Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sustainable Success: Remembering Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J.

This past month hundreds of students, alumni, current and former faculty, and friends of the College of the Holy Cross gathered in St. Joseph's Memorial Chapel to celebrate the life of Rev. John E. Brooks S.J. Father Brooks served as the President of the College from 1970 to 1994 and, until his death, remained a very active and visible member in the community through his work as President Emeritus and the Loyola Professor of the Humanities in the Religious Studies Department. 

Rev. John E. Brooks Photo GalleryFollowing my graduation from the College of the Holy Cross, I served as a staff member in the Development Office at the school. During these two years, I had the great pleasure of delivering three newspapers (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Telegram & Gazette) to Father Brooks each morning. While Mitch Albom might have had Tuesdays with Morrie, I was fortunate to have five minutes with Father Brooks at the start of each day. Though I had never formally met him as a student, I was certainly aware of his nearly fabled legacy as President. During his presidency, he led the college to coeducation, committed to increasing diversity on campus, and strengthened the finances of the college through balancing the budget and increasing the school's endowment from $6 million to $150 million during his 24 year tenure. Much like how I believe Dorothy must have felt standing before the the great and powerful Oz, my early conversations with Father Brooks were met with much trepidation and delicacy. During those first few weeks, we exchanged pleasantries, commented on the weather ("Had enough of this rain?", recapped the previous night's sporting events ("How 'bout those Celtics?" - now you see how desperate I was!), and shared our weekend  plans. As time passed, our conversations transcended the superficial as I became more inquisitive and Father Brooks enthusiastically opened up to discuss academic politics, share war stories (both literal and figurative), and provide insight into his strategic visions through both retrospect and future hope.       

Long-term Returns

As I reflect on the life and work of Father Brooks, I can't help but draw parallels between the exemplary leadership and forward thinking he exhibited during his presidency and those themes that repeatedly arose during classroom discussion in Professor Bob Radin's Boards & CEOs, a corporate governance seminar  I took during my last semester of business school. In Lorsch and Khurana's Harvard Magazine May/June 2010 article, "The Pay Problem", they wrote:

"For most of the twentieth century, the large public corporation was regarded as both an economic entity and a social institution. Shareholders were but one of several constituencies that stood in relation to the corporation. Corporate decisions were evaluated not only by their specific economic results, but also with an eye toward their moral and political consequence. Today, corporations are typically described in terms of economic and financial consideration alone." 

Unlike many of today's business leaders who act as "relentless, self-interested free agents ready to make tracks out of their companies and sacrifice the long-term for immediate gains," Father Brooks always used a holistic (social, political, and theological) framework when evaluating his presidential decisions. In his homily, Father Earl Markey, S.J. delivered: 

"He [Brooks] began his presidency with the purpose of bringing the College into the 21st century, and making  the College a liberal arts college competitive with the best in the nation. He never wavered from that goal and said, at his retirement, that he honestly never made a decision that he did not think was in the best interests of the College. He said he may not have been right all the time, but he never made a decision that he did not think was in the long-term good of the College."

Rev. John E. Brooks Photo GalleryFather Brook's strategic plan served as the real driver of the College's long-term sustainable success. Many of his decisions were not popular at the time he made them. One can only imagine the resistance and criticism he faced when he decided to spearhead the proactive recruitment of African Americans in the wake of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, or when under-performing sons of loyal alumni lost admissions slots to top-notch female candidates in the 1970s, or when he became a founding member of the Patriot League (an athletic conference known for its prohibition of athletic scholarships) in spite of protests from die-hard Crusader fans who bled purple and lived for a Holy Cross/Boston College face-off. While some of these controversial decisions may have caused temporary setbacks for the President and the College, each was made through trust in their long-term returns. Flash forward several decades later and the school is a much stronger institution today because of the foresight and the perseverance of John Brooks. 

Moral Obligations

Rev. John E. Brooks Photo Gallery
Prior to his death, Father Brooks sat down with The Today Show to discuss the story of his recruitment of 20 African American students to attend the college during the radical sixties. Of those he hand-picked to join the college community, some of the most notable alumni in the class include (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Pulitzer Prize Winner author Edward Jones). Fortunately, this story is explored further in Diane Brady's book Fraternity. On this topic, Brooks speaks of how a moral obligation propelled his actions during this pivotal time the College's history. While it has become corporate chic to throw around words like core values and ethics in the boardroom, it would be interesting to see how many executives today have the courage of John Brooks to allow their moral compass to direct their business decisions. The Presidency of Father Brooks is a concrete example of how one can lead morally and justly while still balancing the books. 

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Warren Buffett. Buffett and Brooks have two very important things in common. Both are men who believe in principled leadership. In his July 2010 letter to Berkshire Directors, Buffett wrote, "We can afford to lose money - even a lot of money. But we can't afford to lose reputation - even a shred of reputation. We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about us on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter." Like Buffett, Brooks frequently made decisions that weren't popular but were thoughtful, just for society, and meaningful for the evolution of his small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Secondly, both Warren Buffett and John Brooks shared the same taste in office decor. Both men had a print of Ted Williams' first at-bat with the Boston Red Sox. The photo was taken in April 1939 on Fitton Field at Holy Cross. As a tribute to the late Rev. John E. Brooks, I have recently purchased and framed the same print to proudly display my new office. Hanging on my wall, this photo will serve a reminder of those core values reinforced at the Carroll School of Management and the ethical oath many of us took before embarking on our future careers. 

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