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.

“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”.

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.”