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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Professional Development as Rewiring the Institution for Adaptability

Here at the Center for Teaching and Learning, we have been socially networking the university in order to create a more adaptable institution, capable of rapid changes. By bridging the silos of academic departments and colleges, we thus far have facilitated not only the development of new ideas but also actual changes to the university’s organizational chart and processes. We’re becoming a stronger institution in the face of unprecedented technological, economic, and social changes.

In the spring, we will start bridging the gap between faculty and staff, and ideally, we’ll expand this framework to better connect the university’s employees with the surrounding community — the latter’s goal being to facilitate mutual sustainability and growth — and then with other TBR institutions to diversify the available problem-solving skills and overall knowledge and other resources.

But I had missed an additional component that’s structurally necessary for this vision.

Change-leadership scholar John P. Kotter (2014) suggests an additional component in the facilitation of rapid changes. Kotter argues for a dual organizational system, which our Center already facilitates minus a key ingredient. Counterbalancing the university’s hierarchical bureaucracy, a network of passionate people in Kotter’s ideal organization explores threats or opportunities and promotes rapid changes that the hierarchy otherwise cannot address in time. Here at Austin Peay, our Center’s cohort programs network people from across the organization who feel a sense of urgency and want to be change agents. But after they help communicate the change vision, if the administration cannot merely implement the change — as it could, for instance, in the relocation of our Career Services from Academic Affairs to Student Affairs — then the change initiative gets redirected to a taskforce within the very same bureaucratic organization. In other words, the bureaucracy recaptures it and deprives it of its momentum.

The solution? A facilitated (not chaired) guiding coalition.

Like a taskforce, the guiding coalition would further research what is already being done here and at peer institutions, what has been done here and at peer institutions, costs, available resources, … but it also would have design-school-esque facilitated discussions to “[identify] and [remove] barriers which slow or stop [this] strategically important activity” (Kotter, 2014, p. 32). That last part is what a taskforce cannot achieve.

This extra component to Kotter’s dual organizational system will enable us to oversee not only idea generation, but also, at least in certain instances, implementation. For a stronger Austin Peay. For a stronger community. For a stronger higher educational system.

Reference

Kotter, John P. (2014). Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Higher Ed Faces Daunting Challenges, and Opportunities

 

Higher education faces daunting challenges. It struggles to meet the demands of an economic crisis in which people need jobs and employers want higher-quality job candidates. Our computer-infused work environment requires greater technological, visual-thinking, and critical-thinking skills for even entry-level jobs. Globalization necessitates not only enhanced critical thinking, but correspondingly, the capacity for sustained engagements with ideological and cultural differences. Also, both citizenry and a growing number of work environments require the skills to navigate an increasingly rhetoric- and statistics-based world. In the face of rising student debt, students and their parents, legislators, and potential employers, however, now question the value of higher education. They most overtly question degrees in the humanities — which foster many of those skills, only without a clear career path. This conflict has resulted in new entrants in the market who then compete with at least the public colleges and universities, which have had to raise tuition to replace diminishing state funds.

This conflict reinforces the ongoing transformation of faculty in the university system. Especially to circumvent administrative bloat and its costs, 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. These responsibilities demand a new social architecture, and we can achieve it only through innovative professional development.

Social architecture has two goals: distribute responsibilities and “integrate diverse efforts in pursuit of common goals” (Bolman & Deal, 2013, p. 44). The social architecture of higher education effectively distributes responsibilities, but it also creates silos. In fact, the extreme specialization by which higher education distributes responsibilities also creates the silos. Compounding this problem, a myth of solitary genius betrays reality: knowledge and innovation are not individual pursuits, but rather the result of collective practices. Extreme specialization and its resulting isolation permeate the culture of higher education and impede integrative initiatives that can facilitate common goals. To meet the demands of today’s challenges, the social architecture of higher education needs reform.

Higher education needs more diverse partnerships and collaborations. Whether in teaching, problem-solving, or creating new ventures, partnerships and collaborations diversify knowledge and expertise; expand the available human, technological, spatial, or financial resources; and distribute and diminish risks (Eddy, 2010, p. 21). Partnerships and collaborations can conserve resources, mend overextended departments, and improve sustainability and effectiveness.

Far too often, however, university representatives confine collaborations to a single division, like Academic Affairs, rather than explore collaborative opportunities between university divisions or with community partners. Pedagogically, many faculty look only to each other, particularly within their own departments, for collaborators. For new initiatives, some turn solely to their chairs, deans, or the provost for funding. In the end, stretched human and financial resources limit success.

Campus stakeholders reside in all university divisions. Student Affairs houses an array of departments that focus on developing student capacities for time- and stress-management, personal health and wellbeing, diversity awareness and appreciation, civic engagement, global citizenry, teamwork, and leadership. Under the direction of Human Resources, student employment can expand the range of immediate stakeholders for student development and success to the entire university.

The call for collaborations between university divisions is not new. At least since George D. Kuh’s 1994 keynote, “The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs,” student-affairs professionals have called for student- and academic-affairs collaborations that can produce what Kuh (March/April, 1996) calls “seamless learning environments” (p. 135). The term refers to curricular and co-curricular learning objectives working in tandem to overcome an otherwise fragmented learning process in order to foster lifelong learning.

The more faculty and staff interact, the better they can get to know each other, overcome inter-departmental or -divisional communication barriers and misunderstandings, foster a greater sense of campus community, collaborate, share knowledge and resources, innovate …. With shared imagination and support, a university’s faculty and staff can accomplish anything.

But partnerships and collaborations have to extend beyond the campus. The surrounding community also has a stake. The educational attainment of local citizenry can attract national employers, raise the competitiveness of local businesses, increase local tax revenue, improve community problem-solving skills, and in general expand both the pool and circulation of available resources. Imaginative administrators, faculty, and staff can identify and raise the awareness of potential stakeholders, collaborate with them, harness their vision, and empower, motivate, and mobilize community champions for student success.

Each university digs deep channels into the community that ferry students, workers, funding, and other resources back and forth for mutual sustainability and growth. Service-learning has enabled universities to formally explore, beyond internships, how to expand educational oversight and credit to community practices, but that and other integrative concepts need greater exploration. The university system’s further integration with the community can only benefit both it and the community.

Even to develop the skills and venues for partnerships, collaborations, and intentional explorations, faculty and staff and even community partners need innovative professional development. Differences in reward systems, norms for communications, reporting and authorization structures, and organizational objectives can convolute the incentives, decision-making process, documentation and assessment process, and expectations. Research indicates, on the one hand, that obligatory partnerships do not last past their mandates; on the other hand, partnerships that spring organically from pre-existing relationships foster mutual understanding, shared expectations, and more sustainable practices (Eddy, 2010, p. 21). After those human relationships yield collaborations, offices or personnel who maintain relationships with partnering organizations can nurture them and develop organizational bridges. But the human element has to happen first.

Here at Austin Peay State University, the Faculty Leadership Program (FLP) fosters campus interactions that can lead to student, faculty, and institutional success, and we’re expanding its framework to integrate faculty and staff through a Women’s Leadership Program (WLP). Unlike other universities’ leadership-development opportunities, the FLP and WLP do not cater to administrators. They do not support “leadership” as an official position. Nor do they promote campus success as a managerial responsibility.

Instead, the FLP and WLP promote leadership from the ranks. Adrianna Kezar (2001) reminds us that anyone, regardless of position, can serve as a change agent (p. 7). Through wide and deep personal networks, any individual can draw from diverse resources and knowledge to solve problems and develop campus innovations (Eddy, 2010, p. 29). At very least, a person can serve as a “node to connect disparate networks” (p. 64) in problem-solving and innovation.

Wide and deep personal networks expand personal awareness and influence. Diverse relationships enhance a person’s “cognitive flexibility” in an academically and operationally complex environment (p. 30). Close relationships improve that person’s influence in leveraging changes. A campus of change agents has the power to transform and strengthen the university, but it demands heightened faculty and staff awareness and interconnectivity.

Leadership from the ranks also responds more effectively than administrative managerialism does to external calls for change. Faculty and staff agency enables the “flexibility and adaptability that are particularly important in meeting external demands” (Kezar et al., 2006, p. 111), like those imposed by disruptive technologies, changes to the state funding formula, rising tuition during an economic downturn, social calls for increased accountability, decreased availability of state and federal grants, and the increased role of private donors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Educause, Complete College America, educational entrepreneurs …. The current climate demands heightened individual awareness and collective adaptability.

So long as state contributions fail to meet budgetary shortfalls, let alone continue to shrink, the public university system will need dynamic faculty and staff who can lead rapid changes in response to powerful external pressures, particularly those tied to monetary incentives. In an environment where only consistent, large-scale change initiatives can attract the funding for even essential university operations, strong faculty and staff leadership can shield students from harmful trends while developing and implementing bold practices that truly lead to student, institutional, and community success.

 

 

References

 

Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, & Leadership; Fifth Ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Eddy, P. L. (2010). Partnerships and Collaborations in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Kezar, A. J. (2001). Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century: Recent Research and Conceptualizations. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kezar, A. J.; Carducci, Rozana; & Contreras-McGavin, Melissa. (2006). Rethinking the “L” Word in Higher Education. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Kuh, G. D. (February, 1996). The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs. Retrieved from
www.housing.berkeley.edu/student/ACPA_student_learning_imperative.pdf

Kuh, G. D. (March/April, 1996). Guiding Principles for Creating Seamless Learning Environments for Undergraduates. Retrieved from www.uwf.edu/studentaffairs/assessment/documents/StudentLearningReadings/GuidingPrinciples_Kuh1996.pdf

 

 

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.