North Central College - Naperville, IL

Leadership, Ethics & Values: An Enduring Mission

It has been 20 years since North Central College President Gael Swing announced a “distinctive new program,” designed to “help train not only tomorrow’s leaders, but to help present-day decision-makers as well.” He called it “Leadership, Ethics and Values” (LEV), noting that “the program may be new, but the concept is an outgrowth of our heritage and our mission—to provide a liberal arts education designed to prepare students to live free, ethically responsible and intellectually rewarding lives.”

President Swing (left) saw LEV as capturing something unique and special in the DNA of the College created by Christian ministers and elders of the Evangelical Church 128 years earlier. He also viewed LEV as an opportunity to reformulate the vision of the founders into an educational program that would meet the ethical and leadership challenges posed by Wall Street scandals, government corruption and other contemporary societal dilemmas. It was a bold—and broadly stated—vision, funded with initial gifts of $300,000 from alumni and friends (including a $75,000 corporate commitment from Waste Management) … with many of the details to be fleshed in later.

Not surprisingly, particularly in its early years, those details became a subject of a fair amount of discussion and disagreement within the campus community, centering around both pedagogical concerns (How do you teach leadership? Like West Point? Like Harvard Business School?) and philosophical questions (What values? Judeo-Christian? Western? America’s “civic religions?”). Complicating these discussions was the tragic illness and death of President Swing in 1990 and the absence of a big funding commitment to provide long-term stability for the program.

Nevertheless, two decades after he first proposed it, despite these challenges—and, to a degree, because of them—LEV has become one of the pillars of North Central College’s identity, and in a very real sense, a monument to the legacy of the College’s eighth president. The $2.5 million bequest of Mary Schneller ’33 Rosar, Cecelia Schneller ’27 Mueller, and Addie Schneller Belfanz in 2009, endowing the Schneller Sisters Professorship in Leadership, Ethics and Values—and the awarding of the chair to Tom Cavenagh, director of the LEV Program—provides an appropriate exclamation point to a 20-year effort to use LEV as a prime lever in achieving North Central’s mission of preparing graduates “to be informed, involved, principled and productive citizens and leaders over their lifetime.”

The first director of the LEV program, selected in 1989 after a national search, was David C. Smith, formerly executive director of the Society for Higher Values in New Haven, CT. During his five years at the helm, LEV themes were introduced in the orientation of every new first-year student, the faculty adopted a minor in organizational leadership, and a number of new courses were introduced into the curriculum.

SmitterIn 1997, Roger Smitter, then professor of speech communication/theatre, became director. His years as director saw a number of steps to extend the impact of the program throughout the institution. Most notable was the major revision of the College’s curriculum and its core academic requirements adopted and implemented in 1998-2000. Not only would LEV be an element in all students’ introduction to the College, but also, their graduation—with a course in religion required for the first time, and with every senior confronting LEV themes in the capstone academic experience of his or her major.

A popular LEV offering that took on a life of its own at this time was Cavenagh’s sequence of courses on conflict resolution. A nationally known expert in the field, Cavenagh soon was graduating students who would take advanced skills in conflict resolution and arbitration into careers in law, business, teaching and other fields. When Smitter was appointed executive director of the National Communication Association in Washington, D.C., Cavenagh became, in 2006, a natural successor.

“I was honored to be followed by Tom,” says Smitter in a recent interview. “LEV had allowed me to explore the intersection of communication and leadership—good leadership involves good communication. President Barack Obama reminds us daily of the power of eloquence in a leader.”

Among the many faculty who have put their own distinctive stamp on the College’s LEV vision is Ramona Wis, Mimi Rolland Professor in the Fine Arts, who became a nationally recognized scholar on “servant leadership,” authoring a book on The Conductor As Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium.

Most notable on Cavenagh’s watch has been a much more complete realization of the nonacademic components of President Swing’s initial vision. As President Harold Wilde loves to point out, North Central is a “full-service institution where many of the most important learning experiences take place outside the classroom.” He adds: “As important as what’s taught in the classroom is what’s learned on the athletic fields, on service trips and in all the activities which provide students the opportunity to do leadership and ‘followership,’ and to witness for their values.” Under the leadership of Laurie Hamen, vice president for enrollment management, athletics and student affairs, the College has inaugurated a series of programs—including faculty mentors for every athletic team and an expanded office of campus ministry and service, offering a wide array of institutional projects and engagements—that are successfully bridging the historic gap between the classroom and student activities, with LEV a significant leitmotif.

In his inaugural address 18 years ago, President Wilde expressed his “deep commitment” to LEV as “a living monument to Gael’s leadership.” How does Wilde see the program’s evolution and growth? “It hasn’t always moved forward as quickly as I would have liked, but I think if Gael Swing were here today to celebrate the gift of the Schneller sisters which he did so much to inspire, he would be pleased with the way in which Leadership, Ethics and Values has come to symbolize the mission of the College.

“It’s a broad tent—which is appropriate for a liberal arts college. We’re not a business school or a military academy. We don’t supply undergraduates with a ‘cookbook’ on how to be a successful and ethical leader. But I think there is a broad consensus throughout the institution that how we conduct our affairs, how we teach, how we bring values and ethical principles into the learning experience and student life reflects an intentionality—and difference from many other colleges—captured in those magical words: Leadership, Ethics and Values. It’s a work in progress. And it will always be that. But I’m pleased with how far we’ve come.”  

LEV timeline
1989 President Gael Swing announces new program
in Leadership, Ethics and Values; David C. Smith becomes first director after a national search.
1990 Two LEV courses are included in the course catalog.
1992 First minor offered, organizational leadership.
1996 Minors added in professional conflict resolution and community conflict resolution.
1997 Roger Smitter, professor of speech communication/theatre, becomes second director.
2000 LEV seminar requirement added to general education curriculum.
2002 Social change and public advocacy minor added.
2006 Tom Cavenagh, professor of business law and conflict resolution, becomes third director.
2008 Concentrations in leadership and ethics added. New courses include Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution, Leadership and Culture, Servant Leadership, and Leadership and Place; for 2008-2009, 684 students are enrolled in courses that meet the LEV requirement for graduation.
2009 Major endowment received for LEV program; Cavenagh named Schneller Sisters Professor of Leadership, Ethics and Values.


North Central NOW Spring 2009