Leadership from the Ranks

In the revised edition of Management, Peter Drucker (2008) draws attention to the overlay of multiple organizational structures vying for dominance, all with the shared aim of improving human productivity. The greater the crisis, Drucker argues, the greater the need for hierarchy; the more high-touch services, the more important becomes local autonomy (p. 68).

Higher education, of course, provides high-touch services. Faculty and staff serve as role models for cognitive skills, behaviors, and attitudes that can lead to success. Sustained employee-student interactions expose students to new frameworks for engaging themselves, each other, and the world. But these interactions require intentional design. Otherwise, they can crumble into lower-order thinking skills and low-value work for everyone — like what happens when academic advising deteriorates into merely course scheduling. In order to perpetually reassess, revitalize, or redesign intentional interactions, faculty and staff need a high degree of local autonomy.

Higher education also is in the midst of a crisis. Both citizenry and a growing number of work environments require the skills to navigate an increasingly rhetorical- and statistics-based world. But the social insistence on more college has expanded the number of student bodies with different needs, as well as redirected higher education’s focus to student retention and graduation rates. On one side, faculty now struggle not merely to deliver course content for diverse learning habits, but also to ensure diverse student engagement and in-depth content assimilation for an improved likelihood of continued student success. On the other side, academic professionals struggle to identify and resolve bottlenecks in the system and reach-out to previously ignored populations who could benefit from more education.

This re-imagining of higher education coincides with an economic crisis in which people need jobs and employers want higher-quality job candidates. In the face of rising student debt, students and their parents, legislators, and potential employers now question the value of higher education. Meanwhile, our computer-infused work environment demands greater technological and critical-thinking skills for even entry-level jobs — yes, even the jobs that can’t pay back the resulting debt. 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.

Higher education is a high-touch service in crisis. On the one hand, the industry requires local autonomy. On the other, its crisis calls for strong leadership. Our university has worked to bridge the two by building campus capacity for leadership from the ranks. We have opted for professional development that pushes “thinking big” and interconnects the campus for collaborative autonomy.

Thus far, the process has worked well. Faculty and staff have created the Office of Undergraduate Research, Office of Service Learning, and Non-Traditional Student Support Center. On the organizational chart, they collaboratively relocated Career Services to improve its staffing and funding. They’re currently exploring ways of recruiting international students. They’re piloting redirect advising for students who are capable of earning degrees but who have encountered a brick wall in their current majors. They’re testing the preregistration of students before summer orientation. Faculty and staff investigate ways of designing a seamless learning environment.

No one merely has managed these changes or explorations. They result from collaborative leadership, an empowering of the ranks to determine when and how to move forward. That level of empowerment requires aggressive professional development. But it saves institutions from sacrificing their high-touch services to crisis management.

 

Drucker, Peter. (2008.) Management; Revised Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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.