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.

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.

Responding to tragic events

Recent world and national tragic events have prompted me to reflect on the responsibility of the Graduate School to reach out to those impacted by such events.  And the importance of doing so for the individuals as well as for the broader graduate community.

Graduate Schools tend to be places in which graduate students from many walks of life, social identities, nationalities, and cultural perspectives exist within the university.  A very diverse community which Graduate Deans should build to be more “inclusive” especially to counter the existing university culture of academic silos and lonely journeys through Graduate School.  An inclusive community which can be characterized by understanding and caring.

Although valuable throughout the graduate education journey, an understanding and caring community is especially important in times of tragic events, political uprising and natural disasters. When these happen, the experience and impact of these events vary depending upon the particular connection of the individuals to the event(s).  Not everyone responds in the same way or with the same emotions but the responses are real and deserved to be acknowledged.

Recent events within the past few months have definitely impacted the graduate community (and more) at Virginia Tech and beyond. Tragic events in Paris and Nice, Baton Rouge (2), Orlando, Minnesota and Dallas are but a few examples that have impacted the lives of VT graduate students and the communities with which they identify (e.g., black, gay, Hispanic, international, law enforcement and more).  Reaching out to individuals from these communities directly (e.g., email), statements of support and information sharing via social media, in-person gatherings, and dialogue sessions are strategies that we have used here under our GLC Cares program.

In addition to understanding the individual impact, it is very important to recognize the value of the “learning” (teachable) moments for others in the graduate community.  Even though the tragic events might be acknowledged within the university community, active engagement with the underlying issues (e.g., racism, terrorism) and impact upon individuals are often not.  As Graduate Deans, I believe that we should to take the opportunity to create a space to encourage meaningful and relevant dialogue about the issues and events to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the world.  In doing so, we can engage as global citizens in a world that so desperately needs greater cultural  understanding and the willingness to communicate.

It seems a simple thing to do to reach out and engage with graduate students.  It is and it’s so important.

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.