Fifteen Suggestions for Developing a Successful Immersion Program

What does an immersion program look like?

Currently, we’re piloting a 14-week immersion program that focuses on an inspirational theme we knew would generate interest. Participants meet for 3.5 hours each Tuesday, with an all-day trip to neighboring institutions on the first Tuesday of each month. During the first half of the semester, the participants hear from on- and off-campus leaders to learn more about the university and its peer institutions. During the second half, they will explore a team project and ultimately deliver a presentation of their findings to the president and provost. Whereas the program’s specific theme is new, and whereas some of the participant makeup is new, the program’s general format parallels many of our other immersion programs’.

Regardless of the type of program, an immersion experience can accelerate the development of people’s leadership skills. Leadership skills benefit every individual, as well as the institution or community as a whole, irrespective of the person’s official position. People with leadership skills achieve more, develop a greater sense of purpose, and improve organizational or community health.

The very structure of an immersion program fosters those skills. Like most of our others, this pilot program challenges participants’ time-management skills in order to build their capacities for new initiatives, raises their institutional awareness, and organizes sustained engagements with diverse perspectives — not only to develop participants’ critical-thinking skills and diversify their problem-solving techniques, but also to encourage institutional thinking over departmental thinking.

Projects dramatically improve immersion programs. A project can help participants not only develop their teamwork skills, but also comprehend the value of collaborating with stakeholders and cultivating champions for the cause. Whereas everyone appears to understand the importance of buy-in, few demonstrate knowledge of how to cultivate it. The early, uncertain stages of our projects include structured conversations and brainstorming sessions with stakeholders, while the participants try to better understand and accommodate the stakeholders’ needs. This investigative process elevates stakeholder awareness of unmet needs. It also invites them to help shape the end result. Both of those aspects often generate champions for the cause. Behind the scenes, the champions then raise more awareness, and particularly if they come from diverse constituencies, they broaden buy-in. Without a project and structured reflection on the process, even immersion programs would have trouble raising awareness of how to generate buy-in.

Perhaps most importantly, immersion programs foster close friendships. Close friendships can lead to sustainable networks for increased knowledge-sharing, collaborations, and potentially even resource-sharing. Connectivity creates an adaptable and resourceful institution or community, capable of responding rapidly to threats and seizing timely opportunities. In fact, friendships succeed where reporting structures and other forced networks fail. Their tangential conversations can blossom into innovations, and intimacy can increase collaborators’ personal investments. That level of friendship necessitates not only ice-breakers, a “Vegas” environment, structured peer interactions, and scheduled time for group reflection, but also topic flexibility to accommodate tangential and idle conversations.

After last week’s day trip, a participant related how much she values our bus rides. The bus rides have helped her, in her words, “really get to know” some of her colleagues. She claimed their new-found friendships already have seeded potential collaborations. Bear in mind, she and her colleagues do not merely desire to maintain their relationships. They better comprehend each others’ needs, skills, and resources, as well as how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

That comprehension improves organizational culture and effectiveness, and well-structured immersion programs can not only replicate that comprehension. Well-structured immersion programs can scale it.

Here are fifteen suggestions for developing a successful immersion program:

1. Elevate the program’s profile by creating a competitive application process.

2. Clarify time and other obligations in the call for applications.

3. Further raise the program’s profile by outsourcing the participant-selection process to a committee.

4. Coach the selection committee to choose participants based on their diverse backgrounds, experiences, access to resources, …. In other words, select to create the best program experience. Selection is part of the design.

5. Schedule the program to meet routinely for multiple hours at a time; more frequent meetings can require fewer hours for fewer weeks, but less frequent meetings demand more consecutive hours for additional months.

6. Create a relevant ice-breaker activity.

7. Incorporate a relevant team project into the experience.

8. Craft a project charge that is broad enough to encourage team ownership but specific enough to provide structure.

9. Consider reserving a day for participants to shadow relevant but diverse colleagues, community members, or professionals.

10. Invite diverse, but relevant contributors.

11. Schedule regular opportunities for reflection and discussion, away from contributors.

12. Have participants anonymously evaluate contributors in order to make program improvements.

13. Build time into the schedule for meetings with project stakeholders and for general project development.

14. Require a project presentation before an esteemed audience.

15. Additionally raise the program’s profile by utilizing that esteemed audience in a closeout ceremony.

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Women’s Leadership Program and Campus Integration

Since Spring 2013, multiple faculty and staff members have approached me and asked for a women’s leadership program. In Summer 2013, I started researching the unique concerns and strategies for circumnavigating them, particularly in academia. I learned more about the unparalleled familial support network that males have for entering into leadership and the constraints on the negotiation tactics women can use — not just for salaries or raises, but equally importantly, for the daily negotiations in teamwork, committee work, and even interactions with friends and family. After developing a strong enough knowledge base to ask questions, I conducted cross-campus interviews with faculty and staff to develop a better understanding of their specific needs and interests.

Many have asked me why I as a man have pushed so hard for this program. Particularly after reading the literature, I strongly support the cause. But based on my experiences with other leadership programs, I also recognized the importance and opportunity of a cohort program that can connect diverse areas of the university. I’m constantly thinking of ways to improve the university’s capacity for cross-campus knowledge transfers, resource sharing, and other collaborations. The more ways we can integrate faculty, professional staff, and non-professional staff, the better prepared the university will be for responding to external threats or opportunities.

Although we have done an excellent job of integrating different departments and academic colleges, we have not yet expanded our integration to include staff. For nearly two years, I have explored ways to include staff in our existing programs. Differences in approval hierarchies, pay structures, and especially cultures thwarted every attempt. I may be wrong, but I suspect the Women’s Leadership Program (WLP) overcame those differences because people stopped thinking of themselves as faculty or staff and started thinking of themselves as women — and then the men either supported it or got the heck out of the way. Whatever the reason, instead of thinking why not, people started figuring out how to.

Meanwhile, the WLP can build channels between faculty, professional staff, and administrative staff that will enable other integrative programs to navigate the system. It sets a precedent.

Unfortunately, the program’s timing thwarted my ability to see it to fruition. My office assumed a large amount of responsibility for the New Faculty Program and the highly ambitious Quality Enhancement Plan. I was asked not to roll out new programs.

With prior approval, I sought champions and initiated conversations with the faculty and staff senates to co-house the program. Before the senates could vote, the program’s champions proliferated, to the point of potentially tearing apart the program. Across campus, people made appointments to discuss the program’s design and funding without including each other or other essential stakeholders in the conversation. Rather than wait until the program had a proper home that could institutionalize it, I chose to appoint program co-directors, one faculty and one staff member, who could manage the champions and see the program to implementation. I gave them the names of program champions, the names of other stakeholders, the list of interviewee requests, and the program design I created.

One of the co-directors is a graduate of this spring’s Faculty Leadership Program, so I see this handing-off process at least in part as a continuation of that professional development.

As I saw today in the information session with the Staff Senate, the co-directors are working as a team, and the program design already is starting to change. Although I take pride in my design, their changing it means the co-directors have taken ownership over it. The change is good. It is a sign of life.

So now I will lose decision-making abilities, fall-out of the information loop, and watch with anticipation, and even a sense of loss, to see in what unpredictable ways the program will develop and grow.

Ownership over Self-Development

This week I pitched to the Faculty Senate the idea of the faculty and staff senates’ collaboratively housing a women’s leadership program. I made a case for creating a professional-development program that is truly self-development and which fosters not only cross-campus knowledge transfer, but also inter-divisional collaborations and resource sharing that can strengthen the entire institution. Equally importantly, the university has an opportunity to visibly demonstrate its support for women in leadership. Faculty questions were limited; it was a lot to take-in. Still, through individual discussions, I learned some primary concerns.

On the one hand, we as a university suffer from both insufficient funds for new professional staff and a worry about administrative bloat. On the other, the faculty have had to harbor more and more administrative responsibilities, part of a growing trend of reframing faculty as academic professionals with a growing number of non-teaching responsibilities. Within the context of the senates’ co-owning this program, at least some senators privately expressed concern about the latter.

That’s a legitimate problem. The program I’ve proposed is not a simple one. One faculty member and one staff member would serve as co-coordinators and co-facilitators. Based on my initial cross-campus interviews, we can roll out a series of workshops on requested topics — interviewing, negotiation, building a support structure … — while fostering a sense of both cohort and campus community, the latter via diverse campus contributors. Early in the semester, each participant would shadow another participant in a different university division and report back to the rest of the group, which would improve cross-institutional cultural understanding. After meeting for 3.5 hours every other week for five sessions, the cohort should have bonded enough to pursue as a team an intrinsically-motivated charge, such as investigating a personal frustration that negatively impacts student success and is a high priority for the institution to address. The charge would enable the cohort to develop teamwork skills, learn more about the university, cultivate an understanding of institutional priority, and possibly inspire champions for their cause.

One faculty member privately expressed concern that the program’s design would overtax the faculty and staff coordinators. Although we would hope to reward the coordinators with more than a line on the C.V. — for example, by using state and institutional diversity-grant funds to support their attending a state or national leadership retreat — we wouldn’t be able to promise them anything since we’d have to secure those funds after they’ve started. This faculty member rightfully questioned what would happen if a coordinator’s interest faded in the face of a high workload coupled with uncertain or no reward.

Still, I learned through my campus interviews and private conversations that, with or without a home, this or a similar program will happen. The demand is so high that even if the senates rejected the project and the administration couldn’t take ownership of it, individual faculty and staff would assume responsibility on their own. It would become a grassroots program.

While that fact in itself is truly beautiful, an institutionally homeless grassroots initiative sends the wrong message. It implies, the institution does not value women’s leadership.

The real problem has nothing to do with campus desire to support the program. Although we can pursue university and state diversity grants, people do not want to put an organizational name on something without that specific organization’s appropriately funding it. Meanwhile, the entire campus has committed its resources to an ambitious Quality Enhancement Plan and other student-success efforts.

We have other formal avenues if the senates do not assume responsibility for the program. But I hope faculty and staff senators recognize the opportunity and seize it. A women’s leadership program co-owned by the senates has greater significance than one housed in a different area. It says, We the employees of this university have united for more than information gathering or problem-solving. We have united to act for own our destiny.

New Faculty Orientation for Faculty and Institutional Success

In redesigning the orientation program, I am struggling to envision from a new faculty’s perspective, how to decipher our university’s distinct student bodies, our students’ role models for successful attitudes and behaviors, their unique challenges on their time, their preconceptions of what it means to learn, their preconceptions for what it means to teach, their expectations for their courses and professors, their reasoning for choosing their majors, their thoughts and emotions when they no longer can progress in their majors, their potential for isolation from the campus and its opportunities, the factors that impact their opportunities when they graduate, …. and how the university operates as a system to improve the likelihood of student success.

Here are some of the campus-led program topics I’m imagining:

  • student demographics and their retention and graduation rates
  • teaching students with different at-risk characteristics
  • classroom management strategies for diverse student bodies
  • how to structurally prevent the likelihood of academic dishonesty
  • how to leverage the course-management system for student success
  • collecting course data for more effective changes
  • how to interpret student evaluations
  • student pathways, bottlenecks, and the system of student movement
  • the philosophic trajectory of academic advising: where we are heading
  • how and why the university connects with the community
  • RTP as a tool for student, faculty, and institutional success
  • campus as a collaborative community with a shared purpose: student success
  • emotional intelligence and conflict management with colleagues
  • retention to the second year and beyond

I’m also hoping to brand each year with, for instance, an “Incoming Class of 2014” T-shirt. Depending on the number of new faculty, perhaps we can provide them with individual teaching consultations.

We’re still early in the design process, and a lot of people will play a role in the program’s ultimate shape, but I truly believe we can orient new faculty to a systems-thinking paradigm that will help the institution stay proactive and innovative in fostering student success, while bolstering faculty retention and success.

Prof Dev and New Campus Initiatives

Campus-led professional-development programs with a team project can facilitate new campus initiatives.

On one side, if the president, provost, a faculty-senate committee, or others spearhead a new initiative, they can work with faculty developers to incorporate it into the appropriate programs. Addressing new initiatives in existing programs raises awareness, creates a venue for faculty to work through misconceptions or concerns, garners buy-in by enabling faculty to brainstorm nuances and implementation, and generates at least more informed faculty, if not champions for the cause.

On the other side, professional-development programs can lead to the participants’ devising their own initiatives. By meeting with stakeholders during the investigative process — whether that investigation is in service-learning, advising separated from course scheduling, or the organizational location of Career Services — participants raise stakeholder awareness, possibly build coalitions, and potentially inspire their own champions.

Campus-led, cohort-building professional development is a communication channel. It promotes the sense of campus community, improves organizational efficiency, and encourages adaptability. Most importantly, it empowers faculty.

Professional-Development Strategies

Certain relatively simple professional-development strategies can elevate quality. Here are three design strategies that many colleges and universities can assimilate into their professional development:

1. Professional Development, Not Training

“Training” suggests that specific knowledge or skills have become the goal, and that the goal is convergent. In other words, the word sends the message that there are right and wrong conceptions or practices that the faculty developers are pushing. In our sessions, knowledge and skills are merely tools, not objectives. Participants’ goals diverge. Our participants develop in different ways, because professional development is ultimately self-development.

2. Programs, Not Events

Faculty have a limited stake in one-time events. They can RSVP and still miss an event. But they have a greater stake in programs. For programs, faculty will undergo an application process that requires chairs’ signatures or recommendations. For programs, faculty will face a competitive selection process by a committee of colleagues or academic deans. The program becomes an award with ceremonies, not just an event with handouts. A competitive program has prestige that provides faculty with a stake in the opportunity.

Equally if not more importantly, sessions build on each other to facilitate not merely knowledge acquisition or even assimilation, but also cohort development for improved campus community, cross-campus knowledge transfers, and interdepartmental collaborations. Programs — not events — build campus capacity.

3. Diverse Participants, Diverse Contributors, Diverse Locations

Selection committees need guidance because they’re choosing participants not merely on individual merit or qualifications, but rather for programmatic success. Whereas diversifying ranks within the same department can silence junior faculty, diversifying departments and academic colleges can liberate them. Diverse ranks, disciplines, academic colleges, and other participant characteristics expand a program’s knowledge and skill base for improved cohort creativity. Faculty developers have an obligation to work closely with selection committees.

Meanwhile, diversifying campus contributors expands campus awareness, erodes departmental or even divisional barriers, and improves the sense of campus community. Off-campus contributors can infuse the campus with new insights. Whereas a consistent contributor can tire participants, diverse program contributors rejuvenate them.

So too can diverse locations. Merely changing the scenery can change participants’ mindsets.

These three relatively simple professional-development strategies can significantly elevate quality. They encourage buy-in. Most importantly, they promote a culture of improvement and collaboration for a greater return on everyone’s investment.