Conversation with the President - March 8, 2012
|Tai Sophia President and CEO Frank Vitale Talks with CEO Council Delegation Chairs
Dear Tai Sophia Community,
In speaking with various members of our community, I realized that there are many questions related to numerous developments at the Institute, including our plans to become a university, our adherence to our values during a time of transition and growth, and our financial and partnership activities, among other topics about which you might have questions.
Based on these conversations, I recently initiated a meeting with the CEO Council Delegation Chairs to hear the questions and concerns that you have shared with them and to provide a forum for us to discuss these critical issues and provide answers. This letter reflects what I heard and shared during this conversation.
Tai Sophia Institute is known as a place where people care for students, for faculty and staff, and for the legacy and future of this institution. The history of the Institute is one of collaboration and everyone’s voice has a right to be heard. This letter reflects that spirit and represents what is an ongoing dialogue between students, faculty, and staff.
– Frank Vitale, President and CEO
Participants in the meeting with President Vitale were Barbara Ellrich, Co-chair of the CEO Council; Kaiya Larson, Chair of the Faculty Delegation; Derrick Jackson, Chair of the Student Delegation; and Stuart Rhodes, Chair of the Staff Delegation.
Q: Kaiya Larson: What is the current status of progress towards achieving our strategic vision to become a university?
A: The thought of attaining university status dates back to March 1998 when there was a conversation among members of the Board of Trustees and among the senior leadership of the Institute. It was in January 2009 that a formal plan to become a university was first presented to the board. That was approved and has been developing over the past three years. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to introduce a number of new academic programs, beginning initially with some post-baccalaureate certificates and then evolving into new degree programs like the Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health, which started in September 2011. There are a number of other academic programs that will be introduced between now and September 2012. Our goal is to fulfill the Institute’s mission and reach the larger world with expanded academic offerings delivered by our highly experienced faculty. The field of integrative medicine is rapidly growing and Tai Sophia needs to remain in the forefront of its continued evolution.
Q: Kaiya Larson: Do we need to create a bachelor’s degree and graduate the first class before we can call ourselves a university?
A: Generally speaking, the basis for becoming a university in the state of Maryland includes the offering of bachelor’s degree programs. Our plan is to move forward with that within the next two to three years. We would offer the upper 60 credits of a bachelor’s program through articulation agreements with various community colleges and other colleges. Right now, we’re looking at two possible academic programs to be launched at that time. In addition, we have identified a number of doctoral programs that we would like to eventually offer, but they’ll come later.
Q: Derrick Jackson: Can you explain how the transition to Tai Sophia University still embodies the original vision of the founders and includes Bob Duggan and Dianne Connelly, as well as other founding faculty and elders as mentors? Also how will we ensure that SOPHIA principles are cultivated among future generations of students?
A: Our founders and board members in 1998 had the vision for Tai Sophia University sometime in the future. So we’re at a point now where we’re making that happen. And I think it’s really important that we achieve university status because it would be extremely beneficial to the Institute as a whole in terms of our academic, clinical, and research activities. Bob and Dianne continue to serve as faculty at the Institute. We also have faculty that, for the most part, received their education here at Tai Sophia and have its values, teaching principles, and culture firmly embedded. As we have expanded our academic offerings, we are finding that some of the elders that had been here at one time are even now coming back to teach.
We need to make certain that as we grow, as we add faculty and staff, that those new individuals go through a process of learning what we teach and how we teach it. There’s a Foundations of Health and Wellness course that’s taught here that has a certain amount of our SOPHIA principles in it and it’s also being incorporated into other parts of the academic curriculum.
Q: Derrick Jackson: Do you have any plan to do an assessment where you’re checking the pulse of that?
A: Yes. As you know, we have our Middle States accreditation visit coming up and assessment is a big part of that. We just posted a position for an associate vice president of Institutional Assessment and Planning. That person will devise assessment tools to really look at just about everything that we do with the objective of making us better. This person will report directly to me. We will also, I believe before this year is out, hire someone within the academic department who will be creating new approaches to academic assessment with the faculty and reporting to Dr. Judi Broida.
Q: Derrick Jackson: How will the plan to become a university benefit current students?
A: As the Institute gains academic recognition in the larger world, acquiring a degree or a credential from the university will have a certain prestige to it. So I really think that is a huge benefit. In addition to that, there is the notion that as a university, our academic offerings are going to be enriched by the work that we do in research, and the expanded work we will be doing in clinical studies. All of that is going to be very helpful to both past and future students.
Q: Derrick Jackson: What is the overall governance structure currently at Tai Sophia? And as President and CEO, how do you manage the process of making decisions on a day-to-day basis?
A: The overall governance is the responsibility of the Board of Trustees. We now have ten members of the board—highly reputable individuals with a cross section of experience in academics, business, finance, law, and the health and wellness field. We have a prestigious board that takes very seriously its fiduciary responsibility in terms of the governance of the Institute as a whole. For example, we’ve recently added Dr. Brian Berman, who has a wonderful reputation as the Director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland. Also serving on the board is Adele Wilzack, the former Secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for the state of Maryland. And our Chair, Sherman Cohn, has a long history of support, both professionally and personally, of the field of acupuncture. He’s been a tenured professor of law at Georgetown for some 46 years and has been very closely associated with the acupuncture industry in the United States for the better part of 20-plus years. He was the first Chair of what is now known as the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM). Other members of the board are equally qualified to lead our institution and each is committed to the Institute’s success.
As President and CEO, I am directly responsible to the Board of Trustees for the welfare of the Institute. In terms of the day-to-day activities, we have an Executive Management Committee made up of ten individuals representing both academic and administrative functions.
In addition, we have a faculty senate with a curriculum subcommittee that has responsibility for oversight of the academic integrity of this Institute. We also have a leadership team comprised of each of the department heads, and the budget-holders. It’s a very broad approach to the governance and the management of the Institute.
Q: Kaiya Larson: Clearly Tai Sophia’s going through a lot of change and academic growth right now. How are we continuing to preserve the traditions and the essence of Tai Sophia during this time?
A: It is important to continue to always reflect on what has made Tai Sophia so unique — and that is largely its approach to teaching. For example, healing presence and our relationship-centered approach are truly at the heart of what is called our core competency and what distinguishes Tai Sophia from other institutions. I have often heard from patients who have had experience with different acupuncturists, and they all say that Tai Sophia grads stand out as practitioners, as healers.
There are many other factors that distinguish Tai Sophia from other institutions, and I think one of those is that we are a community. We must make sure that we hold onto the underlying fundamental principles that make our academic programs what they are, and as new faculty and staff join in, they get the training that they need to make sure that they have the essence of Tai Sophia.
Q: Stuart Rhodes: As the Institute grows, what plans have been made regarding the physical plant for housing additional students that we see coming and additional faculty and staff that will be needed? Are we thinking about a new building or acquiring space?
A: We realize that facilities and technology are really going to be critical to supporting our academic growth. So we have engaged an architect to look at making sure that the space within this building is being fully utilized in the most efficient way. Second, I just met with real estate professionals to discuss the financial aspects of possibly obtaining a portion of space across the street in a one-story building that was recently vacated.
Our new Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health program needs a teaching kitchen, because right now we’re leasing space at a local high school and having to move all our equipment from here to there and back. And we really want to look at a space to build our own teaching kitchen.
Q: Stuart Rhodes: Are there technical and IT advances that we can expect to see as we continue to grow?
A: Information technology is critical to our present and future growth. There’s no question that our entire network is going to have to be expanded. We have an excellent technology team and we need to support their ingenuity with capital. So, yes, it’s definitely something we will invest in.
Q: Kaiya Larson: Could you give an update on our current financial status, including the repayment of debt and the possibility of forming a strategic partnership?
A: In January of this year, we achieved our goal of being operationally cash flow positive measured on the basis that we can pay our operating expenses without the use of either contributions or additional debt. However, the Institute still carries an abundance of debt—too much debt for the size of the Institute today. We appreciate what it took to create Tai Sophia and we are working hard to fulfill our obligations to all the Institute’s creditors, large and small.
One source of debt is the campus. The land surpasses the liability we have on the property, so we have equity in the land and the building. We also have a group of individuals and a company that has loaned Tai Sophia money over the years, and that’s the money that we really need to pay back as soon as possible. The Board of Trustees and the Executive Management Team are committed to doing that in as prudent and fast a manner as possible and we will achieve that goal.
Q: Kaiya Larson: How are we doing with the possibility of forming a strategic partnership?
A: For more than a year now we have been on a journey that Dr. Broida calls speed dating. We’ve spoken to more than 20 different organizations. And you might say, “Well, geez, why don’t we already have a partner?” Well, we’re looking for a partner that truly shares our vision, our mission, and our values, and is committed to our teaching principles. We want a strategic partner who brings something to the table that would, in the end, create a multiplying factor. For example, an organization with a strong presence in the delivery of online learning would bring something hugely beneficial to our academic platform. Our most recent plan is to move forward as an independent entity committed to building a position of leadership in the field of health and wellness education and creating an exceptional experience for each and every enrolled student. We are capable of accomplishing this goal and in so doing, meeting all our obligations, including fulfillment of our financial obligations to our creditors.
Q: Kaiya Larson: Can you tell us about the status of the fundraising department?
A: We had a fundraising effort and disbanded it back in the fall of 2010. It wasn’t ethical to be going out asking for donations when it appeared that we were going to be acquired by another organization. Now, however, we’re at a point where we are looking very hard at revitalizing our fundraising efforts. I see this as a major part of my responsibilities at Tai Sophia—providing the financial resources and tools to our faculty and staff so that we can be successful.
Q: Stuart Rhodes: Would you be willing to give just a brief overview of some of the transitions on the Board of Trustees this year, including the departure of the founders and the addition of some new members?
A: The leadership transition for Tai Sophia has been on the drawing board for six years now. Bob and Dianne have always said that their goal was to gradually remove themselves from the day-to-day operating of the Institute to focus on teaching, practicing, writing, and advocating. They continue to serve on the faculty and they continue to involve themselves with activities such as Redefining Health (join our next class). The last move in their transition was officially stepping down from the board in October of last year.
Obviously, we are deeply indebted to both Bob and Dianne for the creation of Tai Sophia Institute and for their continuing invaluable contributions as we continue to evolve on a foundation of strong values and learning. We are also indebted to two other members of the board—Cornelis (Cees) Wortel and Joanne Frederick—who stepped down in January as their terms expired. Both had made many contributions over the three years that they partnered with the full board and with the Tai Sophia community. So essentially we lost four members from our board and added three in January of this year. We fully expect that we’ll add a few more board members as time goes on.
Q: Kaiya Larson: Can you tell us about our plan to build relationships with organizations that might need our expertise, and are we going to create internships or research opportunities or other scholarship activities?
A: We have a number of academic collaborations in place right now, for example, with the College of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, Howard Community College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Another relationship that is developing is with the Health Sciences School of Excelsior College in Albany. As we move forward, we will develop more academic collaborations that provide for academic development, research, and exchanges of students between institutions. We’re also looking at ways in which students can partake of outside clinic activities, such as internships at hospitals, integrative clinics out in the community, and group practices run by trained alums to get firsthand experience. We’re interested in activities that would further enhance student experience and faculty development, which is critically important to us. We also have a research collaboration with the McCormick Science Institute, and we’re looking to build more research collaborations.
Q: Derrick Jackson: In the plan to continue to grow our clinical and practical opportunities for students, can you explain how the Institute is promoting and marketing the student clinic?
A: I think we’ve done a lot to get to where we feel comfortable with the decision to consolidate the clinic operations in Laurel to further develop programming that benefits our students in the clinic stage of their education at Tai Sophia. We have started a marketing campaign to attract new clients to our student teaching clinic. I understand that our first ad is really quite good. It’s a print ad that will go into four different publications within 25 miles of the Institute. Initially, this new ad focuses on acupuncture. There’s also going to be some social media advertising as well. I fully expect that within the next few months, students will feel the positive effects of this marketing.
Q: Barbara Ellrich: Students are still encouraged and supported to generate their own practices, correct?
A: Yes, sure. The new marketing is a way to assist students, particularly those who travel a distance and don’t have local family or friends to rely on. It also puts students in touch with the general public to reach potential patients.
Q: Stuart Rhodes: How does the Executive Management Team embody the values of the Institute?
A: I believe the Executive Management Committee and I reinforce one another in terms of the values of the Institute. We work hard at living the values and each of us is deeply committed to demonstrating that commitment. This is also true of other staff and faculty. I see it as being role models for our students. Let me personalize this matter for a moment. Two years ago, I engaged Tom Balles and Cheryl Walker to conduct one-on-one transformative leadership training with me, and we did that for 12 weeks. I learned a great deal from my interaction with them and it has become very useful to me in my role as President and CEO. At the same time, when I first came to Tai Sophia, I had never had an acupuncture treatment, but I have regular acupuncture treatments now.
I’d like to share with you three Tai Sophia values that really hit home for me. One is to honor the individual gifts of each member of our community and hold one another in the highest possible regard.
Second is to cultivate the next generation of teachers and leaders within the community to serve the mission and ongoing life of the institution.
Third is to ground all our actions in honesty and integrity. I am committed to that statement in a very large way, and I am about complete transparency. It’s the only way to build trust, the only way to build respect. To the extent that we talk about where we are with those partnerships and with regard to the financial stability of the organization or the financial strength of the organization, we’ve been completely open.
I’d also like to add that we’re going to add a fourth CEO Council Delegation, and it’s going to be a values delegation. There’s so much that has been spoken about the values of Tai Sophia and the importance of maintaining these values, and I feel a way of doing that is to have a committee that’s really dedicated to fostering the values and creating activities within the Institute that assure that those values are always front and center.
Q: Stuart Rhodes: What’s your advice to staff for how to best balance and manage the increased workload that we see as we grow and add new programs and students?
A: We’re in a transition, and in a period of change, that can be the hardest phase to navigate. The process we’ve gone through over the past few years has been somewhat difficult for some staff and faculty. So as we continue to grow, we will have to add staff, faculty, and technology, which will certainly alleviate much of the overload.
It’s important to use the resources we have in the most efficient and effective ways. The Office of Graduate Admissions is an example of a department that has been understaffed for a long time. But we’ve reallocated certain staff and are now expanding departmental resources. During this transition, I greatly appreciate and realize the sacrifices that many people make by putting in the extra hours or carrying the extra load, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. There’s a deep level of gratitude that I have for all this extra effort and commitment.
This conversation is the first of many opportunities to discuss important issues and provide what I believe are very honest answers about where Tai Sophia is headed and what it will take to attain university status, as well as maintain our traditions and academic rigor.
The Institute would not be the outstanding educational institution it is today without the contributions of our faculty, staff, administrators, and students. Our efforts are built on a foundation of values that we intend to reinforce as we achieve our goals and set new ones. Ultimately we exist to serve the students and we have a model of creating an exceptional student experience. Regardless of the roles we play, all of us share a responsibility for nurturing and helping students acquire the knowledge and skills that they need to be successful.
Frank Vitale, President and CEO