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.

Higher education as public good from a global perspective

International students and higher education around the world are definitely on my mind given the most recent Executive Order issued on March 6, 2017 by the Trump administration (“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the U.S.”) (more information, see FAQs) and dealing with the impact of such actions at Virginia Tech.  On a national level, the news and social media are filled with stories of those impacted and in response universities create ways to communicate clearly and directly with the various constituencies. As one example, Virginia Tech created a website and specific email address to share updated information and invite correspondence and assistance on an individualized basis.

Also in response, universities as well as national educational organizations/agencies and international associations are taking a stance and issuing their statements broadly.  among those with such statements are the Council of Graduate Schools, APLU, American Council on Education, Association of American Universities, European Universities Association, and more.  These are very helpful in disseminating the important message of the value of international students and the significant upon higher education.  Arguments in support of the value and reports about the economic impact of international students are being shared including a recent one from the UK available through the University World News.

Although not always the case, higher education seems to have been quick to respond to this growing challenge to internationalization (e.g., immigration, globalization) and to express concerns about the negative impact upon higher education. There remains much work to do to reverse the course of action (beyond what might come through the legal system) but the responses described above and more to come do provide examples for how higher education is accepting the challenges and taking the opportunity for addressing the recent populist movement (e.g., post-2016 U.S. election, Brexit).  Perhaps this will be the impetus that encourages higher education to truly engage in a revolution.

In an essay published in University World News entitled “Revolutionising the global society” (March 6, 2017), Blessinger wrote that “higher education systems around the world are currently undergoing an academic revolution that is primarily the result of globalisation, democratisation and lifelong learning as a human right. As we move further into the 21st century, these factors will continue to play an important role in revolutionising the global knowledge society.”

As I wrote in a previous blog – “higher education has the responsibility to be ‘creative’ and innovative in these ‘interesting times’ and to embrace the unknown and act so we can ‘influence the outcomes’.”  With this responsibility, universities must not only understand and embrace higher education as a public good but to do so in a global context.  Earning a post-secondary degree (bachelors and graduate degrees) is often considered a private good (for individual and personal benefit) but in the United States and elsewhere it has also been viewed and must continue to be viewed as a public good; that is, the education of individuals to become well informed and productive global citizens for the betterment of society.

For the first time in the United States, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Academic Summit was held at University of California Berkeley in September 2016.  The theme and speakers were focused on “world-class universities and the public good”.  Academic thought leaders and leaders from government, policymaking and industry around the world attended to learn from each other, to  share best practices, to debate the value of higher education and the costs, and challenge ourselves to forge paths forward in “making the world a better place” (Baty, 2016).  As a participant, it was enlightening to hear from academic leaders, government officials and policy-makers about the importance of higher education around the world and its impact locally, regionally and globally.  As anticipated, the conversations transcended nations and cultural boundaries. The results are captured in a podcast available on the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit website which includes additional information about other summits and meetings around the world.

Building upon the 2016 Academic Summit’s theme of ‘world-class universities and the public good’, the theme for the 2017 Global Perspectives Program (GPP’17) was formulated – “Higher Education as Public Good – the Global Landscape.”  It seemed logically to bring the conversation of current academic leaders from the world stage to the future academic leaders participating in the diverse and international global perspectives program. The focus of GPP’17 will be to examine higher education as public good and to explore the issues and challenges from a global perspectives.  Although the topics will likely continue to evolve in response to ongoing events and actions in the U.S. and the around the world, the initial focus will focus three: (a) massification of higher education: smart solutions for open global higher education, (b) global higher education in the post truth era: importance of fact finding and critical thinking skills, and (c) communicating science in global higher education.

After attending the 2016 Summit, realizing the post-2016 election impact on higher education, reading extensively from the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHIgherEd, World University News and more, it became apparent rather quickly that higher education needs to be engaged in and assume leadership for the dialogue around the roles and responsibilities of higher education and the public good especially in the global context.  This was reinforced by the questions, comments and concerns raised by the students in my current GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate class (Virginia Tech) and in discussions with colleagues and students in the Transferable Skills course offered spring 2017 through the University of Basel.  Even though the students who enrolled in the class came from the University of Basel, University of Zurich, and University of Strasbourg in France, they also came many countries including Sudan, China, Korea, Germany, Switzerland, France, United States, India and more. Their perspective on higher education shaped by their lived experiences created wonderful opportunities for learning and sharing across nations and cultures and the beginnings of the conversation about global higher education as a public good. Those enrolled in this course also included many who will also participate in the 2017 Global Perspectives Program from the University of Basel and the University of Zurich and will join with the GPP’17 group from Virginia Tech.  The conversation has begun and will only get better and richer.

Post-2016 election challenge and opportunity for higher education

Fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy introduced the phrase that “one may live in interesting times”.  He stated that “like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history…” (speech given in Cape Town, June 1966).  It appears to me that today, we are also living in ‘interesting times’.  For most, uncertainty and danger for many are clearly perceived for 2017 and beyond. There is so much that is unknown at the moment that it becomes unsettling. But perhaps these post-2016 election times might also challenge us, the words of RFK to be “creative”. That is, to ponder, reflect and act.

In her book entitled Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (2015 reissue of 2004 book) writes  about ‘hope’ but not as optimism per se but rather that “hope locates itself in the premises that we d9781608465767-f_mediumon’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.” (from her Facebook page in November 2016).    “Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things you can know beforehand.”   As she proposes, recognizing uncertainty allows us to recognize that we might be “able to influence the outcomes”.  Thus, it appears that now is the time to take action.

Although a rather simplistic statement, the 2016 elections revealed so much more about the current state of U.S. society and higher education’s connection (or lack thereof) to that reality for many. Higher education has been often accused of being elitist and out of touch with society and I would argue that sometimes we have been. University towns are sometimes called a ‘blue bubble’ in an otherwise red state. A recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the phenomena of “blue bubbles”  and provided some perspective on why universities are sometimes isolated from the surrounding communities. And this is where change must begin.

From the perspective of higher education, I would argue (along with many others) that higher education has not only a role to play but a responsibility to get involved and even to assume a leadership role.  As educational institutions, colleges and universities must continue to educate our students as well as our faculty, staff and administrators about social justice, equity and civil discourse.  We must be intentional about engaging with the dialogue around difference, encouraging all to speak up and speak out and to do so by understanding difference and through listening and hearing the voices of others.  It is also important that we focus our attention to communicate with clarity and to enhance our skills and ability to determine the accuracy of information and seek truth.  Articles about programs, strategies and workshops as well as analyses, opinion pieces and reflections are found frequently in publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd, and Times Higher Education to name only a few.

Let me offer a few examples.

In the days following the 2016 election, an increase in hate motivated campus-climate incidents occurred and was reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The data were compiled by Southern Poverty Law Center which issued a report including historical context and detailed information about type and location of the hate-related incidents.  I believe that in part these data provided the impetus for the call for higher education to respond and a focus on citizenship was one such response. Although there are many others, recent articles suggest how colleges can teach students to be good citizens and urge colleges and universities not to retreat but rather to teach citizenship.  Examples of programs and initiatives for understanding difference, increasing awareness of micro-aggressions and implicit bias and sustaining affirming campus-climate environment appear regularly in the higher education news and social media.

Given the rhetoric of the 2016 election campaign, it has become very clear that “racism still exists and can appear” on university campuses according to racial-equity scholar Harper (2017) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.  “The polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign makes improving the racial climate a more urgent matter for higher-education leaders.”  Once again,this speaks to the opportunity and the need to act and educate.

Education is critical and universities must do their part.  Universities can provide opportunity, programs, space (real and metaphorical) for dialogue, and messages that foster inclusion.   A recent example of a timely message is the address provided by Andy Morikawa (Blacksburg, Virginia) at the December 2016 Virginia Tech Graduate School Commencement.  (Note: his remarks begin at minute 35 on the recording).  Morikawa encouraged us to get involved, get engaged in civic life and community engagement, to be attentive, to listen, to have tough conversations with those who don’t share the same views and to do so regularly in community.

As we know education is a primary mission of higher education and for many universities, research is also a primary mission.  Science, discovery and the search for truth are critical and remain even more so in the post 2016 election era.  Besides ‘teaching citizenship’ and encouraging civil discourse, how do we engage our students with determining facts and uncovering ‘fake news’?  A recent article from Times Higher Education (THE) suggests that it is education not regulation.  Seargeant and Tagg (2016)  wrote that “the heightened need for critical literacy skills in tackling fake news and media manipulation highlights the central role that higher education can play for society as a whole.”  Further, Virgo (2017) writing in Times Higher education suggests that the university must accept its “role as critic and conscience of society”.

In this post-2016 election era, faculty and academic administrators have much to contemplate not only about our defined missions in research, teaching, and engagement but also as critic and conscience of society in accepting the responsibility of the university as a social institution and to do so with “intentional and ethical scholar activism“.

Higher education has the responsibility to be ‘creative’ and innovative in these ‘interesting times’ and to embrace the unknown and act so we can ‘influence the outcomes’.  Let us work individually as well as collectively.

Global Perspectives Program’16 Ecuador (GPP’16): Reflections beyond

The Global Perspectives Program in Ecuador (GPP’16) occurred during the week of Thanksgiving break in November, 2016. This was the second year for graduate students to visit Ecuador in partnership between the VT Graduate School and the University of San Francisco de Quito.  Most of us (7) were able to travel spend the week starting with a day long visit to the Mindo Cloud Forest, comprehensive visits to two universities in Quito (USFQ and the National Polytechnica School or EPN)  and to the Galapagos (USFQ-G); one was able to extend her visit to Tiputini in the rainforest of Ecuadorian Amazon.  The trip is documented through tweets via storify and will be shared in VT news story in January 2017.

As with other GPP programs, the Ecuador trip was indeed a very informative and enriching visit.  As intended, we learned about higher education in Ecuador from a public and private university perspective.  We gained knowledge and understanding about the environmental diversity of Ecuador including the cloud forest, Galapagos, Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and life near the equator at 10,000 feet elevation.  We were introduced to the vast array of cultural diversity and rich history of Ecuador. GPP was once again a wonderful educational opportunity for professional development.  And as usual, opportunities for personal growth and development presented themselves throughout the trip.

Although this blog post was initially conceived as a posting about the Ecuador experience, the contemplation and writing are triggering reflections that extend beyond GPP16 Ecuador to the VT Graduate School global perspectives program (GPP) in general.  Yes, these trips are about learning about higher education, visiting universities and cultural sites,interacting with university personnel (administrators, faculty, staff and students), sharing local food and beverages, and more.  It is about gaining knowledge and understanding and it is also about building relations and sharing time and space.  It is about professional and personal growth and development.

Based upon my experiences in leading the Global Perspectives Programs within the umbrella of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative,  I am convinced that it is possible to transcend and transform the typical graduate education experience in meaningful and significantly beneficial ways.  Graduate Deans can make a difference and should be engaged with the academic preparation and professional development of our graduate students as well as the personal growth and development important for life and work in the 21st century.

The experiences provided through the Global Perspectives programs for the past 12 years have allowed me to witness the development of strong connections between and among participants during each trip. (Note: the participants come from a variety of disciplines and usually do not know each other prior to the trip). Each GPP group tends to develop a special connection and bond which continues to evolve (visibly) across the days of the trip and exists well beyond.  And I am thankful for the opportunities to enhance my knowledge and learn something new every time.

This was the case for GPP’16 Ecuador.  We enjoyed our unique experience and shared some very special moments. As we came together from our different academic worlds and lived experiences, we spent time together, really listening and hearing each other, sharing stories and views and feeling “safe” enough to be brave in asking questions and engaging with difficult dialogues and challenging topics. Although not particularly articulated as outcomes, honesty and authenticity were anticipated and were realized.  The conversations were real.  There’s something to be said about getting away from our daily (and typical) environments to sitting on a large balcony with a view of the ocean to stimulate conversation and communication. It is important to note that communication and connection occur not just as a result of conversation but occur in other ways. We were comfortable with silence as important in sharing time and space and connection. This become evident during our Ecuador experience. The connections were and are real.

Given the strength of our connection, we were able to engage in authentic discussions of serious topics which continued throughout the trip.  At one point, I was asked to describe the “whys” of the decision-making process for the GPP experiences. The question led me to reflect upon the intentionality of the process and the principles by which the experience evolves. There is reasoned and reasonable intentionality behind the logistics, sequence, the visits, expectations and anticipated outcomes. As a result of the question and conversation that followed, I have continued to examine the underlying philosophical underpinnings and the principles for the program. This is the easy part for these can be described. The more challenging part of the answer rests in the process of decision-making which unfolds organically, and mostly goes unnoticed, throughout the trip and lies at the essence of the GPP experience. It is this essence and genuineness that creates the long-lasting connections among the GPP participants.

Shortly after our return from GPP16 Ecuador, the Fall semester came to a close with graduate commencement ceremonies. This year like previous years, there were several graduates who have participated in the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and are now not only VT alumni but also GPP alumni.  As each one crossed the stage to receive their degree, we shared a moment in which the special connection of the GPP experience was present and very real.

Intentional and ethical scholar activism

The issue of ethics–ethical choices, ethical decision-making, and ethical action–is a longstanding topic of concern for academics, both as scholars and teachers.  When we think about ethics in higher education, we usually think first about scholarly integrity (e.g., plagiarism and scientific misconduct) and then perhaps codes of conduct and standards for professional behavior.  But there are additional aspects of ethics that should be discussed especially ethics associated with teaching and the ethics of service or engagement.  In this blog post, I will share briefly some musings about the ethics of service or engagement and scholar activism (e.g., scholar-advocate, citizen scholar).

Derrick Bell (2002Ethical Ambition), author of Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, wrote that ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions” (p. 50).  In this statement, Bell didn’t reference academia specifically but the application to those of us in higher education (faculty, administrators, students) should be clear.  There are many issues facing higher education in general (e.g., accessibility, affordability, student debt, relevance, null curriculum) in addition to matters that might arise within a discipline (e.g. controversial research topics, methodology), but “taking principled stands” is not necessarily something that has come easily or often to many of us in academe. On the other hand, there are disciplines (e.g., sociology, counseling, Ethnic studies) in which “taking principled stands” is common and perhaps even a foundation for scholarship and teaching/learning.

In addition to the research and teaching/learning missions of the university, “taking principled stands” also applies to the service mission of the land-grant university or more generally the social responsibility of the university.  At land-grant universities, we are quite familiar with the “service” or engagement mission and regularly have employees with strong ties to the community (e.g., extension agents, service learning).  In some disciplines, faculty who engage with society are identified as scholar-activist or scholar-advocate.  But faculty from most disciplines are not and wouldn’t necessarily identify as scholar-activist or advocates but faculty could take “principled stands” on issues.

Whether or not one identifies as scholar-activist (advocate or citizen scholar) directly, I believe those of us who work in higher education have an ethical responsibility to society. In our roles as faculty (and graduate students) or administrators we are often seen as an “expert” and having “expertise”.  And we are sometimes asked to share this expertise beyond academic circles and within the broader society. We need to respond to such requests but acknowledge that acceptance of these requests comes with additional responsibility; that of understanding the perceived and real power associated with being viewed as an expert and to understand the ways in which we can ethically interact and engage the public and with the public. It is a given that there are various ways to solve problems.  When sharing our expertise, it is also important to acknowledge the involvement of others with differing roles and associated responsibilities and explore how best to invite, interact and engage with others to share their expertise.  It is important that we do not intentionally or otherwise allow our academic expertise to silence others.  So where do we begin the process of thinking about “principled stands”, being intentional and taking action, and becoming citizen scholars or scholar activists?  Graduate School provides a good starting place.

Through the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School, graduate students have multiple opportunities to compliment their academic disciplinary degree and better prepare themselves for future and perhaps multiple careers. Two examples of many opportunities seem applicable here: Future Professoriate graduate certificate and Citizen Scholar engagement program.  Graduate students who wish to become future faculty gain knowledge and understanding about what it means to and to prepare to become faculty for 21st century universities through GRAD 5104 Future Professoriate course in which ethics and scholarly integrity are addressed.  In this class and in keeping with Bell’s premise above, we discuss what it means to think deeply about issues and to take principled stands as future faculty members.  In advocating for strong connections between academia and society, we have also developed a citizen-scholar program where graduate students can explore, learn and demonstrate their commitment to and be recognized for engagement with society.  These are relevant and fairly straightforward ways to encourage “ethical ambition” and “living a life of meaning and worth” as an integral part of graduate education.

In Ethical Ambition, Bell (2002) offers some reflections and personal stories that can guide us toward success ethically. In particular he challenges us to “live a life of passion” and to have the courage to take the risks for what we believe in.  He shares the importance of community (family and friends) for “support in hard times”.  And he indicates that humility should be our watchword and that we should have ‘humility to know when our best intentions go awry”.

An “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).

Be thoughtful and intentional. Engage honestly and ethically with society.

Edward Bouchet: Changing U.S. higher education forever

Sometimes there are individuals who by the nature of being oneself and moving forward make history and influence change. One such individual is Edward A. Bouchet, PhD (1852-1918).

Higher education in the United States prior to the early 1800s was accessible primarily to white males of some social and financial privilege.  Women’s colleges (e.g., Oberlin, 1837) would be founded in the early19th century.  Two HBCUs (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania,1837; Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, 1854) were established for blacks before the American Civil War although the vast majority of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established post civil-war.  The Land Grant university was developed in 1862 and shortly thereafter land grant universities were established throughout the United States including the addition of the 1890 HBCU institutions in the formerly segregated South.  As is evident above, very few individuals of color and women were provided access to seek higher education let alone an opportunity to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) prior to the 1870s.  Edward A. Bouchet would change that history.

Edward A. Bbouchetouchet was born on September 15, 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut.  According to Dr. Curtis Patton, Edward Bouchet “became a man of exceptional intellectual and emotional courage, undaunted by the barriers of the day”.  He attended the Artisan Street Colored School and New Haven High School prior to entering the Hopkins School in 1868 where he studied the “classics, Latin, Greek and Greek history, geometry and algebra and graduated valedictorian”.  Bouchet entered Yale in 1870 to study physics and mathematics and graduated with highest honors in 1874.  Two years later, he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale becoming the first African American in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D.  He was one of the first African Americans to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa Honor society.

In 2005, Yale University and Howard University established the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society (Bouchet Society) to recognize outstanding scholarly achievement and promotes diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate . As the co-founding chapters, Yale University and Howard University succeeded in honoring Dr. Bouchet’s pioneering contributions to doctoral education and established an ever increasing network of scholars and advocates for students who have been historically underrepresented in the professoriate. Since the founding, additional chapters have been established (Cornell University, Rutgers University, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the George Washington University, University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, San Diego, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Washington University, St. Louis) and many deserving emerging scholars and faculty have been inducted to membership. At Virginia Tech, we are honored to have been recently invited to develop a chapter and induct VT PhD candidates as members.  This year, VT President Timothy Sands delivered the keynote address at the 11th Annual Edward A. Bouchet Forum at Howard University and received the Legacy Award.

Edward Bouchet lived during a challenging time period for African Americans and he persevered. He expected much of himself and achieved even more. In addition to the Bouchet Graduate Honor society, his achievements and legacy are celebrated through numerous fellowships and awards such the Bouchet undergraduate fellowship at Yale, Promising Scholars fund, Bouchet Leadership award, American Physical Society Bouchet Award, and more.

Edward Bouchet served as a role model throughout his life and does so today. His legacy continues through the work of the Bouchet Society and especially the fellows selected annually by the chapters for their academic excellence, leadership, character, service and commitment to inclusion and diversity in the academy.  Challenges still exist today and there is much work to be done. The scholarship conducted by the Bouchet Fellows gives great value and meaning to society and their commitment to an inclusive academy helps continue the change that Bouchet started more than century ago.

VT-shaped individual: graduate student focus

Shortly after his arrival at VT, President Timothy Sands established an initiative entitled Beyond Boundaries and challenged the university to envision the future for Virginia Tech informed by four concepts: VT-shaped discovery, communities of discovery, nexus of discovery, and continuous innovation.  The key messages associated with Beyond Boundaries include the following (adapted from www.beyondboundaries.vt.edu):

  • purpose driven and person centered approach
  • disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary capacities
  • flexible curricular design and research addressing complex needs of communities and society
  • land grant mission of outreach and application of knowledge with commitment to service through “Ut Prosim”
  • inclusive and diverse communities

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 12.14.01 PMIn keeping to the conceptual framework and key messages, the VT shaped student was born. As shown in the figure, the “T” represents the disciplinary depth (3) as well as transdisciplinary knowledge (1).  The “V” represents the informal communal learning (2) and the guided experiential learning (4).  The graphic lends itself nicely to the VT symbol that has come to represent Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

While much of the internal conversation has already focused on the undergraduate student, the concept applies to graduate (and professional) students. Specifically, “the challenges of the future require the capacity to work in interdisciplinary teams, engage in critical and creative thinking, collaborate with diverse people, communicate effectively, and conduct oneself with a deep sense of ethics.”  And indeed these “requirements” are key elements of the Graduate School’s initiative entitled Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) developed in 2003.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 9.41.07 AM

As is shown in the figure and articulated on the website, the transformative graduate education (TGE) initiative “pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and provides the philosophical underpinnings for a truly innovative graduate education experience.”  TGE is framed by four cornerstones (pillars): knowledge, scholarly inquiry, leadership, and social responsibility.  Our efforts and activities are grounded within the fundamental principles of interdisciplinarity, inclusion and diversity, ethics, innovation (technology) and global perspectives.

Beyond the myriad of courses and programs offered, let me Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 10.51.00 AMhighlight a few examples of the ways in which the TGE initiatives contributes to the preparation of the VT-shaped graduate student as described above.

To address the “deep sense of ethics”, all graduate students must demonstrate understanding of academic integrity and satisfy an scholarly integrity and ethics requirement officially recorded on their graduate plan of study.  For more information, see ethical pursuits in academe and ethics requirement.

In order to help graduate students “communicate effectively”, the Graduate School offers a variety of approaches:  two graduate courses – Communication Science (2 cr) and Citizen Scholar Engagement (3 cr) and recognition as a Citizen Scholar.  In addition, the Graduate School also offers a course entitled Inclusion and Diversity in a Global Society (3 cr) and actively promotes an affirming and welcoming graduate community and the Office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI).

The “T” educated individual stresses both disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary breadth and the VT Graduate School has actively engaged in developing initiatives and opportunities to foster interdisciplinary programs and interdisciplinary thinking.  Among these are the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs (IGEPs), the development of the individualized interdisciplinary PhD program (iPhD) and support for the Interdisciplinary Honor Society (IDR) established by VT graduate students.  These are fine opportunities but it is time to extend beyond boundaries even more.

For many years, I have advocated for interdisciplinary thinking and proposed the “pi” metaphor for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary graduate education.  Picture5In this graphic, disciplinary depth in more than one academic area is stressed and strong connections across the disciplines are emphasized depicting transdisciplinarity.  I would argue that expanding beyond the “T” to the Pi (π)-educated can be seen as a valuable approach in the preparation of graduate students to become the adaptive innovators needed for the 21st century workforce.

By adopting this philosophical approach in alignment with the VT Beyond Boundaries initiative, the goal of a VT-shaped graduate student can be realized not only through the opportunities to become Pi (π)-educated but also for graduate students to gain valuable knowledge, skills and abilities through the programs offered via the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative.

 

Envisioning a 21st century university

What defines a 21st century university?  How do we envision a vibrant university for (of) the 21st century?  How can we transform traditional universities?

Although these discussions began in the 1990s, focused attention on change for today’s universities is happening now as institutions of higher education find themselves at a metaphorical “fork in the road’. Change has happened in higher education throughout time but the pace of change in society today is far greater than it has ever been – so rapid that it is indeed difficult for universities to keep up let alone anticipate change.

Through my lens as an academic administrator and professor, the university of the 21st century must be adaptive, innovative and agile. As technology continues to evolve and the complexity of societal problems increase, the nature of work (and life) changes and jobs are changing more rapidly than degrees. There seems to be a growing gap between the university curriculum and the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century employment. Thus, one example of significant challenges for the university is to prepare graduates for jobs (work) that don’t yet exist. To meet this challenge, the traditional university curriculum approach must become more inclusive, adaptive and individualized with emphasis upon interdisciplinary and integrative thinking as well as experiential learning with real-world projects.

Currently, Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands has issued a challenge and engaged the university community in a conversation about transformation and changes facing the university entitled “Beyond Boundaries“.  Beyond Boundaries is a “visioning process to support two interrelated goals: advancing Virginia Tech as a global land-grant institution, and strategically addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of higher education”.  Four thematic areas of inquiry provide the context for change: advancing a global land grant, preparing students for the future world,discovering new funding models, and envisioning the campus of the future. The initiative has been in part framed around the anticipation that “a generation from now:

  • life and work will be more global, mobile, technology mediated, interconnected and less steady/stable
  • students will seek knowledge, expertise, opportunity, flexibility
  • campus will comprise heterogeneous networks and innovation hubs facilitated by technology”  (from Beyond Boundaries presentation March 31, 2016)

In conjunction with this initiative and as other institutions of higher education engage with transformation and envisioning a 21st century university, it will be important to examine existing structures and functions of our universities today.  As described in “An Avalanche in Coming” (2013), some university traditions and practices might need to be “unbundled”.  Examples include how outputs are measured (e.g., research, degrees, learning), how the people (e.g., faculty, staff, students) will be connected to the university (e.g., locations, networks), how curriculum is developed and how teaching/learning is delivered/received. Specifically, it will be important to contemplate questions such as:

  1. What if we rethink knowledge acquisition without or beyond degrees?
  2. What if we rethink access in terms of access to skills not just the university?
  3. What if  we rethink the education of students for the ability and skills to undertake projects rather than for specific jobs?
  4. How do we evaluate interdisciplinary and integrative learning?
  5. How do we implement a funding model that decreases costs and student debt?
  6. How do we envision partnerships to prepare the future generations for the workforce?
  7. How do we achieve authentic globalization and adopt a global perspective?

These are just some of the questions to be asked and topics to be explored.  They are likely to be viewed as somewhat controversial or with skepticism but they will foster lively and informative dialogue about transformation of institutions of higher education (IHEs) into 21st C universities.  The challenges are real and so are the opportunities that follow when IHEs are willing to take some risks.

Continuing this line of thinking more related to my role in graduate education – what will graduate education look like in the future? How can we transform graduate education so that graduate students develop the intellectual and professional skills meaningful for complex problem solving needed for the 21st century workforce?  What is the future of the dissertation?  More on these in an upcoming blog.

 

 

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)

Understanding stress in context to thrive in graduate school

Graduate school should be challenging but doesn’t need to be overly stressful. Stress can come in many forms. Many graduate students will likely say that they experience stress in graduate school and that’s just part of being a graduate student.  As a graduate dean, I hear this frequently and understand but it is time to change the paradigm from surviving to thriving.

A quick “google” search easily reveals a number of blogs, books and articles on tips for surviving even thriving in graduate school.  One example is the blog entitled Graduate Student Way and a recent post with advice from three PhD students.  It is worth a quick read to understand that one is not alone and the feelings are common among graduate students.  It also points out that warning signs of stress should not be ignored but understood and addressed.

Other examples include an article on 12 tips for surviving and surviving in grad school, a self-published book by David Nguyen which offers some basic tips for surviving graduate school and an archived site from University of Oregon called Survive Grad School that contains some valuable information.  Many Graduate Schools today offer resources and guidance for graduate student success on their websites, at orientations and workshops and through social media (e.g., UNL, UBC, GMU).

Lots of good advice and tips are available but I wish to encourage actions of a more personal nature that are often de-emphasized during graduate education. Here, I pull from the advice offered by University of California at Berkeley (UCB) regarding stress and graduate school.  Please read and consider the four primary points that are encouraged: make yourself a priority, take control of your life, avoid procrastination through time management, and look for social support.  These tend to go counter to the perceived “survival” nature required for graduate school and the toughness and persistence at all costs needed for success. Rather, I would argue that taking time for oneself is critical.  Although a graduate student can sometimes feel as if one doesn’t have control, it is important to exercise one’s agency and control over one’s life.  Further it is important to learn to say “no” and to establish some balance between graduate study and personal life. Of course, time management is crucial to academic progress and when there’s lots of work to do and deadlines, managing one’s time becomes even more important. As is a key component of the VT Graduate School’s experience, establishing a community (communities) and social networks for support are critical.  These are essential within the academic setting as well as beyond the university setting.

In my welcome remarks to incoming graduate students, I share four conditions for graduate study: academic quality, time to fiddle, a baggy idea of truth, and a sense of community.  I encourage the graduate students to reflect upon these throughout their graduate study and to realize that failure is a part of the learning process.  I also encourage them to work hard and to play as well.  To thrive in graduate school is to enjoy the challenge and to pursue opportunities as they present themselves.

One additional thought.  Keep a sense of humor because it helps to keep one grounded and attentive to the richness of the graduate experience.  Visit PhD comics.