Big thinking in Hartford

Illustrations by Lara Harwood

Founded in 1834, Hartford Seminary has been known for breaking ground in many ways – it was the first seminary in the United States to admit women (1889) and the first to start a center for Christian-Muslim relations (1972).

President Joel Lohr, Ph.D., took office at the end of 2018 and came to see the need for more change. In 2021, its board, in a unanimous vote, renamed the school as the Hartford International University of Religion and Peace to “reflect our focus on international peacebuilding and interreligious studies.” In an interview on the In Trust Center’s podcast, Lohr and Rick Staisloff, principal of the rpk GROUP, who helped in the process, spoke about the transition. Here’s an edited version of Lohr’s comments.

On the need for a strategic plan: There was a new president, so of course you should do a strategic plan. There hadn’t been one done in the last seven years. I didn’t have a lot of affection for or excitement about doing a strategic plan because so often the idea behind it is not fully thought through, or it just feels like these are documents you produce, put on a shelf somewhere and reference it in your formal literature; so often it really doesn’t do a lot in terms of moving the organization forward. And so I was looking to do something different, something that would actually make a real difference. And I had a lot of skepticism from board members. I think we even had a few naysayers who were like, “We can do this whole thing, but it’s really a waste of our time.” I think we were all looking at a strategic plan and thinking it was going to be a chore, and it turned out to be the opposite of that.

Big thinking in Hartford

On making change: There’s a tension in creating change. The default is just to kind of look at what you’re doing and be proud of it. And especially at Hartford, I think we had some things that we were really proud of in terms of being a pioneering institution. So there were ways in which we could just rest on those laurels. I was aware of our pioneering reputation. You can tell that story, and people flock to you on some levels because of those things and the history you have, and yet I was aware that the same was true of the Blackberry phone, as well. So, I would often say, “Are we going to be a Blackberry or are we going to look at what’s next?”

We knew that we had a lot to build on, and we could probably keep going in the autopilot mode and be reasonably successful. But I don’t think anyone was content with that. And I’m thankful to have a board, faculty, and staff that also saw that and asked what’s next and how will we grow?

On the process of change: There were moments in which change is hard and I think that’s the big challenge of being a president or a leader of an institution. Even with a very forward-thinking, progressive, and change-oriented faculty, staff, and board change is still hard.

Overall, it took some time. It took us a good year to really get into drilling into where our strengths were and acknowledging that we would need to make some shifts and move away from some things. Those were hard moments and there was a lot of relationship building. I was fairly new in my role, as well. There are ways in which you need to build trust. We ultimately got to a unanimous board vote. It was not just by presenting a vision and plunking it down and people kind of evaluating it. It took a long, considered process.

Someone said to me once that the art of good administration is the art of not surprising people. We have a sizable board, with 24 people. I met with every one of them, in person, prior to the vote and talked about their questions and concerns. We made some modifications based on those conversations, and that was helpful because I needed to know that I had their trust. And I think that was key for the whole thing.


Listen to the full discussion podcast at: the In Trust Podcast.


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