University mission statements

Some background before discussing mission statements….

Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) is a university-wide initiative offered by the Graduate School at Virginia Tech. Through the implementation of unique programs and opportunities, TGE pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and aims to significantly change how graduate students prepare to become the next generation of scientists, educators, scholars, engineers, artists, and career professionals.  One of these programs is the Future Professoriate graduate certificate.

Every semester for the past 15+ years, I’ve taught a graduate course entitled Preparing the Future Professoriate which is one of the required courses to earn the certificate. The purpose of the class is to provide graduate students the opportunity to learn about universities and especially the roles and responsibilities of faculty members.  Each semester 55+ master’s and doctoral students from our 8 different colleges (e.g., Engineering, Science, Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Business, Architecture and Urban Studies, Natural Resources and Environment, Agriculture and Life Sciences) enroll in the class.

One of the early assignments for the class is to find, share and blog about mission statements from two college or universities, U.S. or international. Over the years, I have found this assignment and the discussion that follows to be important in raising awareness about the various types of colleges and universities around the world and their different and yet sometimes similar mission statements. As a result, I have continued to reflect upon the purposes for mission statements, similarity in the words included in the mission statements, the audiences for mission statements, and changes that have occurred over time.  And in the past few years, I have used digital polling software (e.g. Mentimeter for interactive presentations) to share the results with the class for discussion.

The first question I ask for each to share three to four words that they found in the mission statements.  And the second question was for them to identify the type of institution they selected.  I was curious about the words contained in the mission statements and I wanted to learn how they would characterize the university they selected.

Below I’ve included word clouds from the mission statements as shared by the graduate students in the class for the past three semesters. (Please note that this is not intended as a scientific analysis but more of an observation). As you can see, there are some words like research, community, knowledge, service and more that seem to be found in many of the mission statements. Teaching (learning), diversity (access), and global also appear in many mission statements. None of these words are surprising.  But what is surprising is that the word “student” (students) doesn’t appear as often as one would think.  Student or learner (and teaching/learning) seems to be implied rather than directly mentioned. In the figures below, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges were in the mix.  If we were to sort by higher education institution type (e.g.private universities, liberal arts colleges, HBCUs, and community colleges) the key words in the mission statements would reflect more about the specific mission of the institution.

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the word clouds for the mission statements, the second question was about the type of college or university selected by these students.  Two examples of the word clouds are shown below.  As you can see, public research universities were common among the universities selected – not surprising because VT is a public research university and perhaps is the most familiar and of interest to the graduate students.   I found it interesting that “PWI” was used as a popular description for many of the entries but likely this was related to the recent in class conversation about PWI (predominately white institution), HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and MSI (Minority serving institutions) institutions.

 

 

 

In January 2018, I was pleased to read a blog by Julian David Cortes-Sanchez entitled “What do universities want to be? A content analysis of mission and vision statements worldwide”.  Although this isn’t the only analysis completed on mission statements, I found his findings pertinent to the mission statement assignment for my graduate course.  Cortes-Sanchez did an analysis of mission and vision statements and found that the most frequently used terms were research, university, world, knowledge and education. These are very similar to the words identified through the class assignment; not surprisingly.  The terms of global or world seem to be newer addition to mission statements as universities strive for a more global presence.

Although there are some very similar words used in mission statements, close attention to the words used can provide a greater understanding of the unique mission of the institutions of higher education.

 

On being inclusive

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the terms diversity and inclusion – how they are used, what they mean and how they are connected. My reflections have evolved over the years and rather than write a long narrative with historical perspective, I will be brief. In terms of which comes first, I will argue that it is inclusion that should be mentioned first and thereby guide our thinking and actions.

Diversity and inclusion are words that do have historical significance and context; at least dating back in the mid 20th century.  Diversity tended to be defined in terms of gender and race initially and recently more broadly in terms of the multiple and intersecting human social identities (e.g., age, LGBTQ, ability, religion, country of origin).  As a term, diversity has often been focused on difference as well as the value that these differences bring.

Inclusion in the 20th century was commonly associated with mainstreaming and integrating children with disabilities into regular schools (e.g., PL 94-142 Education of all Handicapped Children’s Act).  Inclusion has taken on a broader meaning today in the higher education landscape especially inclusive excellence and inclusive pedagogy. Through my higher education lens, inclusion must be defined as active, intentional and ongoing engagement with the full range of diversity topics and the multiple social identities in the curriculum and community.  Inclusion is about changing the culture so that individuals could be and are included.  It’s about having choice and choices. An “inclusion” approach (attitude and actions) empowers the creation of welcoming, affirming and diverse communities.

We hear frequently diversity and inclusion used together and usually in that order.  But I believe that our philosophical approach and actions should focus on inclusion and the creation and sustainability of inclusive affirming environments. Obviously we must incorporate both – inclusion and diversity – but here’s my main point.  If we are truly inclusive (attitude, actions) we will be diverse.  If we focus primarily on diversity, inclusion doesn’t always follow.  As administrators, faculty, staff and students we should focus “on being inclusive”.

p.s.  Virginia Tech Graduate School will begin the 3- year implementation of a new inclusion and diversity requirement for graduate students starting Fall 2018.

Effecting change in graduate education

It seems like I’ve been advocating for change in higher education for a long time now.  In some of my presentations dating back 1990s and recent blogs include posts about a ‘futurisktic‘ perspectives, university for the 21st century (Duderstadt, 2001), a call for embracing the ‘conceptual age‘ (Pink, 2005) and more. As a strong advocate for change in higher education, I want to share an example of change for graduate education.

Last week (June 12-14), the VT Graduate School hosted a conference on creating a space and place for graduate education drawing upon the 13+ years of experience gained through the innovative Graduate Life Center (GLC) and the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School.  Graduate education colleagues and student affairs professionals attended the inaugural gathering to participate in the conversations about the “places, spaces, services and collaborations it takes to support the unique needs of graduate students”.

The conference was focused on the “what” and “how” of creating a space and place for graduate education.  In my opening remarks, I focused on the “why” and the historical context that prompted the development of the GLC and the TGE programs.  To begin….the call for change and the confluence of Duderstadt (2001) and Pink (2005).

In his book entitled “A University for the 21st Century, Duderstadt (2001) wrote that if lasting institutional reform is to be achieved, it will require changes in graduate education, with greater emphasis upon the integration of the disciplines and their applications to societal issues.  Daniel Pink (2005) argued in his book “A whole New Mind” that society has moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age to the information age and for the 21st century, the conceptual age.  Specifically, he wrote that “we are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”

Although other reports, books and professionals have called for change, Duderstadt and Pink were very influential in my rethinking and re-imagining graduate education and the leadership role that Graduate Schools could play.  Graduate schools and graduate deans have and must accept the responsibility for creating a space and place for graduate education. This can be done physically regardless of the size of the space and can definitely be accomplished conceptually in building and growing academic community(ies).  At their core and among the underlying principles, Graduate Schools and Graduate Deans must be responsive, integrative, interactive, inclusive & innovative. We (graduate deans) have the power to convene and we must be lead the transformation.  The calls for change in graduate education are loud including the most recent document from National Academies of Science, Engineering and Mathematics (NASEM, May 2018) entitled Graduate STEM education for the 21st century.  Although the report is focused on STEM, the recommendations are applicable to graduate education in general.  We (Graduate Schools, Graduate Deans) have responsibility for change, must be strategic and lead the transformation.

 

Obviously there are differing perspectives and views of and from the different parts of the university not unlike the fable of the blind “men” and the elephant.  Although many within the university community might want to see the Graduate School in a more traditional sense and less transformative, leaders needs to see things differently and look for that which is “unobvious” to others.  Times have changed and we have the responsibility to create a new culture for graduate education by developing meaningful and relevant programs. In doing so, I found the following strategies to be useful:

  • programs (e.g., workshops, classes) that provide added value (e.g., career development) to the degree
  • programs and opportunities that compliment not duplicate departmental efforts
  • incentives for participation including graduate certificates and academic credit
  • resources need to be identified within Graduate School and utilized to offer programs and opportunities
  • programs and opportunities should be innovative, dynamic and evolving and especially meaningful and relevant to current and future graduate students
  • strong commitment from the Graduate Dean (e.g., advocate, champion for change)

The consensus study report (NASEM, 2018) indicates that “it would be wise to acknowledge and understand the current and future challenges facing this system (higher education) and take steps now to ensure that it remains vital, adaptable, and relevant for many generations to come. To neglect graduate education, or to ignore threats to its success, puts the economic, social, and cultural well-being of the nation at risk. (p. 19, 2018)

Graduate education needs to change and we can transform graduate education through by understanding cultural change and building a new culture with new traditions and expectations for graduate education for the 21st century.  We don’t need to do this alone; we can develop partnerships and collaborations.  The charge to graduate deans is to take the lead and the challenge to our student affairs colleagues is to join us.  We can create a space and place for graduate education.

Eve of departure: Global Perspectives Program 2018

For nearly two decades now I have been actively engaged with higher education around the world (which provided the impetus for the establishment of the Global Perspectives Program).  I have watched with great interest the emergence of the  Bologna Process in Europe in 1999 and now the extension of the Bologna process for another 10 years.  Universities around the world have been and are challenged to become 21st century universities and this requires change.  There is no need to abandon the rich history of many universities, but change requires colleges and universities to rethink the who, how, where, when and even the why of higher education.

Universities around the world are grappling with a number of issues, many of which are local or national.  These often differ by country, institutional structure, political climate, financial constraints and more.  Recently, I have noticed that many European universities with the encouragement of the European University Association (EUA) are embracing some of the timely topics which are also lively topics within the United States.  And these will inform the discussion of the participants during our journey known as #GPPVT18.

This is year 13 for the VT Graduate School Future Professoriate: Global Perspectives program (GPP) in Switzerland. Thirteen years and it seems like yesterday when I flew to Zurich to initiate the program.  It is truly amazing how time passes so quickly and how much the program has evolved.

Although we visit the same countries (Switzerland, France, Italy) and the same universities in those countries, the same hotels and even some of the same restaurants, the experiences are different due to the GPP participants and the new places and people within the universities we visit. This year there are 13 graduate students traveling plus the GPP Graduate Assistant Abram and me. Abram was a participant last year and has switched roles for #GPPVT18. The participants come from 13 different degree programs located in five different colleges (4 from Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, 3 from Agriculture and Life Sciences, 3 from Engineering, 2 from Science).  The diversity of academic disciplines, lived experiences, social identities and perspectives is rich and serves to enhance the experience.  I look forward to meeting up with the group at Hotel St. Josef on Sunday, May 27th at 15.00 (3 pm).

Each year we identify a theme which focuses our attention on trends, challenges and issues facing higher education in Europe especially Switzerland.  This year’s theme is “Evolving European and U.S. higher education”.  The GPP’18 participants will explore four timely topic areas (teaching/learning, open access, inclusion/diversity and doctoral education) during the university visits, engage in group dialogue at the GPP summit in Riva San Vitale, and ultimately at the global seminar at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington D.C. in June.  The exploration of these topics will be invigorating and the dialogue rich.

Check out the website (futureprof.global), read our blogs, and follow up on twitter (#gppvt18).

 

Citizen Science: Engaging citizens in research

The 2018 Annual Conference of the European University Association was held in Zurich, Switzerland April 5-6, 2018 using the theme of “engaged and responsible universities shaping Europe”.  Topics included social responsibility, lifelong learning, sustainable Europe, social inclusiveness and diversity, open science, scientific integrity and ethics, and more.  The sessions included lively discussions and live tweeting (#EUA2018Zurich).  It was informative to hear about the EUA perspectives on these topics and to reflect on these same topics as discussed (or not) among higher education leaders in the U.S.  The presentations can be found on the EUA website.

A fascinating presentation on Citizen Science closed the conference and is the focus of my comments here.  In the U.S., we have frequently referred to the social responsibility of the university and public engagement as part of the university mission especially land grant universities.  We have used terms including ‘citizen scholars’ (eg., VT Graduate School Citizen Scholar program), ‘scholar citizens’, ‘scholar activists’ and to some extent citizen science.  The programs and opportunities vary across universities but highlight the connections between the university and society.  Citizen Science in the U.S. seems to be a relatively new entity (first conference in Oregon in 2012), books authored recently (e.g., C. Cooper, Citizen Science: How ordinary people are changing the face of discovery, 2016) and often associated with the environment issues (e.g., Citizen Science Association).

In his introductory comments at the EUA Hot Topic session and overview, Daniel Wyler (University of Zurich) identified Citizen Science as an element of open science and described Citizen Science as able to “enlarge the scope of research in all fields of science and able to enhance public education and the understanding of science”.  He argued that “many scientific and societal issues need citizen science” in areas such as the environment, aging, and energy” and could be helpful in providing the foundation for long-term policy decisions.  He shared guidelines for universities and policy makers and introduced the Citizen Science Center Zurich which is jointed operated by the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. The goal of the Center is to enable “researchers and citizens to create and conduct research collaborations that produce excellent science” in support of the UN 2030 Agenda 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Examples of citizen science in the European context were shared by Kevin Schawinski (ETH Zurich), Sabine Stoll (University of Zurich) and Julia Altenbuchner (University College London).  The three shared distinct examples of science conducted at universities that actively engaged citizens in the research.  As part of the process, citizens could become actively engaged in the design of research projects, data collection and analysis, developing recommendations, and shaping research agendas and public policy.

Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) is one example and can be described as “a situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world.”  Current projects include: Doing it Together Science (DITOs), Extreme Citizen Science: Analysis and Visualisation (ECSAnVis), WeGovNow, and Challenging RISK (Resilience by Integrating Societal and Technical Knowledge).  Check out these exciting projects and see how citizens are helping with research.  And there’s a free new online course entitled “Introduction to Citizen Science and Scientific Crowdsourcing”.

Another example comes from Kevin Schawinski who engaged citizens in his research on galaxy and black hole astrophysics.  He and his colleagues initiated a project entitled Galaxy Zoo which can be found with Zooniverse.  Zooniverse is the “world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.”  Zooniverse provides many opportunities for citizens to engage in meaningful research with professors and currently lists 84 very diverse projects on their website.  These range from arts to literature to medicine to space and demonstrate the real projects and publications as a result of Citizen Science. Very impressive.

Universities have a responsibility to society and a Citizen Science approach provides the opportunity to reframe science through ‘people-powered-research’, to challenge our existing paradigm of research, to redefine “expertise”, and to empower genuine public engagement.

“Take up the baton”

In January 2018, the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech hosted a live performance of The Mountaintop as part of the 2018 current tour for the Los Angeles Theatre Works (LATW).  It was a powerful performance with a very important message and challenge for us to continue the work of Martin Luther King and to “take up the baton”.

The Mountaintop, winner of the prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Play, provides the audience with “a glimpse at the human side of Martin Luther King Jr.”  The performance focuses on the evening hours of April 3rd after his famed final speech including the statement that he had “been to the mountaintop” and his assassination on April 4, 1968.  Throughout the play, the racial tension of the 1960s is highlighted and the parallels to today’s struggles are revealed. One of the messages of The Mountaintop is the challenge to take up the baton for social justice and equity.

Nationally, many opportunities to “take up the baton” have arisen recently out of which ‘movements” and initiatives have evolved including but not limited to #MeToo movement, Women’s March on Washington, BlackLIvesMatter, Transequality, and most recently, the March for our Lives.  Made visible through these movements are the concerns of many and their actions in support of equity and social justice.  I believe these “movements” are testimony to the impact of the work of Martin Luther King Jr. some 50 years ago and at the same time examples of the work that still needs to be done.

Education is critical to an informed citizenry and universities often provide the space and place for increasing awareness, understanding and engaging with issues of social justice and equity. These efforts are championed by offices of inclusion and diversity, academic departments (e.g., sociology, women and gender studies, cultural studies) in which scholarship and coursework focuses on social justice and equity, events and gatherings offered by cultural centers (e.g., connect-lunch, lavender graduation, international street fair, Tribal pow-wow), and history month programs (e.g., Black History, Hispanic, LGBTQ, Women).  Examples of these exist at Virginia Tech and include specific initiatives and programs offered by the VT Graduate School (e.g., citizen scholars) and through the Graduate School’s Office of Recruitment, Diversity and Inclusion (VT_ORDI) (e.g., diversity scholars, Bouchet graduate honor society, mentoring circle). The educational opportunities are many and typically help university constituencies engage in the difficult dialogues and contribute to the creation of affirming and inclusive communities within higher education and beyond.

Education begins with awareness and progresses to understanding and active engagement.  As part of our individual and collective journey, we can no longer be silent or simply be an observer and bystander to acts of social injustice, bullying, harassment or abuse and violence.  It is important to consider the multiple ways in which each of us can become (more) active bystanders, advocates and allies for civility, equity and social justice. Please choose the issue(s) important to you and  “take up the baton”.

Beginning of semester musings: Grit? Community!

When I first heard the word “grit” used in the higher education context and learned about the research findings, presentations and publications about “grit” by Angela Duckworth, I questioned the use of the word “grit” and the premise that “grit” was the primary characteristic for student success.  Duckworth (2007) defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” (p. 1087) which are important to success; her writings emphasize that working hard is key to success.

Through my lens as a VP and Graduate Dean, I was thinking about graduate education and graduate students and how and why they are successful in Graduate School.  Many words and descriptors come to mind about the graduate education experience but “grit” wasn’t one of them. There is, and should be, so much more to success in graduate school than working hard and focusing solely on having grit.

Yes, graduate school can be challenging and definitely stressful at times. Stories and personal narratives often focus on the struggles faced by graduate students.  Words used often include “having to tough it out”, “plugging away”, “no sleep/all work”, and “surviving graduate school”. Rather than reinforce what I believe is the negativity associated with surviving as the primary narrative of graduate school, I opt for thriving in graduate school. In the spirit of changing the narrative and fostering a sense of academic community, I wrote a blog about thriving in graduate school which was published almost exactly two years ago.

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Laurie A. Schriener entitled “The Privilege of Grit” in the November-December 2017, Volume 22 (5) of About Campus which I found quite intriguing and compelling.  She questioned some of the scholarly foundation of grit, suggested that there is privilege implicit in grit, identified some dangers of grit, and offered an alternative to grit as a thriving ideology and cultivating a thriving campus.  This article is a must read and needless to say, I was delighted that she recommended thriving as a viable alternative to grit.

Schriener (2017) described three steps in “cultivating a thriving campus” which resonated well with me and the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered through the VT Graduate School. The three steps included – building a sense of community, student learning as the heart of the institutional mission, and bring out the best in others.  The VT Graduate School through the TGE initiative uses building a welcoming, inclusive and affirming academic community as the foundation.  Among our goals are to prepare our graduate students for whatever careers they will pursue with the career critical skills and to complement the disciplinary education in the academic colleges. Related, VT has developed the VT shaped student (interdisciplinary, holistic and experiential education) approach which is consistent with the thriving ideology.  At the graduate level, we utilize the Transformative Graduate Education umbrella and the Graduate School’s commitment to inclusion and diversity to help educate the VT shaped learner.

In preparing our graduates to become 21stC global citizens and for jobs and careers that might be unknown today and still evolving, the Graduate School has assumed the responsibility to provide opportunities for graduate students through which they can enhance their knowledge, skills and abilities for success. Individual traits like perseverance and passion are important to success but there is much more to success than simply working hard and having grit.  Progress in graduate school also involves community (a safe, welcoming, inclusive global community) and is measured one semester at a time.

Spring semester 2018 has begun.  Here’s to thriving in graduate school.

Word choice and unintended messages: Career critical skills, not ‘soft skills’

Although there are so many things to comment about word choice and the unintended messages in higher education (e.g., demographics, inclusion, micro-aggression and more), I will focus my musings on concept of negation (‘non-‘) in our word choice especially the pervasive use of “soft” in our everyday language within and about academia.

Negation is defined by Merriam-Webster as “something considered the opposite of something regarded as positive”.  Unfortunately, we hear words used to describe  ‘something’ and ‘non-something’ frequently when referring to those things that are often considered dominant and therefore perceived as having more value in higher education.  The word choice usually results in creating or reinforcing dichotomies.  A few examples come to mind – English-speaking, non-English speaking; resident, non-resident alien; research university, non-research university; academic, non-academic.  I can understand the use of ‘non’ as a matter of convenience and fewer words but its use does send messages that I hope we might not intend.  And sometimes it seems understandable to make a point such as the use of sexist vs non-sexist language but I still find the word choice somewhat problematic. Why don’t we choose words with the same goal in mind but are more affirming and inclusive? Like ‘inclusive language’ that is more than non-sexist.

Examples of negation and the concept of something and ‘non’ something have been identified in other ways as well.  For years, those of us in higher education and associated with higher education have heard and used the language around academic discourse as the ‘hard’ sciences and the soft sciences.  Also common is the reference to the soft skills or non-cognitive skills when discussing skills desired to complement education in (cognitive) disciplinary knowledge and understanding including interdisciplinary content.

To counter the perception that some academic disciplines (e.g., STEM+ in particular) deserve the adjective of ‘hard’ (a positive in terms of the importance and value given to the word ‘hard’), I have used the phrasing of hard science as stated by others and then change ‘soft sciences’ to ‘hard-to-do science’ that includes and acknowledges the value of and the challenges associated with research in the social sciences, arts and humanities.

Similar discourse exists around the word choice of soft skills and non-cognitive skills. Examples of these skills include leadership, teamwork, communication, problem solving and problem posing, ethical and professional behaviors, work ethic, interpersonal relationship, collaboration, adaptability, innovation and creativity and more.  Although I realize that there is an entire literature on the value and importance non-cognitive skills, the terminology still seems inappropriate and misleading. It sets up a binary that certain skills are cognitive and other are not. I would argue vehemently that these skills involve a great deal of cognition and are not easily developed or honed successfully but need to be.  The word choice of soft skills also implies that these skills are easy to learn and to implement. And indeed, they are not.

Leadership, teamwork, communication, problem solving and problem posing, ethical and professional behaviors, work ethic, interpersonal relationship, collaboration, adaptability, innovation and creativity are skills which are desired by future employers and required for success in the workplace.  As such, opportunities to develop and programs to utilize these skills have been incorporated into graduate education recently. The Council of Graduate Schools is leading this effort nationally and the Virginia Tech Graduate School provides many opportunities for graduate students to better prepare themselves for the careers that they will likely pursue.

Given their importance, let’s call these Career Critical Skills.  Words (and actions) do make a difference!

On Leadership: Transformative and “Futurisktic”*

*Adapted from keynote presentation for the VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute luncheon, October 13, 2017 in Richmond, VA.

In April 2002, I received an anonymous email – a very threatening and untraceable anonymous email sent from a remailer in Milan, Italy. The email informed me that I was unqualified for the position at Virginia Tech that I had just been offered and accepted. The position is the one I hold today and was similar to the one I had held at my previous institution, a research land-grant university very much on par with VT. The email further indicated that I (and my partner) would not be welcome in Virginia because “they kill gays in Roanoke”. And, of course, the author provided the link to a newspaper story that detailed the September 2000 murder of Danny Overstreet (and wounding of six others) inside a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia, by a man who said he wanted to shoot gays. I would later learn that a hateful and homophobic email announcing my hire was sent to the VT administration and members of the VT Board of Visitors, resulting in the BOV taking unprecedented action to further discourage me and my partner from moving to Blacksburg, Virginia.  In July 2002, we drove 2701 miles to begin our new life at Virginia Tech.

This was definitely a moment, one of many in my professional career through which I was able to face the obstacles, eventually find empowerment, and continue my journey as it would unfold. This moment was actually transformative. All of us have moments in our lives, but what we choose to do with them, how we choose to learn from them (and not be defined by them) provide the foundation for navigating the roles and responsibilities that come with leadership positions and opportunities to lead.

Moments are sometimes called learning moments or Aha moments! Some are brief and some extend over time.  One of the first lessons that I learned from that moment in 2002 was to understand that although it was and felt very “personal,” I could not take it “personally” or respond in a personal way.  It is important to understand the impact of these moments personally and professionally because it is likely that some of our decisions will create intentional or unintentional ‘moments’ for others.

I was honored to speak at the VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute that is the legacy of Dr. Grace E. Harris. I have faced challenges in my academic career as a woman, but as a white woman I have been allowed to benefit from the systemic racism in our culture and institutions. Dr. Harris defined herself as a transformative leader in spite of the discrimination she faced. I can only imagine what kind of ‘moments’ she confronted throughout her life and career as an African American female challenging the racially exclusionary system of our society and of higher education. Returning as the first African American faculty member at VCU, to the very institution that had years earlier denied her admission as a graduate student due to her race, providing 32 years of exemplary service and serving as Provost and Academic Vice President (and twice as interim President), her story, her journey, and her determination to turn obstacles into opportunities are inspirational.

In my presentation, I offered two initial reflections about leadership which I learned mostly from life’s unexpected ‘moments’ – nuggets of authentic experiences that offer great insights, assuming that we are able to listen and learn from them. First, leadership occurs everywhere and should be recognized in everyday life. Leadership often happens without an official administrative title or position of leadership. Second, when we hold an administrative title or leadership position, one of our primary responsibilities lies in providing opportunities for, and encouraging, others to feel empowered and to act as leaders in all that they do.

While some leaders have their careers planned early in their lives and know where they want to be by a specific date, others chose a different path or, more accurately in my case, a different path choose me. Although paths do vary, I believe strongly that career development is more of a journey that unfolds across time. The path isn’t necessarily straight and the journey should be dynamic; and, as such, it will naturally include many unknowns.  We need to look for doors, or the slightly ajar doors, the spaces that open up sometimes unexpectedly that one can move into and explore.  We need to be willing to seek and work to open doors when they are slow to open. I’m not arguing for complacency, nor am I suggesting that we wait passively for something to happen. I am suggesting that keen observation, and an attentiveness and willingness to explore the unknown, will lead to unexpected opportunities. This requires us to understand that there will be times when we will be outside of our comfort zone, that will we need to embrace being open and vulnerable, having courage and a willingness to accept risk.

Today higher education faces the challenge of change and the challenge to change. Throughout the 21st century, many issues have surfaced and challenged higher education, including the cost of higher education, access, accountability, diversity, the meaningfulness of a degree, ethics and more. There have been numerous calls for reform to which higher education must respond and leaders are those who can embrace transformational change. Transformation occurs over time, is intentional, is deep and pervasive, affects the whole institution, requires changes in policies, procedures, programs and people; and ultimately, it can alter the institutional culture for the better.

Due to recent events, including #charlottesville, higher education has been challenged to engage with issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech, civil discourse, and protests. There is much unrest and tension in the nation and in the Commonwealth right now and university leadership must find a way to navigate these waters and move our institutions forward; the solutions and paths forward will require strong and transformative leadership from both current leaders and the next generation of leadership in academe.

Transformative leadership is a broad umbrella term under which I’d like to highlight specific aspects and actions. Included among these are thinking differently; looking for that which is the ‘unobvious’; having a vision and framing a positive agenda with long-term perspective; identifying the problem that we are trying to solve; focusing on the underlying principles, and to “live a life of meaning and worth” as articulated by the late African American law professor, Derrick Bell in his book, Ethical Ambition (2002).

In sharing my musings and reflections about transformative leadership, I want to begin with the “meditations” found in Ethical Ambition: Living a life of meaning and worth. This book helped inform and enriched my journey since my initial reading of the book following the transformative moment of 2002. In particular, Bell wrote:

“Ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions.” (p. 50)

“Ethical life is not a life of sacrifice; it is a life of riches. The satisfaction of choosing ethically enriches the fabric of our daily lives in ways we might have otherwise thought impossible.”

Bell (2002) challenges us to choose to work with passion and integrity; to be authentic, courageous and assume risks; to find moments of inspiration, build relationships and a sense of community, and to do all of these with humility. From a leadership perspective, I would expand the notion of humility to include prioritizing institutional over personal ambition.

Leadership is about having vision (which, in my view, should sometimes include ideas not fully in focus, rather than adherence to a preconceived plan, etched in stone) and direction (a general path to follow but also allowing the journey to unfold). It is about clarifying and identifying the problem we are trying to solve before considering solutions or possible outcomes. This seems like it would be intuitive, but we are not often enough encouraged to carefully assess the problem and reflect on possible solutions, before the institution tries to move forward.

Leadership is also about examining our underlying assumptions and identifying the principles by which we will consider and make decisions. In the decision-making process, I will often ask what are the principles that we will use in making the decision. This also requires that we ask “why” and “to whose benefit” more often than we do. If there isn’t an immediate satisfactory answer, I often put something on the “stop-doing-this” list while answering the why and who benefits questions. And, of course, we must see and understand the whole and not just the parts as depicted in the visual of the blindfolded individuals and the elephant.

Not only does transformative leadership require a holistic view, but it also requires us to think differently and look for that which is not necessarily obvious – seeing the arrow in the FedEx logo.  It is about seeing and seeking that which is “unobvious”.

It is about seeing the subtle messages and seeing that which becomes clearer only after more observation (how many faces).

 

 

 

Transformative leadership must be focused on inclusion and diversity and in that order. If we focus only on diversity, we might never achieve inclusion. But if we focus on inclusion we will have diversity.

Transformation leadership requires us to act: to respond and not react. Leadership is action and we need to balance patience and perseverance. There are times when our actions are seen and sometimes our actions go unnoticed except by a few.

And, we must also remind ourselves that “silence is the voice of complicity.” As I mentioned in the beginning, higher education is in need of transformative leaders. These are leaders who are not afraid to speak out. Leaders must think about the future and be willing to take some risks – to be ‘futurisktic‘.

Gandhi is often credited with saying be the change you wish to see in the world. I would encourage us to embrace this as individuals, but to also suggest that it is our job as leaders to help our institutions of higher education “become the change we wish to see in the world.”

Effectiveness requires psychological safety: Musings for higher education

Team work is not a new concept but is likely taking on greater significance in the 21st century.  Working in teams is needed not only to understand and address the complexity of the issues facing society today but to recognize the importance of and to engage actively with diverse perspectives in the conversation. The key to success is the effectiveness of these teams as investigated by Google in their study of team effectiveness and described in the Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness in 2015.

Although it is important to have particularly knowledgable individuals on the team, the “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions”.  The study revealed the following five key factors were important to successful and effective teams:

  • Psychological safety – feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable
  • Dependability – getting work done on time and meeting expectation
  • Structure and clarity – having clear goals and roles
  • Meaning of work – meaningfulness and personal
  • Impact of work – work matters and positive change

Google found that the psychological safety was the most important key factor and the foundation for the others.

Higher education can take lessons from these findings as we conduct much of our work in teams throughout the university (e.g., faculty research teams, task forces and committees, administrative units pursuing strategic goals, organizations and associations, and more).  In addition, the context of the 21st century university lends itself to an interactive and innovative learning environments at the core of our mission.

The “work” in higher education is often undertaken in teams or in collaborations with others. The “work” as demonstrated through the missions of the university (e.g., teaching, research and service) and seen in our outcomes (e.g., education/degrees, research findings) must be meaningful and relevant not only to the individual(s) but to society as well. Inasmuch as colleges and universities are preparing the next generations of professionals, it is important that we do so as global citizens who will work in an increasingly more collaborative contexts.  As I have argued before, the university (especially the 21st century university) is a social institution with responsibility to society and therefore our “work” must matter and be about positive change.

Following in the spirit of academic freedom and liberal education for students, U.S. universities tend to subscribe to principles that guide our words and actions (e.g., principles of community) and actively promote inclusion and diversity.  Universities must actively encourage inclusive pedagogy and ways in which to undertake the difficult dialogues.  Although challenged by the rhetoric and divisiveness that appears in society today, institutions of higher education must continue to situate themselves to provide a welcoming and affirming environment for all where differences are respected and valued. Further, colleges and universities have an obligation to create a “space” where all (faculty, staff, students and administrators) know that diverse perspectives are valued and feel safe about taking risks, being vulnerable and learning from failure.  Innovation and creativity depend upon this and our universities must become futurisktic in our thinking and our actions.

Higher education should build and sustain a strong sense of community and adopt a philosophy of “thriving” not simply surviving. To do so, requires leadership (throughout the university) that in words and actions demonstrates that it values diverse perspectives, actively encourages the sharing of differing views and welcomes individual voices to the table.

And of course, we must continue to value and respect independent work and scholarship and at the same time value collaboration and teamwork.  The relevance of universities today depends upon the meaningfulness of our “work” and how well and effectively we work individually and together in teams and through interdisciplinary and innovative collaborative environments.