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GLOBAL: If you want to be loved, get a dog - McKenna
Margaret McKenna is the living embodiment of the idea that if you want to get things done, this will probably involve stepping outside your professional comfort zone.

In her keynote speech to the Talloires Network Leaders' Conference at Madrid's Autonomous University on 14-16 June, she told delegates about the benefits this can bring.

After 22 years at the helm of the US' Lesley University in Boston and a varied career as a civil rights lawyer and working in the White House for US Democrat President Jimmy Carter, in autumn 2007 she stepped up to become president of the Walmart Foundation, for many on the liberal left the ultimate symbol of uncaring capitalism.

Reactions from family and friends were not long in coming and ranged from shock through disapproval to downright shame. "Some people, including my two children, would ask me why I was working there. My eldest son even felt the need to disclose in a job interview for a not-for-profit organisation that his mother worked for Walmart," she told her audience in Madrid.

McKenna expressed her own wry surprise at where she found herself. "I never expected to work for Walmart and when they first asked me I said no, but the salary benefits for their staff are actually better than at other big stores," she said.

Deciding to jump right in at the deep end is probably McKenna's graphic reply to the age-old dilemma of whether the end justifies the means. But she was also clear that it meant stepping into a formidable seat of power. As well as being the US' largest supermarket chain, Walmart has stores in 15 countries, and the supply chain affects 64 countries. "So what it does affects the world," she said. "The power is with the company and my role as a prickle in the side of that company is to say - we really ought to be doing this," she added.

One change McKenna pushed through in her time at the foundation was what happens to food past its sell-by date. In the US, one in four children goes hungry at some time during the day. "There is enough food, the question is the distribution. When I arrived at Walmart, it was throwing food away. In just three years, it went from zero to being the biggest food donor in the US; so while the money is significant, it is the power of the company that is even more so," she said.

Speaking directly to her audience of more than 130 vice-chancellors and rectors, McKenna drew on her long experience of running Lesley University to give some tips on how leaders should lead and how higher education institutions could become more civically engaged.

With service learning for students, she stressed the importance of making sure that service is always directly connected to practice as otherwise students can quickly lose interest. Practising what you preach by making sure you model the right behaviour yourself is another effective way of keeping students motivated.

McKenna also threw out the question of how many universities systematically evaluate the efforts of faculty members in their work with the community in the same way as they do research. "Unless faculty are rewarded for doing what we say is important for our students, we are not modelling the right behaviour," she said. "Students are very astute, if they think we are not doing this, they will very quickly switch off."

This also holds true for university leaders. In McKenna's book, the role of head of a higher education institution carries with it extra responsibilities in the broader public domain. "If something is wrong in society, not just in the narrower circle of students, we have to speak out," she said.

And doing the right thing means university leaders must be prepared to take unpopular decisions and accept the consequences. "I always say if you want to be loved as a university president, then you had better get a dog," she said, "because if you are doing the best things for your students, you will have to do hard things and there will always be people who are angry at you."

McKenna recalled that at Lesley University she had her business cards made up giving her the job title of 'troublemaker'. "Unless you are annoying, you are not likely to change things," she said.
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