Leading at Your Growing Edge: Reflecting on the 2019 Seminar on Leadership of the Faculty

by Kiernan Mathews

Jerlando Jackson leads a session during the SeminarWhat leadership is required to help faculty do their very best work for our institutions?

That was the organizing question when, earlier this month, I served as Educational Chair to a second cohort of academic leaders in the Seminar on Leadership of the Faculty. The Seminar is a COACHE program I run with the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education, with my disciplinary colleagues who are leading scholars of the professoriate, and with other outside-the-box thinkers. I started this institute because data I collect suggests that academic leaders struggle to be inventive, despite their training as faculty to be just that. One goal of the Seminar is to reconnect provosts and deans with that quality of inventiveness.

After kicking off with a case study and framework, the Seminar unfolds across four days of short courses challenging us to reexamine our underlying assumptions about our faculty and ourselves. Last year’s inaugural event, though, convinced me to make two significant changes to this year’s version of the Seminar:

First, I expanded participation by half: this year’s learners came from 27 states, the District of Columbia, and six different countries, from small colleges and sprawling universities, from institutions slow to change and from those with no choice but to change. Nearly two out of three attendees were women and more than one in five were African American or Black; seven came from historically black colleges and universities. Combined, these academic leaders had 140 years of experience just in their current jobs… but half had been in those positions for only two years or fewer.

The increasing ranks and diversity in the Seminar made the program even stronger, but most importantly, the numbers helped me to engineer even better teams of peers who could apply, explore, reject or transform insights from the classroom in their own, personal and professional contexts. These teams included provosts (“Western Edge” and “Transformers”), community college leaders (“Team 34”), associate deans at small liberal arts colleges (“Les Petites Fortes” and “9K”), vice provosts (“3 Degrees,” “Team Infinity” and “Mobius Strip”), and deans of various disciplines (“The Principles,” “Natalie’s Five,” “Yes, And…”). The whimsy and cleverness of their self-identified team names assured me that all of them embraced the mantra I learned from my mentor: “Take your work seriously and yourselves very unseriously.”

With “nearer peers” in their groups, “Team Time” proved more focused and productive. As one participant later wrote:

“Perhaps the most intense and fruitful session was the last team activity today. I was stunned by how all fell right into the ‘rules of engagement’ and every team member received a focused, non-stop, intense set of ‘critique questions’ on their plans [of action.]. I got about 17 written down and know I missed some in just 5 minutes.”


The results of Cohort 2’s “institutional behavior inventory,” an exercise introducing the twelve design features of a more deliberately developmental university.

The second significant change was revealed in the Seminar’s curriculum: we rearranged the order of courses, integrated our core faculty’s newest scholarship, and made space for more clinical work in our practice of faculty affairs.

Leading off the institute, Jerlando Jackson brought the lens of social closure theory to bear on his recent experience chairing his department at the University of Wisconsin. With the sensitivity of a (now) fellow associate dean, KerryAnn O’Meara translated the latest discoveries of her Faculty Workload & Rewards Project into actionable strategies for academic leaders. And this time, Adrianna Kezar closed out the week with a roll-up-your-sleeves workshop on change management derived from the newly-published second edition of her work, How Colleges Change.

Each of these scholars on the professoriate delivered two 90-minute sessions, down from last year’s three, give me the opportunity to include two new Seminar lecturers with practical advice. Kathryn Boudett shared her research on and templates for improving meetings (“Meeting Wise”) to help our leaders “tune up” this often-neglected machinery of faculty governance. Finally, Barry Mills—a seasoned college president and now, a trustee—asked our cohort to become “comfortable in your own skin” and to be more vulnerable in their leadership of the faculty.

Such vulnerability is the undercurrent of the Seminar’s framework, which is inspired by An Everyone Culture by Robert Kegan and his co-authors, but also heavily adapted to the faculty environment by increasing numbers of fellow travelers willing to be more inventive, and perhaps even playful, in the practice of faculty affairs. The success of the Seminar is owed to their perspectives—more of them, and more diverse among them—who enrich my own for one intense week each summer and in fact, throughout the year.


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