How Ben Corpus Helps Universities Maintain Relevancy and Find Their Momentum

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Ben Corpus

Ben Corpus is a higher education executive with more than 24 years of proven enrollment management, strategic planning, diversity, and student affairs experience in several unique colleges and universities.

Dr. Corpus is currently Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Florida Polytechnic University, a selective, public university in the state university system of Florida. He has served as Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at the University of Texas at Austin, Vice President for Enrollment Management & Student Affairs at Baruch College, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs at Hostos Community College, and Chief of Staff to the President at Plattsburgh State University, in addition to administrative positions at NYU and the University at Albany.

Corpus has developed teams, strategies, academic programs, and organizational structures that have significantly increased applications, headcount, institutional quality admissions metrics, diversity, retention rates, student satisfaction indicators, and graduation rates.

He served as an enrollment management consultant for Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), UC San Diego, Essex County College, UC Davis, Philadelphia University/Jefferson University, NJCU, and the College of Trinidad and Tobago, to name a few. Dr. Ben Corpus was a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas and a tenured associate professor at Baruch. He served as chair of his department’s faculty appointment and promotions committee and co-chair with the Provost on the college’s Task Force on Academic Integrity and was awarded the 2009 Faculty Service Award by the Baruch College Alumni Association. He was a Leadership Fellow at the Hispanic Association for Colleges and Universities (HACU) in 2005 and an AASCU MLI Leadership Fellow in 2009.

Ben Corpus received his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Psychology and minored in English Literature at Oswego State University, an M.S. from the University at Albany in education, and his Ph.D. from New York University in Higher Education Policy. He has also completed the Certificate Program on Negotiation for Senior Executives at Harvard Law and the IEM at Harvard University.

Tell us about yourself?

I grew up in the Bronx and learned to play basketball as a means to remain productive and away from other elements of urban life. I went on to play for Power Memorial and then played college ball, where I met a leader who inspired me to change my perspective on life. The team captain, Joe Jones, had a 4.0 GPA and was the most unselfish and supportive human being I’d ever met.

He was at once wise, insightful and dynamic, and had, and still has, an unparalleled work ethic. Unlike many college sophomores at the time, he gave back to the campus and town by serving as an academic advisor and volunteer at the local high school and was a gregarious extrovert that connected. He had a profound belief in all people, lifted all walks of life, and yet is also a fierce and strategic competitor. His smile and self-deprecating style could help a Yankee fan see the beauty of Fenway Park in a matter of minutes. Watching Joe’s positive impact on, literally, hundreds of people made me fascinated by ineffective, inspirational leadership and what Kipling called the ability to walk with kings and not lose the common touch – soon after, I was devouring biographies on leaders in public life, business, and sports.

I’ve been fortunate to have had tremendous mentors and bosses. In my first job out of college, I worked for a department chair in biomedical sciences managing 130 faculty. I went on to earn my Ph.D. at NYU. While there, I worked for a former chancellor, Dr. Joshua L. Smith, who ran a leadership program for aspiring college presidents, guided by an advisory board of 20 college CEOs from across the country. Since then, I went on to work for and report directly to five college presidents, serving at the cabinet-level for 17 years, and consulted for another dozen university leaders along the way.

Through absorbing their wisdom, guidance, courage, and vision, as well as lessons from dozens of expert AVPs, deans, directors, and associate directors, I have accumulated a breadth and depth of strategy that, so I’m finding, can really help institutions in need of progress.

What makes you different from other professionals in your field?

It is not uncommon for chief enrollment officers to develop a rhythm where they find success and professional satisfaction in one institution over decades. I am not common in that regard. Many years ago, I learned from a mentor, who is now a long-term president at the University of Indianapolis, that experiences in multiple institutions early in your career could serve as far more effective and intense training than anything else. Varied experiences give you perspective, tools, and organizational prudence – so long as you are open-minded, adaptable, and willing to learn from everyone, including those who work for you. Flexibility in approach while reading organizational culture can really move the dial. By the way, that mentor was someone who worked for me at NYU.

I’m also results-driven, which means that certain activities that are not driving toward results must go, quickly. I realize this may run against the grain of the status quo, but I’ve found tremendous success in this approach.

How do you add value to a university or college?

So many students, at all levels, arrive on campus anxiously confused but have the drive to change or personally grow; they just don’t always know how to go about doing so. Instilling a culture that puts the student at the center of everything we do, carried with compassion and curiosity among college staff can become contagious, I’ve found.

Consequently, staff and faculty begin to see the agenda, the mission, and purpose in their daily work as it connects to that bigger picture, which I learned from my boss, President Dolores Fernandez, an incredible leader. There is great value for all in service leadership, and it gives momentum that transforms student lives. Building that culture maybe what I’m most passionate about because it can impact so many lives – including that of faculty and staff – and emerges in results that may not always be evident at first.

When I was a vice president at Hostos, I recall a freshman from the South Bronx who was a single parent, her husband left her, and she had a two-year-old boy. But she was determined to make a life for herself and her son. Two months into college life, her apartment building burned down. She lost everything she had. With nowhere to go, she and her boy slept in a homeless shelter for more than 12 months – all while going to college, dropping off her son daily at our child care center, and working a part-time job just off-campus. Her perseverance was fierce, but the support we provided meant the world to her. My folks in admissions, orientation, advisement, counseling, the child-care center, career services, and of course, faculty provided genuine support that gave her confidence, structure, and hope. She was close to a straight “A” student and successfully transferred to Columbia University. Designing organizational capacity that can set high standards while empowering service leadership not only helps institutions meet and exceed goals but makes a long-term, meaningful impact on the lives of many.

What has influenced the foundation of your approach?

I’m influenced by Edgar Schein, Aaron Wildavsky, and Ronald Heifetz for organizational change and leadership, all of who were instrumental in my research for my dissertation. As practitioners seek to foster organizational change through adaptable design, new initiatives need to be tried, tested, applied, tossed, and tried again until you have the best fit with the right approach within the institution’s internal context. You have to always assess and not lose sight of timing and external influences.   

How do you size a market for an institution?

In consulting for universities, recognizing potential market size is vital, given its relation to growth potential. I use several internal and external sources, market behavior, and quantitative and qualitative research tools to determine a reasonable count for applications and headcount.

What was the most important part of your professional journey?

I was nominated to be a HACU-Kellogg Leadership Fellow while I was a vice president at Hostos Community College. This year-long program selected only ten college leaders from across the country and covered significant institutional leadership topics including higher ed legal and regulatory issues, diversity, board relations, public speaking in the media, senior staffing, crisis management, and serving as an effective change agent who must articulate and operationalize institutional vision and overall strategy. All of this was brought to light by dozens of chancellors, presidents, vice presidents, and board chairs, all of whom we traveled to and met on their campuses. They provided actual narratives – not fiction, but real, detailed war stories, that helped us understand the personal challenges of dealing with very difficult college leadership realities.

These experiences, along with the program’s mentorship requirement, were my most meaningful parts of my professional journey. My mentor was Dr. Donna Shalala, who, at the time, was president of the University of Miami. An incredible figure, often referred to on her own campus as a rock-star on rollerblades (energy abound!), who had served on President Clinton’s cabinet, was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, president of Hunter College, and saved NYC from financial implosion in its worst moments. She is a genuine, caring, and brilliant big thinker. As a mentor, she opened up just about everything to me so I could learn, ask questions, and develop a realistic perspective on university leadership. She allowed me to join her at almost every function and event, introducing me to senior staff, donors, board members, and university speakers. She told me to shadow her and was generous in the time I was permitted with her.

What are the best and worst purchases you’ve ever made?

Best: subscriptions to Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.

Worst: a used Volvo that needed more attention than an insecure puppy (Labrador Retriever) with self-esteem issues (that’d be my dog, Bella).

What takes up too much of your time?

  • Exercise and cool down after workouts
  • Cleaning and laundry
  • Commuting

What three pieces of advice would you give to college students/new startup business owners who want to become entrepreneurs?

First, read everything, or at least try. There is so much information being created, mostly online, that keeping up with it can seem overwhelming. But over time, your ability to provide analysis, develop a strategy, and remain relevant will grow sharper.

Second, find pride in the value you add and the work you do. Not always easy, but you must become a believer in how your work will ultimately make an impact, especially as you don’t usually begin at the top.

Always be curious and develop the habit of owning your work. This will create a sense of ownership and a sense of pride that will not only carry your motivation when you most need it but impress upon others that the belief you put in your work is meaningful.

Finally, always know that no matter how well you do, no matter how great the results or how well the organization does, there is always more to learn and ways to grow. Never get comfortable in thinking you know it all. 

Who has impressed you most with what they’ve accomplished?

While the 1966 Men’s college basketball champions, 1969 NY Mets, and 1980 USA Hockey Team rank high, the sports world doesn’t always fit in the way the majority of us live life. What has resonated deeply with me was the lives of my students at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. Here you have the poorest Congressional district in the country, riddled with violence and stricken by neglect. It had the highest asthma rates and other health ailments among children – children, by the way, of some of the bravest and courageous parents you’ll ever meet. Some who tore away from tyrannical regimes and some who simply believed deeply in the American dream to risk it all to start again in a country where they didn’t know a soul, much less have a job or much in their pocket. They took nothing for granted, appreciated every penny they earned, and were proud of their work, no matter what that work was.

What drives you to keep going when it’s really tough?

I grew up with very little, in a single-parent home in the Bronx. My mother worked multiple jobs to ensure my brother, and I were focused on education. She endured a lot, but she achieved a lot, but not without self-sacrifice and struggle. There were very few advantages growing up, compared to what others may seem like a normal childhood. I recognized there were structural, cultural, economic, and political reasons for why people found themselves cast into a station of life that forced them to fight for everything they earned, even if it was three meals a day. I developed a deep appreciation for the underdog and the powerful narratives of accomplishment that, despite all odds, endure and surpass initial self-expectations. In almost every job I held, there was a way to support those who had less, mostly through training or education, but also mentorships or donations of books or other resources. I’m quite blessed with family, the people I work with, and the trajectory of my life. Knowing there are many who want to do and be so much more, but just need a little bit of help or guidance, inspires me to work even harder than the day before.

How should people connect with you?

Through email or Linkedin

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