Being Futurisktic

Institutions of higher education (IHEs) have often been viewed as slow to change and to prefer, and even perpetuate, the status quo or the “way we have always done it”.   Thus, IHEs often appear to be (or are) risk-averse and reluctant to change.  But change is clearly needed amidst the many challenges facing higher education today.  In addition to the challenges, there are many and varied opportunities and possibilities.

In thinking about the future for higher education and working toward transformative change (evolution and especially revolution), the challenges tend to visible immediately and the associated risks often become the reasons that we question if we can or if we should move forward. Even though progress is always possible, change is often limited by the risks or the perception of risk and possible failure. Some academic leaders are risk-averse or take actions that appear to be risk-averse, but I would argue that risk must be acknowledged and welcomed as a part of our growth individually and professionally and institutional change.

To effect change we must adapt our thinking to be futuristic and simultaneously embrace risk as a critical element for significant progress to be made; that is futurisktic.  Futurisktic thinking can also be seen as a way of thinking not just about the future but as a mindset for engaging with today’s challenges and associated risks in pursuing the opportunities that emerge.

A few thoughts about being futurisktic relative to graduate education. Graduate deans and graduate schools can be agents for change by taking the risk and leading the way in challenging the status quo.  For graduate education, the status quo has played out in many ways but only two are mentioned here: assumption that ‘surviving graduate school’ is the norm and the way to evaluate performance is primarily through known markers of success while ignoring or dismissing failure.

Obviously we should strive for success but still note that much can be learned from failures. For graduate education, academic leaders should accept the responsibility to create the space for encouraging graduate students to take risks in pursuit of greater understanding knowing full well that failure is possible. As we know well, failure is a critical component of learning and research.

Surviving graduate school has been the recent rhetoric about the graduate student experience and I advocate to change the rhetoric and reality from surviving to thriving. Thriving provides an alternative metaphor for the experience and should guide us toward to the future. Thriving doesn’t mean lowering of quality or expectations. It is about empowering graduate students and providing the space to seek opportunities and take risks. Thriving allows for more creativity and innovation within the graduate education experience.  As a Graduate Dean, I encourage us to think differently about graduate education for the future (that’s a topic of a future blog), take some risks and encourage being futurisktic.

Futurisktic: of the future that includes risk (that’s okay) and taking risks (that’s good)

InclusiveVT initiatives: Graduate School updates

InclusiveVT was developed in July 2014 as a framework for Virginia Tech to become a more inclusive and diverse university.  An overview of the effort, recent report and events can be found on the website, the inclusion and diversity blog and through social media (twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more).

As part of the effort, senior leadership was asked to develop three initiatives for implementation starting during the 2014-2015 academic year. As one of those administrative units, the Graduate School had previously developed many programs and opportunities focused on diversity and inclusion including an office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI) and wanted to develop initiatives that would promote pervasive change and actively engage constituency groups across the university in transformative change.

In this post, I will report specifically on the progress made on the Graduate School’s three InclusiveVT initiatives:  holistic admissions, inclusive Graduate Life Center (GLC) and affirming environment for graduate education.

Holistic admissions in graduate education

In preparation for action, Graduate School staff investigated the use of holistic admissions at selected universities in the U.S. to identify promising practices. The next step was to survey departments and programs to determine the admission practices already in use at VT.  After reviewing the results of the surveys and wanting to identify admission criteria beyond the typical GPA, GRE scores (or other standardized test scores) and reputation of the university, we decided to make changes to the Graduate School application and the letters of recommendation process. Based specifically on information provided by our departments and programs we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions: community involvement and/or service; leadership; overcoming social, economic and/or physical barriers; personal and/or professional ethics; recognition of achievements over time; and research and scholarship.

In alignment with the personal attributes critical to academic success studied intensively by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI), we modified the letter of recommendation form to include specific questions about the following: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. Letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on these attributes and then provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate. Full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted.

The changes in the application and the letter of recommendation form were designed and built in such a fashion that departments/programs can “sort” by the additional educational experiences and personal attributes as well as GPA and other measures departments wish.  Admissions committee are encouraged to use these experiences and attributes systematically in determining qualified candidates and not just “sort” by high GPA and high GREs. Specifically, department are asked to “sort” initially and then revisit the applicant pool to “sort” at least two more times to expand the pool by the addition of those who were rated high on the pertinent additional educational experiences and personal attributes of value for academic success. We have collected data on the demographics of the pool of qualified applicants (admissible or admitted) in the last three years and will compare these with the data to be collected starting for Fall ’16. It is anticipated that these changes will allows for an increase in the size and diversity of the pool of qualified applicants. Beginning in mid Fall’15, we have conducted workshops and information sessions about holistic admissions and I am personally holding college-level meetings to discuss holistic admissions and affirming environment for graduate education.

Inclusive GLC and Affirming Environment for graduate education

These two initiatives are both focused on creating an affirming and welcoming “space and place” for graduate education; the first initiative is focused on the Graduate Life Center (including the Graduate School) and its people, program, place, policies and more and the second is focused more broadly on the broader university departments and programs. Specific activities have included the establishment of a GLC advisory committee to define inclusivity in terms of the physical space, attributes and policies of the Graduate Life Center. Also in the mix is an examination of the GLC promotional materials, evaluation mechanisms, and future programs. Educational programs and workshops have been initiated for GLC and Graduate School employees for understanding unconscious bias and micro-aggressions along with a commitment to the Principles of Community and inclusivity in hiring of new employees and in the annual review process of current employees.

Many efforts are directed toward creating more affirming and welcoming environments for graduate education. Among these are an revised entry survey and an exit survey developed to understand why individuals chose to enroll (or not) at Virginia Tech and to gather information about their experiences at VT upon completion of their degree. These have been helpful in enhancing the graduate experience at VT. We have also conducted “mid” surveys and more recently “climate surveys” to evaluate the climate for graduate education and wherever possible to determine why individuals chose to leave VT. With the goal of retention and provision of pertinent services and programs for our students it is important to understand more about their characteristics, varying attributes and multiple identities. Thus, we developed a post-admissions, pre-enrollment survey so that they can provide additional information about their needs and desires so that we can provide meaningful support services and programs.

Throughout this year and beyond, we will be conducting workshops and information sessions and gathering data about affirming practices and information about the graduate students’ experiences.   We are working with departments/programs to assist faculty and graduate students in dialogue about understanding privilege, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. In support of these efforts, I have authored a series of blogs on academic bullying, expectations for graduate education, understanding stress and more to share my reflections and offer resources for others to create or enhance affirming environment for graduate education.

The most recent endeavor is to change the rhetoric and reality of graduate school from surviving to thriving. Stay tuned – more to come on Thriving in Graduate School. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Academic bullying

Academic bullying. In what ways does it manifest itself?  When does it occur? Why does it exist?  And most importantly, how can bullying be eliminated and an affirming environment for graduate education be enhanced?  The questions are many, the answers actually complex.

Academic bullying has become increasingly more visible in the past few years and might even to aProfessors behaving badlyppear as being more tolerated in higher education today.  One comprehensive study was conducted and the results published in 2011 by John M. Braxton, Eve Proper, and Alan E. Bayer entitled Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education.


Several other books on bullying have been written in the last few years. Articles, reports and coverage within the higher education media (see articles in Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd) occur with some frequency.faculty incivility workplace bullying in HE Bullying in Ivory tower Bullying exists in higher education and Graduate Schools must assume a leadership role in addressing the concerns for graduate education and graduate students.

Although the terminology of ‘academic bullying’ is recent, the emphasis upon quality of and for graduate education extends back to at least the 1990s including prominent examples from AAU and the AAUP.  The Association of American Universities (AAU) established the Committee on Graduate Education and issued its report calling on universities to examine graduate education programs (AAU GradEd report).  Shortly thereafter in 1999, the AAUP established policy about graduate education and resources for graduate students.  Mentoring, collegial relationships and affirming education + equitable employment conditions were important and remain so. Civility should be the expectation and bullying should not be tolerated.

Today, most if not all of the U.S. Graduate Schools now have statements and documents in which they articulate the established principles for graduate education frequently referred to as principles or guiding principles, codes, or expectations. Even though the terminology of ‘academic bullying’ might not be specifically mentioned, the intent of these documents is to articulate the expectations for quality graduate education and an affirming climate for graduate students.  This is the approach taken by the Virginia Tech Graduate School.  We entitled our document Expectations for Graduate Study in which the expectations for graduate students, faculty, departments/programs and the Graduate School were articulated.  A website was created along with a summary of the expectations Expectation_Glance_2011.

The VT Graduate School is committed to enhancing the graduate education experience and providing opportunities for graduate students to thrive.  We are changing the paradigm from survival, silence and acceptance of status quo to transforming graduate education. The conversation about academic bullying will continue.  Watch for additional blog posts, information about models and promising practices, and ways to share concerns anonymously.


Virginia Tech has developed an initiative called InclusiveVT which now serves an umbrella for inclusion and diversity efforts.  VT President Timothy Sands has publicly stated that inclusion is the goal and with inclusion will come diversity.  For more information, see the InclusiveVT website and blog.

Most of us would say that we understand and would be able to define inclusion. And we would commonly define inclusion as the “action of including or being included within a group or structure”.  Although accurate, inclusion is and has to be more.

From my perspective, inclusion thus is not simply about including individuals of diverse backgrounds into existing groups or structures (society).  It has to be about changing the culture of the group or structure (institution) as well so that individuals could be and are included.   Without such change, individuals might be “present” in the structure but might and often do feel excluded.  With cultural change, the modified structure would then be more inclusive and less representative of the status quo. Institutions of higher education have been very slow to change but they must.  To do less is to fall short of the transformational change toward inclusivity needed in higher education.

Risk taking and higher education: Not an oxymoron

Words like revolution, transformation and risk-taking are not necessarily common in higher education….until recently.  And I’m delighted to see the change.

“Of the iUse of the univnstitutions that had been established in the Western world by 1520, 85 still exist – Catholic Church, the Parliament of the Isle of Man, of Iceland and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and 70 universities. Of these, perhaps the universities have experienced the least change.” (Kerr 2001, p.115 from The Uses of the University originally published in 1982 by Harvard University press).

As indicated above and common knowledge, universities have been slow to change throughout much of history at least through the 20th century.  But the advancements in technology of the 21st century have definitely precipitated change in almost all aspects of the university.  We have seen changes in the teaching and learning mission.  Research and discovery have expanded due to the use of technology as have the ways in which we disseminate scholarship.  Innovation and entrepreneurship have become common in today’s universities.  And of course, administrative processes and communication strategies sometime bear little resemblance to the past.

Although change is occurring, more is needed.  Many books have been written, op-ed pieces published and reports issued about the status of higher education today.  Once such report entitled “An Avalanche is Coming” offered the following:pub-avalanche-130305_10432.693d2106

“Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in the school systems.  Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental” (March 2013, p. 3)

If the “pace of change too slow and nature too incremental”, the leadership for the 21st century universities must be willing to challenge the status quo and take risks.   We must be “futurisktic“.  In that blog (2013), I wrote:

“Being futurisktic is about change.  It is about embracing risk as an integral aspect of      change.  Risk should not be viewed as a negative but risk taking will likely force us out of our comfort zones.  By doing so, it allows us to acknowledge and embrace the meaningfulness and value of change…. Being futurisktic is about pushing ourselves and pushing the limits as is so wonderfully exemplified in the video entitled the future is ours.”

A recent example of pushing oneself and stretching beyond one’s comfort zone is the article about “From safe spaces to brave spaces” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013).  The discussion of moving from “safe” to “brave” spaces has been especially pertinent to social justice and diversity. Several universities (e.g., UMBC, University of Michigan, Berkeley, UCLA, NYU) have initiated programs, dialogue and issued guidelines.  The metaphor of safe to brave should be embraced by university communities and utilized in considering futurisktic ideas and embracing change and institutional transformation.

I realize that change is difficult for some and especially in higher education where the culture tends to reinforce caution and the status quo.  As stated in “An Avalanche is Coming”, higher education needs transformation and individual leaders who can help lead the way.  “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth” by Derrick Bell (2002) provides some guidance for these leaders toward this end.  He offers advise for being successful and maintaining a sense of integrity.  His message is simple in that he “urges us to livEthical Ambitione a life of passion, to have the courage to take risks for what we believe in, to rely on our loved ones and out faith for support during hard times, and to have the humility to know when our best intentions go awry” (front cover).

Inclusion as learning community: Initial reflections on the journey

Diversity and multicultural were two of the early terms that were used to describe efforts toward increasing demographic diversity in the corporate world and higher education dating back to the 1980s.  Since then, the terminology has continued to evolve as have the efforts and activities.

Many of the initial efforts were focused on access to higher education by individuals of diverse backgrounds especially individuals of color.  Recruitment became a priority with less attention paid to retention and graduation although these would follow. These early efforts and initiatives were based mostly on compositional diversity.  Studies were done, data collected and analyzed. Recommendations made and strategies put forward which became common practices at colleges and universities around the United States. Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) and associated offices were established and charged to increase diversity, including efforts for faculty, staff and students.

In developing successful retention strategies and degree completion among students of diverse backgrounds, universities were forced to examine the university environment and how the climate (perhaps ‘chilly climate’) influenced not only access but more so retention, and ultimately graduation. As a result, support programs and student success offices evolved. And the language and terminology continued to evolve.

The terms of “inclusion” and “inclusiveness” were made prominent by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) Inclusive Excellence initiative.  Many universities would ultimately adopt this approach and the “inclusion” terminology now leads many offices and initiatives.

Virginia Tech adopted the AACU inclusive excellence approach which guided our most recent diversity strategic plan and led the way to our current initiative.  Since early fall 2014, Virginia Tech has embarked on a journey toward inclusivity through our “InclusiveVT” initiative.  In developing the university-wide initiative, VT President Sands indicated that inclusion comes first and with inclusion diversity will follow. Through InclusiveVT, senior administrators were charged with the responsibility to propose and implement specific initiatives designed to foster inclusivity throughout the university.  These efforts are focused on people, programs, and policies and are identified with the four aspects of inclusive excellence: access and success, campus climate and interior up relations, education and scholarship, and institutional infrastructure. In an attempt to increase communication and university engagement with the initiatives, activities and resources are posted on the website, information shared via twitter (@inclusiveVT) and through our blog entitled diversity dialogue.

As indicated above, there are many activities and efforts underway at Virginia Tech which can move us toward becoming “inclusiveVT”.  But the efforts and conversation must be pushed further.  If we are to become truly inclusive I believe that we must embrace inclusion as a learning community – not necessarily a Learning Community in the more formal sense but a learning community in which we (faculty, staff, students) work together with shared goals and aspirations.  In this learning community we will need to work together and collaboratively.  Not as top down or bottom up but as fellow travelers on this journey.  In this learning community, we can and must learn from each other regardless of one’s position or status.  We must be open to hearing the voices of others who are different from us and sharing openly.  As a community, we will need to understand “white privilege“, micro aggressions, and unconscious bias and engage in efforts to create affirming environments for all.  We should feel empowered to speak and required to listen.  In this learning community, we can and will learn.

The journey has begun.  Please join us and offer your reflections along the way.



Learning Revolution

When asked by Bill Moyers in April 1988 “can we have a revolution in learning?”, Issac Asimov responded with “Yes, I think not only that we can but that we must.”  He went on to talk about the time when “once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries, where you can ask any question and be given answers, you can look up something you’re interested in knowing”.  Asimov was actually talking about the internet before the internet had become a reality.  And he was talking about the need for educational reform and the need for lifelong learning, learning that was individualized, a learning revolution some 35 years ago.  His message of the late 1980s is as important today as it was then.

“That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish.” — Isaac Asimov
12/29/13 10:01 AM

Did we have a learning revolution in the late 20th century?  Perhaps we could say that some progress has been made but with more needed (that’s for a longer conversation). Although there are many good things happening in learning in schools and higher education, we have yet to realize the full extent and possibilities of the learning revolution.  Sir Kenneth Robinson, in arguing for the learning revolution states emphatically that what is needed is a transformation from the “dogmas of the past” and the “tyranny of common sense”.  In a 2013 TED talk, Robinson spoke eloquently about the three principles “crucial for the human mind to flourish”, creativity and the climate of possibility for education in the U.S.

Robinson and Asimov are but two of the scholars who have argued for educational reform. Although they have often focused on public school education, their messages are very compelling and therefore applicable for higher education as well.  The learning revolution can and should occur at colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.  Some examples are currently underway within the Commonwealth of Virginia including the Office of the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success as VCU, the Technology-enhanced Learning and OnLine Strategies (TLOS) at Virginia Tech, and the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School.

Let’s encourage our colleagues to engage our students (undergraduate, graduate), faculty and administrators in conversations about transformation and change for universities for the 21st century and to lead the learning revolution.



Language is important

The language that we use is important especially the words and what they imply.  We know this and we can cite many different examples.  I will offer only one perspective that resulted from my readings about faculty in higher education recently.  Not surprisingly, I regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education and other similar venues about higher education.  My comments which follow are not a criticism of these publications but should be viewed as a commentary about how we in the academy continue to use familiar words and phrases that while accurately portraying a current situation do therefore perpetuate these notions as if they are “fact” and can’t be changed in the future. Two examples follow.

The first of two phrases that I read and hear colleagues use is the “two body problem”.  These words are commonly used to describe the situation in which two individuals (e.g., spouses or partners), or at least one of these individuals, seek faculty positions in higher education.  Since the 1980s, words like spousal hire, partner accommodation, and more recently dual career hires have been used.  An underlying assumption was that this was a “challenge” or “problem”.  I agree (and have argued favorably on numerous occasions) that indeed higher education needed to become aware of and proactively address the fact that increasingly so couples desire career opportunities for each individual and therefore, often two faculty positions. This phenomenon has increased over time and has become a reality facing higher education.  And thus rather than call it “the two body problem” which immediately casts the situation negatively as a problem, perhaps we could use language that reflects a positive attitude and encourages action.  The message sent and received is very different if we change “problem” to “opportunity”.  Inside Higher Education has made positive strides forward in this arena through the featuring “dual career” couples (reflecting via photos a full range of diversity) and their opportunities to seek dual careers as evident on their website.  This sends a message that two careers are possible rather than a problem.

The second phrase and one that is relatively new is “the baby penalty“.  Dr. Mason (former Graduate Dean at UC Berkeley and current faculty member) and her colleagues have studied and authored a recent book in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not babies matter.  Their research shows that babies do matter and make a difference in the lives of female academics.  Honestly, I don’t find this surprising because I think intuitively we know that having babies and raising children does impact one’s lives and more so for females than the males.   While the data do support a “negative” impact upon the female faculty member in a traditional sense of academy, the data are also a reflection of the way higher education is currently structured and not the way that it could be.  Families and babies should not be referred to as a “penalty”.  In the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Mason stated that it is time to “… demand family policies that will at least give them a fighting chance to have both a successful career and babies.”  University leaders could use the data to insist that higher education actually make structural changes and more fully embrace families and work-life balance in our colleges and universities.  This truly is an opportunity and perhaps a mandate for change.  Let’s begin by modifying our words because language is important.


Seeing the unobvious: Fed Ex and other visuals

In higher education, we are taught to find meaning and to make sense of “our world”.  We work with data (although described differently by different disciplines).  We analyze and synthesize information.  We look for patterns – we look for trends.  We reconcile differences.  We identify the obvious and even sometimes we are encouraged to look beyond the immediate and the apparent to that which is unobvious.

Images and visuals are a part of our everyday lives.  Sometimes, they are ubiquitous; so much so that we might no longer see the obvious let alone the unobvious.  One visual that comes to mind is the FedEx logo.  The FedEx logo has become a relatively common sight.  It appears on packages, trucks, offices, and websites.  It comes in different sizes, shapes and colors.  And so you ask, why am I writing about FedEx?  (This is not a product endorsement but it does provide a good example).   Brief background.

FedEx logo design

I heard Daniel Pink, bestselling author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, speak at an annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools and would shortly thereafter invite him to VT as the 2006 Distinguished Graduate School Speaker.   Pink argued convincingly that we have entered the “conceptual age” in which the “whole mind” is needed to excel in today’s society.  His more recent work shares some “surprising” insights into what truly motivates us.

There’s much to learn from Pink’s work but a simple story about his son’s observation gives opportunity for reflection about the importance of that which we might not be able to see.  In his presentations, Daniel Pink often shares a story about his son viewing the FedEx truck and describing it as “the truck with the arrow on it”.  In this case, a child’s view reveals that which is obvious to him but not necessarily so obvious to others.

FedEx Home

It is easy to see the obvious (the words FedEx) but until encouraged to do so, we might not see the “arrow” (space between the E and the x).   As readers, we often tend to see and focus on the words and attend less so on the visual representation that appears in the “white” space.  There are many other examples but two are included here.  In the examples below, one can definitely see what is meant to be obvious but the unobvious – the Bronx skyline and the outline of the Australian continent – requires greater attention to the visuals.

Yoga Australia logo design


Our challenge is to have the unobvious become as real as the obvious.


Invent the Future – The Future is Ours

Twice in as many weeks, an incoming graduate student asked me (and other admnistrators) what Virginia Tech’s tagline “invent the future” meant to us.  While “invent the future” can and does have multiple meanings and various interpretations, the video by Michael Marantz entitled “the future is ours” visually represents what “invent the future” means to me.

Michael Marantz created the video to inspire and it does.  I share Marantz’s view that the future is exciting and holds “immense” possibilities.  He challenges us to commit to possibilities and work hard to achieve them.  Further, I believe that his message has particular relevance for graduate education today, especially at a university with a tagline of “invent the future”.  For graduate students are indeed the future scholars, teachers, leaders, artists, entrepreneurs and more.  Their innovations and imaginations will continue well into the 21st century. They will help solve the grand challenges facing a global society and they will serve society (in keeping with VT’s motto ut prosim).  Graduate students independently and often in collaboration with others (faculty, staff and undergraduates) can and will “invent the future”.

“Invent the future” has been VT’s tagline for many years now and has helped to frame the university’s agenda.  Invent the future served recently as the foundation upon which the work of the Task Force on Instructional Technology: VT 2020 was designed.  In its report, the Task Force articulated its vision of the possible and next steps for technology at Virginia Tech.  The blog format allows for readers to engage with its critical reflections and commentary, informative narratives and perspectives, and of course links to timely videos and relevant materials available on the internet.  This report and others provided  the initial backdrop to the planning process for the university.  In its commitment to a “progressive agenda”, Virginia Tech recently prepared A Plan for a New Horizon Envisioning Virginia Tech 2012-2018.  The path forward to inventing the future is articulated in the plan and incorporates growth and expansion of graduate education at VT among its foci.  Graduate education is a critical component for the future of Virginia Tech.

Graduate education is about discovering and advancing knowledge and preparing for life and work as citizens in a globally diverse world. Graduate education is about innovation and creativity; it is about exploring possibilities and embracing change.  It is about knowing that the future is ours, truly.