still true today?

A. I think the university world is changing. Whilst in times past university senior leadership came primarily from an academic background, I am pleased that there are increasing examples of senior advancement professionals being sought out to run educational institutions. Furthermore, in my own direct experience, I hope that the roles that I’ve been in at different institutions illustrate the growing recognition of the value of professional leadership and expertise.

At the University of Melbourne, for example, the senior professional staff worked hand in hand with the senior academic staff—the dynamic of mutual respect and collaboration worked very well in support of the university.

Q. Can you talk about any differences that you note between arts and higher education?

A. Clearly when you’re looking at educational institutions, you have a wonderfully ready-crafted constituency of alumni—even if you may need to invest time and resources in rediscovering them. In arts organizations, you have to create affinity groups, whether it be around memberships or subscribers or tiered programs. You have to craft your stakeholder groups.

Ultimately, so much of the advancement and related professions, whether it be marketing, communications, alumni relations, development or advancement services, are centered on building relationships based upon a common sense of passion, energy and drive. Both arts and education have plenty to engage with and be passionate about.

Q. Your career trajectory has been amazing, progressing from St. Andrews to development director positions at Christ Church, Oxford and eventually the University of Oxford itself. You then landed the vice president of advancement role at Australia’s leading school, the University of Melbourne. Did that accomplishment meet or exceed your expectations? What about it surprised you?

A. Number one: it was a fabulous experience. It gave me the opportunity to sit at the senior leadership table. As I reflected earlier, Melbourne was an institution that truly embraced the value of professional leadership. That partnership between professional leadership and academic leadership in my experience was hugely empowering and a great opportunity to work closely with 11 academic deans advancing their combined visions.

The university president there, Professor Glyn Davis, is a truly remarkable leader. Working with him was tremendous. He joined the university in 2005. At the time, the University of Melbourne had about 120 undergraduate degrees. Within three years, based on a deep understanding of the vitality of a liberal arts education, he led the transition to six undergraduate degrees and the establishment of a set of world-leading graduate schools. To have made that transition in a three-year period, building consensus along the way, is an exceptional demonstration of visionary leadership. Not only has the ‘Melbourne Model’ created an entirely new model for university education in Australia but its success has drawn other Australian universities, and a Scottish one, to adopt the model. Furthermore, the university has, under Glyn’s leadership, moved into the top fifty in the world rankings and attracts students from across the globe. One of my proudest moments at Melbourne was when Glyn was recognised for his leadership by CASE—when he was awarded with the CASE Asia-Pacific Leadership Award in 2013.

Q. Certainly your time in Melbourne was extremely positive. Have you found that challenges around the relationships between CDOs, presidents and boards are different overseas—or the same?

A: The dynamics in these vital relationships have much in common internationally. I think it’s a question of evolution and the growing understanding of the value and impact of having senior communications, marketing, development and alumni relations professionals involved at a high and strategic level.

There are many examples here and in other parts of the world where people working across the advancement professions are valued, and so they are able to have a significant impact upon their institutions. Where advancement is new to a school or university, the programs and staff need to be nurtured. There also needs to be the understanding that it takes time to build and develop effective programs. It is important not to lose sight of the overall goal of building partnerships and relationships in order to advance the organization.

Q. From someone coming from a whole different profession into development, you rose very quickly to lead teams. To what do you attribute that?

A. In part I’d attribute it to the fact that the pool of people who have experience and expertise in the world of advancement is too shallow. In every part of the world that’s true.

Therefore, over the last 15 or 20 years, there’s been a clear progression of people moving swiftly up the career ladder. Obviously, there are advantages to that individual in terms of opportunities and experiences, but it’s also an area that one needs to be really careful about because people can be thrust into positions of seniority without really feeling they’ve had sufficient support or enough experience to be in the right place to succeed. Obviously, you don’t want anyone going into any role without really believing they can be successful for themselves and for the institution. Providing strong staff development programs is vital to support and retain excellent staff. CASE is committed in serving its membership in this regard, in offering tailored programs and conferences nationally and internationally.

Q. You recently became the new president of CASE based here in the States. What is your personal vision for this role?

A. CASE has been a beacon in my professional career. CASE supported me in my transition from working in the arts to moving into education. It has provided programs to develop my expertise and experience and introduced me to a network of people who have supported me on that journey. CASE has been the constant.

When the opportunity first became available for putting myself forward in the role as president, it brought many, many roads together. This included my passion for the organization as a member and volunteer together with a growing interest in leadership. If one wants to lead, then you have to work in an organization you care deeply about. CASE is beyond compare in my book in that regard.

Early on in my presidency, one of my main objectives is to take the time to learn about our membership and to understand how best we serve them. I’ve been involved with CASE as a member and volunteer for over 18 years and so have a strong sense of some aspects of the organization. The breadth of what CASE provides in terms of staff development, research, advocacy and member services is significant and there is much, therefore, for me to learn. I shall be making the time over the coming months to get out and meet with our members across North America and internationally. If one just takes the last two weeks by example, I was in Singapore at the CASE Asia-Pacific Conference where we had the first meeting of the CASE Asia-Pacific Board chaired by Peter Mathieson, who’s the president of Hong Kong University. I had a night at home and then flew up to Chicago for the CASE Commission meetings. It was superb to meet with a group of dedicated and experienced professionals all connecting to discuss emerging issues across the sector and advising CASE on future trends and what the membership might most need from their association.

Then I flew to New Orleans for the Conference for Institutionally Related Foundations. The Center for Community College Advancement Advisory Committee was also meeting there. We also announced the two Commonfund award recipients—an exciting few days!

Q. How long do you think it’s going to take you to get that comprehensive view?

A. Six to 12 months initially, although the reality is learning, truly learning the organization, will take a lot longer than that. There’s clearly a tipping point of continuing to learn but also beginning to have what I hope is a positive impact, working with an excellent team here at CASE.

Q. How will CASE assist with the issue of recruitment in fundraising?

A. This is an area of concern and huge importance across CASE membership institutions and is true in every part of the world.

Of course, many of our member institutions are producing remarkable, bright young graduates every single year, but the proportion of those people who even have any concept about the advancement professions is not as extensive as one would hope. There are programs that CASE has initiated to address this. For example, I was involved in CASE Europe and the introduction of the CASE Europe Graduate Trainee program. In its first year, over 800 graduating students applied for eight trainee positions in university advancement offices.

CASE in the USA runs the CASE ASAP—which comprises student alumni associations, student foundations and similar organizations at more than 300 CASE member institutions. Its goal is to foster and enhance student involvement in all areas of advancement. CASE ASAP has an annual conference for student members. This year, it’s in Washington, D.C. Several hundred students will come together who are, in their own institutions, working with colleagues across advancement.

We’re also putting an emphasis on diversity. The whole area of diversity is a critical one; we’re committed to supporting how best and most effectively we might ensure greater opportunity and inclusion across the advancement professions.

We need to keep building. I think a key part of that is increasing the awareness of these professions. Having been part of it for many years, there is no better actually. To learn about the opportunities and then to be a part of it is a very exciting way to spend your career.

Q. What advice would you give to aspiring CDOs?

A. Do what you’re doing with integrity and commitment to your institution and to your organization. Don’t lose sight of the fact that what you’re doing is seeking to advance the work of the institution rather than advancing yourself. Of course, working in education, advancing work of the institution means nothing less than transforming lives.

The most succinct piece of advice I would give is one that I was given when I was moving from my role at Christ Church, Oxford (one of the 38 colleges there) where I was director of development for five years. I was moving from managing a team of six people to leading a team of what was ultimately over 80 staff. I asked my Campaign board chairman, Sir David Scholey, what he would advise me in terms of preparing for that huge growth in team leadership. He said, “Sue, there’s just one simple piece of advice I’d give you. Only do what only you can do.”

That’s very powerful. When you’re leading smaller teams, you do need to leap into all sorts of things and roll your sleeves up and get involved. If leading a larger team or organization, behaving the same way is not the best thing you can do for your organization. You don’t often see a conductor get off the podium and start playing the double bass. The musician can do that brilliantly. It is important that leaders focus on what they, and only they, can do by supporting their teams to succeed.

I’m learning more and more every day how impressive, able and dedicated the team at CASE is. Therefore, it’s important to really isolate the things that only I can do in the context of being the president, to best support and advance their important work for the membership of CASE.

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