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Fostering Reform through Leadership
Episode 918th July 2022 • Leadership Forum: The Podcast • John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
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Reginald Wilkinson, former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, now advocates for higher education, including as an Ohio State University trustee. He discusses the parallels in any leadership position — higher education, prisons, hospitals, the military — and the responsibility to make sure anyone who enters your organization leaves better off. Tune in as he explains how leaders can influence change toward social justice. 


Trevor Brown 0:13

Welcome to the podcast Leadership Forum conversation with leaders who serve the public good. My name is Trevor Brown, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, where we aspire to fulfill a simple phrase that Senator John Glenn used to describe what we do, inspire citizenship and develop leadership. I also have the honor of serving as the host of this conversation series. So welcome to a thoughtful and reflective conversation about leadership. I'm joined today by Dr. Reggie Wilkinson, who has had many public service roles, most notably as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and corrections for over 15 years under governors George Voinovich and Bob Taft. Upon retiring from state service, he led the Business Alliance for higher education in the economy, which was connected with the Ohio Business Roundtable, and the Ohio college access network. He later joined the Tiffin University Board of Trustees, and now serves as a member of The Ohio State University Board of Trustees. In addition to serving on a variety of other boards, several of which are in the corrections and law enforcement space. He is the president of Connecting the Dots LLC, a consulting company. Reggie, welcome to our podcast. And thank you for joining me for a conversation about leadership in the public sector.

Reggie Wilkinson 1:34

A pleasure Trevor.

Trevor Brown 1:36

years from:

Reggie Wilkinson 1:57

Back in the early 90s, actually extends earlier to the late 80s. prison systems were experiencing tremendous population growth, which means that we had to build more prisons. We had to work with the county jail systems in order to kind of help schedule when we could receive certain persons being committed to the state facilities, parole probation case loads were expanding commensurate with the prison population. So it was a very challenging time. So yeah, we looked at it as if it was just another part of the job wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. You know, the main thing that we had to do is to make sure we had a solid executive team, people who were talented enough to ask the what if questions, people who were experienced in making sure that we were fulfilling all of our constitutional requirements. And there are quite a few in this business. So there was a lot that we had to do. We I spent a lot of time as the head of the agency, working closely with the legislature, other stakeholder groups, because as the head of the agency is just not the internal environment that's important. The external one becomes equally as interesting and important in carrying out, you know, that, that role.

Trevor Brown 3:45

So let's let's start there, then that external role, what what was your approach to the state legislature? How did you bring forward whatever the case was to secure the funding perhaps to build out the prisons you were describing? And what were some approaches that worked and some some that didn't?

Reggie Wilkinson 4:07

Well, of course, you always have to present a budget and and eventually defend that budget once it's signed off by the governor's office. But I didn't want to wait until the budget time to make sure the key legislative members knew what our agency was engaged in and what our concerns were. So I spent a lot of time on both sides of the aisle, you know, talking to committed chairpersons and people in strategic positions in the Ohio General Assembly to help educate them about the agency. In so I thought so when, you know, when the time came that, you know, we had to present our budget Then some of the issues that we were working on would not be foreign to them. And that seemed to be a good strategy, you know, from my perspective, and apparently from theirs as well, because I was typically well received during budget time.

Trevor Brown 5:17

So you came up as an insider, you were a warden, and then Deputy Director, talk about the advantage disadvantage of coming into a role like that, as someone who knew knew the system and the organization well, that that make it easier to transition away from sort of that inside management and say, I can focus on the outside because I know this stuff, so Well, or did it make it harder? Because you knew all the things that needed to happen inside the system?

Reggie Wilkinson 5:47

Well, that, you know, the answer was probably yes. I mean, it was hard, because I didn't want to presume that I had, you know, that I knew the system well enough that, you know, I could get what I wanted, you know, and, and, and that was absolutely, you know, the right thing to be thinking about, because I didn't know, you know, is not is sometimes this is only when you're in that seat, when things become apparent, that are differently important than previous positions, such as the deputy director or prison warden. As a prison warden, you don't lobby the legislature as the director of the agency, that's a major part of your job. In fact, you know, every person who is the head of the state agency is a certified lobbyist, you know, we had to file for our lobbying card every year. And so I mean, within rules, of course, but, you know, we, we were allowed and expected to make sure the members of the General Assembly understood our departments.

Trevor Brown 6:58

So you said that your strategy was effective, you were well received, when when budget times came around, and part of the strategy was just educating legislators about the work that you the agency does. Do you recall legislators who who weren't convinced by your appeals? And who were perhaps not so supportive? And how did you approach those folks who didn't necessarily agree with not only your budget request, but just the whole purpose of rehabilitation and corrections?

Reggie Wilkinson 7:34

Well, I knew that there would be points in time when individual legislators would not necessarily agree with not necessarily me, but something the Department stood for in their minds, which is why it's important to make sure the leadership understands, you know, what you're doing the president of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, you know, you know, key, you know, chairpersons. And if there is a member of a committee or you know, someone who's not in that level of leadership in the legislature, sometimes it can offset, but it doesn't mean that we disregard, you know, that person, because you may have support from the leadership, it means that you have to sometimes spend more time with those persons to help them understand. I was a big fan of even, you know, help allowing legislature legislators to tour, you know, institutions so that they can see firsthand rather than from hearsay.

Trevor Brown 8:39

And were they open to that? Was that was that something they were willing to do?

Reggie Wilkinson 8:44

Usually they they are, but use the but they were more interested if they had a prison in their legislative district, you know, because they got, I think more mileage out of out of doing that it was they became they had constituents who work in prisons, and then, you know, it was a big budget issue for some towns, sometimes prisons were, you know, the Amazon of small communities in the state, and they wanted to be a part of it. So, you know, and they wanted to make sure that, you know, prisons were operating as safely as they possibly could. And they needed to know as much about it as is they could understand because they had constituents who work there, and they would often talk about it.

Trevor Brown 9:32

So let's transition to talk about another sort of boundary spanning activity. Just now. We're talking about you in your role as director reaching outside the organization to deal with the legislature but by being a director, there are 20 some other cabinet level agencies and organizations and state government. And presumably you weren't just a silo, you perhaps had to work with some of those other agencies. Tell us, you know, which were the types of agencies you had to collaborate with? And how did you foster that collaboration?

Reggie Wilkinson:

Sure, yeah. There were the other cabinet level agencies, but they were also boards and commissions, and oftentimes you would cross paths with their functions. And so, but it was mostly the cabinet level, agency directors that was the most critical in terms of collaboration. And just about every turn, every agency had some interaction with all the other agencies, especially the institution agencies. There were criminal justice clusters, for example, Highway Patrol, the Department of Youth Services, and the National Guard, where you would have just kind of a professional interaction, but at the time, we operated farms, so I worked closely with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources. Of course, we had prisoners with mental health challenges, and we would have to work with the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Developmental Disabilities. So there was a few agencies that I didn't, that we didn't have some sort of at least irregular contact with.

Trevor Brown:

So you've just painted a picture that lots of different agencies and various times you might need collaborative relationships. How did you build that? Were those pre existing relationships that predated you built by the previous director? Or were those things that you had to foster de novo? And if so, how did how do you do that?

Reggie Wilkinson:

Sometimes there were relationships that were in place before I was appointed director, an example would be the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. And that agency is now spun into the Department of Mental Health. But, you know, that agency was responsible for auditing and counseling, the department on substance abuse, alcohol, addiction training, you know, for prisoners, and that's something we did long before I was appointed director. When I became director, however, we looked at how we could intensify, you know, that relationship with, you know, that particular agency, as Director, one of the biggest challenges that we had was working with prisoners, who were diagnosed with a mental illness. And so it became extremely important that we work with the State Department of Mental Health, in addition to the what was the Department of Mental retardation and developmental disabilities, now just the Department of Developmental Disabilities, because we had a lot of and still do have prisoners who have intellectual disabilities, even though they're not been diagnosed with a mental illness?

Trevor Brown:

How do you build those relationships? Was that responsibility you took on as director? Or did you have sort of staff? Who were were involved? Or both?

Reggie Wilkinson:

Yeah, kind of both. But you know, I think it starts at the top. You know, at cabinet meetings, we would caucus with persons and explain issues. And they would do the same with me if there was a concern. We would, you know, have lunch, you know, pick telephone, you know, conference call, you know, we didn't have, you know, the luxury of texting and zooming and all those kinds of things. In those days, it was, you know, a beat somebody here, set up a lunchtime between administrative assistants. But, but it seemed to work. And we didn't know the difference that, you know, we weren't as efficient as anybody else. But you just have to take a personal initiative. And you do that by developing personal relationships with those persons and not just, you know, casual ones, where we see each other every so often.

Trevor Brown:

I struggle with this as a leader in a higher ed setting. As you and I are doing right now, use the word efficiency. It's so easy to just jump on Zoom and have a call, have a conversation. And yet, I feel something's missing. I missed the pleasure of just sitting in a room and chatting with you. We had a nice lunch once a month ago and I got the pleasure of getting to know you a little better than if you were director now. Would you counsel yourself to say, oh, it would be so easy to just jump on Zoom, but maybe it's better for me to walk across the you know, walk across The Street and meet for lunch. What what do you think you do?

Reggie Wilkinson:

Yeah, I mean, I, I mean, I love talking to you over zoom, I love talking to other people when there's when another option doesn't exist, but I'd much rather meet you on campus at a coffee shop, you know, you know, and that was the same position that I held as director, I would much rather have, you know, sit down and talk for 20 minutes rather than to zoom because you you also get involved in small talk, I mean, it's good to even know more about the person than what they do, you know, for the state of Ohio, you know, so I think in those situations, you know, you develop the friendships, even to this day, there are people you know, who I've worked with, and in the cabinet, who were friends to this day, because we just did not meet we met on a personal basis and a professional one. At the same time.

Trevor Brown:

Yeah, I'm interested over the next decade, or maybe even sooner, we'll learn a lot as zoom and other means that communication becomes so much a part of not just our personal lives, but our professional lives. How that's going to change, and whether you and I are just old guys that like to sit COVID-19 do we have COVID-19 to contend with. But as a leadership lesson, I'm a big believer, and just what you said, those interpersonal connections, getting to know someone makes doing business a lot easier. And it builds that trust that I think is necessary to to speak on behalf of your organization. And I'm just very curious to see whether we move away from that as everything becomes hybrid and, and, and virtual, particularly in a in a in a state where you're physically located. And you know, we've concentrated all these agencies primarily downtown, it'll be an interesting thing to watch over time.

Reggie Wilkinson:

Sounds like a study that Glenn college would do.

Trevor Brown:

Indeed, in the let's switch topics a little bit and talk about your your area of work, you obviously do a lot of things, you've done some stuff in the higher ed space that I want to get to eventually but you know, corrections, and law enforcement has been central to your professional life for a long, long time. And it's central to the life of state government. It's one of the consistently one of the top priority issues for for state government, particularly when we look and see how states spend their their money. So you mentioned earlier that your term is director was a time of a dramatic increase in the state's prison and jail population. And that was not unique to Ohio. That was a that was a national trend. What was your personal position on the growth of the the prison population? Were you troubled by it? And? Or was this as you just said, this was just the job? And did it change the way you thought about your leadership, given that you've been in the system for a long, long time?

Reggie Wilkinson:

The fact that we had prisons that were extremely crowded, and much to my consternation, didn't keep me from, you know, carrying out my responsibilities as head of that agency. And there were other things that I probably philosophically disagreed with, but I still carried the responsibility out because it came with the job. You know, during the time when, you know, prisons become became more and more crowded, it was it was not just an administrative nightmare. For me, it was a personal social justice nightmare. You know, because I had become exposed to correctional systems around the world. And we placed a lot of emphasis on locking people up and not just, you know, for the couple of months here and there, but for long periods of time. And we not only did that, but once they got out, we have all these collateral sanctions or extra punishments that we impose on people simply because they have a felony conviction. You know, so this whole idea of go to prison, do your time, keep your nose clean, doesn't exist, you have to contend with all of what you're not going to have access to, in some cases. It's licensures is, you know, driver's licenses, you know, it's access to certain housing simply because you have a felony conviction, even though that conviction had no nexus to what You may be prevented from being a part of. So yes, it was something that, you know, to this day, I still, you know, talk about to, to audiences. But I still have a job to do, I think the responsibility of a director, Take me, for example, I thought my responsibility of managing the agency was in addition to, you know, my ability to have a bully pulpit about, you know, how the system should fix itself.

Trevor Brown:

So I want to hear a little bit more about that I'm fascinated and so really appreciate you sharing that that social justice perspective, and yet you said, but I still had a job to do. How did you know, either personally and professionally, how did you square those, those two things where you clearly saw the need for change in the system, and yet the system was growing rapidly? How did you try to simultaneously manage the growth, while also using the bully pulpit to argue for change? How did you do that?

Reggie Wilkinson:

Well, I think, you know, reducing, you know, the agency to lower common denominators, such as education, for example, we know, based on research that we conducted, as well as national research, that the more education you have, the less likely you might be, you know, to re convict or to be re convicted of crime. But people generally don't know that. So we have to tell them, and if we don't tell them, then shame on us. The same thing with alcohol and other drug abuse, there at the time, when I was director on average, and 80%, of all persons who came to prison had a documented history of alcohol or the drug abuse, that's a big number. Yep. And so we needed to remediate that to a degree that we could so we offered programs in prisons. But that wasn't good enough, we had to make sure that once they got out, they had access, you know, to addiction abatement programs. So and the list can go on, you know, what do you do about persons who were a part of street gangs? How do you get them to renounce their affiliation? So there, you know, to me, it was just a matter of kind of dissecting the agency and, you know, taking it piece by piece, because if you looked at it as as a whole, then you might be trying to boil the ocean.

Trevor Brown:

So now we're in not an era, that's the reverse, but after a couple of decades of dramatic growth in the prison population, and seemed to have stabilized a decade ago, and now we're in an era where I think there are a variety of efforts to reduce the prison population, whether it's diversion, decriminalizing certain things that used to be felonies, or a variety of other approaches. What's your I mean, do you see all of this as good given your social justice or inclinations that you've just mentioned? Or are there things you're concerned about in this this era?

Reggie Wilkinson:

Sure. Yeah. I mean, I guess I wouldn't say stabilized. I mean, I know that when you compare 80s 90s, you know, trends to this millennium trends that may look different. But But today, even there's still a major problem. Yeah. I mean, there's a major problem with, you know, communities in terms of shootings. I mean, it's scary to me, when you see people shooting people, when other cars just driving down, you know, the interstate, it's scary when you have to put extra patrols and police officers and in municipal parks. So something is not right. You know, something needs to happen at a more grassroots level. And I have always been one to believe that as the head of the prison system, I'm not responsible for everything that happens regarding, you know, the justice system and even persons who leave prison. But I would be remiss to say I shouldn't have a major role. And I have assumed that and I think it's it was always a part of my second nature to, you know, not just be a person who has to carry out a job but also to help influence you know, how reform can best be exercised.

Trevor Brown:

Let's switch to one of those areas of reform. You mentioned earlier that education is a big covariant correlate with with being imprisoned, the absence of it, as you said, leads to greater likelihood. Is that Is it fair to ask is that perhaps why you been so committed to higher education as a as a cause? I read somewhere that at a time in your life before you entered this line of work, you wanted to be a university president? Is is your passion for higher education are similar driven?

Reggie Wilkinson:

I'm not sure what, what came first, I guess is, is what I'm thinking. I have always wanted to know what the answer was to improving conditions in society. And and universities do that by educating students and better preparing them to go back into communities and be productive. Well, that. So the notion was, why wouldn't that same theory work for prison? You know, why wouldn't we, you know, have, you know, career tech vocational, you know, academic, post secondary education programs in prison, that do the same thing. But yeah, we got complaints. Yeah, you know, why should you know, inmates have the opportunity to get a college degree when they've, you know, committed these crimes? And, you know, and my answer would be, well, who do you want, sitting next to you on public transportation, somebody who was uneducated, somebody who's pissed off, or somebody who's educated and on their way to work. So, you know, you know, education, to me, has always been kind of a stabilizing concept that, you know, I can always fall back on.

Trevor Brown:

So now, you've, you've spent the last almost two decades involved in the life of universities, helping people access them, you've now served on the boards of two universities here in Ohio, so you have some insight into how they're organized and managed and governed. Do you see any parallels between this sort of role of leader, director of a state agency, namely Department of Corrections and universities? Are they totally different kinds of enterprises?

Reggie Wilkinson:

No, they're not different constructs at all. There's probably in, from my perspective, more similarities than there are differences. And take Ohio State, for example. I mean, it's a state based university and I say base because it's all, you know, only a small percentage of its funding is from, you know, this, the Ohio legislature. But they still have to follow state rules, they have to follow, you know, the budgeting process, the, you know, ethics process, the personnel rules, and which were the same ones that I had to manage as a head of the state prison system. So there are some administrative functions that are exactly the same. I don't, I think the mission is very similar in terms of bringing somebody into the organization, whether it's higher education, prison or hospital, the military, you want that person to be better off when they leave than when they first got there. So, you know, theoretically, there are a lot of similarities. Of course, there are differences. I don't go out and lobby people and name buildings after them. I don't do a number of things that we do now that in, but even with Ohio State, they're their mission is different. It's a land grant university. It's not just there to serve the students. It's there to serve the entire state. And that's what you know, I love about the role of the trustee ship at OSU.

Trevor Brown:

So thinking about those two roles, role of a university president say and Director of State Agency, are there general leadership lessons that you you think apply, just as we sort of pull this conversation to a close? Are there things that you think are transferable across those contexts?

Reggie Wilkinson:

I think the leadership lessons are rather universally, rather universal and transferable. I and it goes beyond just whether it's a state agency or university. I, I think there's similar leadership roles for the private sector, corporations, businesses, nonprofit organizations, I think, you know, the differences become in the specific mission, you know, then you have what you have to do. And many of those are more management functions, and they are leadership functions. And when, when you become a leader, I mean, it's your responsibility to make sure that you have the right talent that the culture of the organization is one that is going to be an advantage for the group. So yeah, I am a big believer that there are leadership principles and theories that are rather universal, regardless of the type of organization you're affiliated with.

Trevor Brown:

Reggie, thank you for this informative, engaging conversation. And more importantly, thank you for your multiple decades of service to the state of Ohio and, and personally to the Ohio State University. We are benefiting from your wisdom and your good governance. So so thank you for joining me today and thank you for serving serving us.

Reggie Wilkinson:

It's my pleasure.