Alan G. "A.G." Lafley '69 has forged a reputation as one of the corporate world's most able and innovative leaders as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Procter & Gamble Company. He will bring those talents back to the Hill as chair of the Hamilton Board of Trustees, succeeding Stuart L. Scott '61 later this year.
A three-decade executive with Procter & Gamble after earning his M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School, Lafley was named president and chief executive officer in 2000 and chairman of the board in 2002, directing a turnaround of the troubled consumer-products giant that, in the words of Business Week, "defied expectations." The Wall Street Journal applauded him as "an executive who isn't afraid to make tough decisions," and Fortune called him "the un-CEO" who "rallied his troops not with big speeches and dazzling promises, but by hearing them out (practically) one at a time."
It's a talent he recalls honing at Hamilton, as a consensus-builder both in student government and in his Psi Upsilon fraternity. Lafley was president of the sophomore class, participated in fraternity government and was active in the Root-Jessup Public Affairs Council. He received his degree cum laude with honors in history. Following graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy for five years.
He first joined the Hamilton Board of Trustees as an alumni trustee in 1991, the same year he served as Annual Fund chairman. His term ended in 1995, and he rejoined the Hamilton board in 1998 when he was elected charter trustee. He has broad knowledge of college operations, having served on trustee committees for instruction, development, student affairs and admission and as chair of the nominations committee.
Lafley recently took time out to speak from his Cincinnati office with Mike Debraggio, Hamilton's executive director of communications. These comments are excerpted from that conversation; hear the full interview.
Welcome, A.G., and thank you for agreeing to sit down with us.
I thought we'd start by placing your appointment in perspective with Hamilton's current position in the higher education community. As President Stewart pointed out in presenting you and Jeff Little '71 as the new chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Board of Trustees, your predecessors, Stuart Scott '61 and Chet Siuda '70, have overseen some remarkable gains for the College. Hamilton is drawing record numbers of strong applicants; students and faculty are winning national recognition; the College is on firm financial footing; and the physical plant is in a remarkable period of expansion and investment. What do you see as Hamilton's greatest successes and greatest challenges, and what will your own priorities be for the College in the future?
I think we ought to build on the successes under way and maintain the College's upward trajectory. We want to continue to strengthen the College's reputation, we want to continue working on differentiating the offerings of a Hamilton College education — things like our new centers for writing and speaking and the Levitt Center. In the end, we want to attract and support the best people — students, faculty and administration. And I've said in a prior interview that we're going to put increasing focus on student aid and make that a priority, so that students who desire a Hamilton education can get one.
Let's also focus on the broader perspective. You have served on the boards of some of the country's largest global corporations, including General Electric, Dell and General Motors. How do those experiences shape your thinking about Hamilton and this new role you're assuming?
These experiences underline the importance of the character of an institution, the importance of the history of an institution, and the importance of a strategy for building a strong future for an institution. We plan to reinforce the importance of a strong liberal arts education. We plan to continue to apply what we know works in business and, frankly, what's worked at Hamilton to attract a strong applicant pool, to strengthen the faculty and student body, to put us on a firm financial footing, and to continue to strengthen an already strong physical plant. I have been on the Hamilton Board of Trustees for more than a dozen years, so I'm not coming into this position cold. I have some understanding of where we've been, what we've accomplished and what we will try to accomplish in the future.
You're known in the corporate world as a consensus builder. How will that serve you as chairman of Hamilton's board?
I think in the corporate world I try to find the best solution. I try to find what I call a win-win-win result, where all the stakeholders in a given situation can end up in a positive position if at all possible. In higher education, we have a shared-governance model, and frankly that's the model that's right for higher education. I actually find a lot of parallels between what we do in private enterprise and what we will continue to do at Hamilton.
I've also been struck by the attention that you and Procter & Gamble have received in the media. For example, in naming you to its Power 25 list, Fortune magazine noted recently that you "refocused on consumers and rejuvenated core businesses." Does that philosophy translate well to an academic institution?
I think it does. Even within the large universe of fine residential liberal arts colleges, each individual college has its own character, its own personality, its own core values and its own core strengths, and I think that's certainly true of Hamilton. Core strengths can be found in our innovative curriculum; in our emphasis on thinking, writing and speaking clearly and well; in our emphasis on undergraduate research; and on the bonds that tie the entire Hamilton community together — administration, faculty, student body, alumni, all of us.
What do you see as the role of alumni in the life and mission of the College?
First of all, they need to recognize the contribution that Hamilton made to their development and growth and ultimately their life. At least in my case, and I know in the case of many of my alumni colleagues, we value the education and the experience that we received in our student years at Hamilton. The second thing we appreciate is the opportunity for lifelong learning. Thirdly, in a very real sense, alumni of the College are representatives of the College in their communities, and at our best, we are ambassadors for the College.
You're a CEO who is known for focusing a lot of attention on personnel. What is the value of a liberal arts approach in an era when the trend is toward specialization and professional training?
The most important thing in my view is simply the ability to learn how to think and to learn how to communicate. What matters in business, in a lot of other professions and in real life is ideas. Clear, compelling ideas are what make life better. And what you learn at a college like Hamilton is how to think about ideas in a way that brings them to life. I've been a strong proponent of maintaining the focus on clear written and oral communication because I believe very deeply that one has to be able to think clearly before one can communicate clearly.
The type of education you've just described can be expensive, certainly. About a year ago you established a scholarship focused on globalization and geared toward students who study abroad and participate in one of Hamilton's domestic programs in New York or Washington. Why did you establish that scholarship, and what does it say about you?
One of my best years at Hamilton was my junior year abroad in France. I learned a lot. It was an invaluable experience living with French families and studying at French universities. I believe very deeply that we are in a global economy and in a world that is getting smaller. It is now more important than ever for students to have the opportunity to live and learn outside of their home country. Internships are a central component of not just our semester- and year-abroad programs, but also our New York and Washington semesters, which attract a lot of students every year. This is all part of extending the Hamilton College liberal arts education beyond the boundaries of College Hill.
As a former history student, take the long view for a moment. How has Hamilton changed since 1969, and how has it remained the same?
Several things have remained the same. It's still a challenging but supportive environment in which to get an outstanding liberal arts education. We're still known for our strengths in writing and speaking clearly, and as I said earlier, thinking clearly. We're still known for close and collaborative student-faculty engagement and relationships that last beyond your time on the Hill.
Things that have changed? We're clearly more ethnically, culturally and racially diverse as a student body and as a faculty, but there are obviously opportunities to become even more diverse and inclusive. We're far more geographically diverse. There are more opportunities to study abroad, more opportunities for semesters in New York and Washington, more opportunities for undergraduate research in virtually all disciplines, and more opportunities [for students] to interact with a faculty with an increasingly national reputation. Finally, there are just tremendous resources — far more resources than when I was on the Hill in 1969. The well-equipped new Science Center is just one example.
Let's stay with that theme. Several years ago you were quoted in the Alumni Review as saying, "Change is the only constant in life. Those who embrace change will win decisively and disproportionately." What changes do you see for higher education in the coming decade, and how well do you think Hamilton is positioned to address those changes?
The biggest change is the demographic change. Population shifts will be away from Hamilton's historical, traditional market. There will be more multicultural students — not only more students from different ethnic, cultural and racial groups, but also more students from abroad. I think there will be a continuing call for increased accountability in higher education, and we'll find new ways to analyze and assess how we are performing at Hamilton College and how higher education is performing: Is it delivering the results that are expected of it, in a way that is efficient and effective?
That leads to increasing concerns about the cost of a four-year undergraduate education today. There is no doubt that higher education costs in general have risen at or above the rate of inflation. And that's making college less affordable for more individuals and more families. Those are some of the changes that I think we're going to be dealing with.
I assume you're invited to join many boards. Why did you say "yes" to this opportunity?
Well, I owe Hamilton a lot. I loved the College when I was a student there. It was an important part of my own personal development and growth. I'm a big believer in a liberal arts education, and I think it's important that we keep strong liberal arts colleges alive and prosperous.
One last question. Do you have a good Hamilton story that you can tell? Perhaps a memory of a class or a professor, a long-lasting friendship, or even a horror story about sleeping through an exam — that you can share with us?
I can't remember sleeping through an exam, so I don't think I did that. Some of my warmest recollections of Hamilton are of specific professors. One who comes to mind immediately is Digger Graves, who was the head of the History Department when I was there. He was one of the group of history professors who taught the Western civilization course, which was a required freshman course. When I went to Hamilton, I thought I was going to be a mathematics major. After taking that course and a sophomore course, which I believe was either — now my memory starts to challenge me — either The British Empire or Medieval and Renaissance History, I took both of those with Professor Graves. I got hooked on history, and I totally changed my orientation. When I went to France my junior year, I took a lot of history and political science. When I came back, I took as much history as I could my senior year, and I did my Senior Thesis with Professor Graves on the trial of the Templars, which was a fairly obscure topic. I had to go back and get some of the original texts from the trial through libraries in Paris, at Harvard, in New York City and Washington, D.C. I didn't know what I'd gotten myself into, because I ended up having to read a lot of the sources in Latin — fortunately I'd taken a couple of years of Latin in high school — and in Old French, which is not an easy read. So one of my fondest memories of Hamilton is of Professor Graves and of his getting me interested in history and challenging me to do things that, frankly, at the beginning of my college education I probably didn't think I'd be able to do.