Ask LINA: Winter 2024
I am a dean of arts and humanities at a public university. I attended ACLS’s Leadership Institute for a New Academy last summer and found the conversations to be very energizing. I was excited to come back and start the work of persuading my colleagues to join me in implementing some of what we had discussed.
In short: None of it has happened. Last semester was one fire after another, with external events completely overtaking any plans I had to try and make change. Our university has been roiled by student protests over the war in Gaza, and we are on the verge of a strike by lecturers and graduate assistants. Anytime I tried to schedule a meeting with my colleagues in the upper administration, it inevitably got canceled because of events beyond anyone’s control.
I’ll admit that I gave up. I told myself that I would start again in spring semester, but I have a sinking feeling that it’s going to be more of the same. I know that change is necessary for the long-term survival and health of my institution, but I don’t see how it’s going to happen as long as everyone is spending all of their time putting out fires. I also don’t see an end to the fires!
I guess what I’m asking is: What are some strategies for making change under these conditions? How do we think about the long run when the short run is taking up all our energy?
Dear Drowning Dean,
While it is true there is always going to be some crisis or another (and the last few years have been full of them), some times are clearly worse than others. As important as this work is, it will keep until the time is, if not right, at least better. Advancing the work of the humanities and fostering collaboration requires time, patience, an open mind and receptiveness to dialogue and subtle arguments. You have done the right thing by trying, but even if you had those meetings it doesn’t seem likely that anything would have come of it. People are likely not in a place where they CAN be receptive, even if they want to be.
This is not a failure on your part, it is a recognition of the context that you are in. Change occurs not just by knowing what to do, but being ready with that change when the conditions are right for it. If you think of your inability to move this forward as a failure, then it is understandable to want to give up. That’s a natural, human reaction. But if you give yourself the grace to recognize that this wasn’t the right moment it is easier to preserve within yourself the willingness to keep trying, or to be strategic about when to try again.
Change unfortunately doesn’t happen at the pace we set out for it. It happens when the circumstances are right and we are prepared for them.
So I would brush off the failed meeting attempts and pick your spot. And if it gets canceled, then just try again. There is no silver bullet solution. You can potentially be more strategic when you try and establish your initial contact about your ideas. Are there times in the semester where the routine workload dips? Are there times of the day/week when it is easier to schedule a meeting? Are there small group meeting alternatives you can try –– offering to go out for a working lunch, for example? It may still be canceled, but many administrators can’t take a moment to feed themselves, and they may be grateful (and more receptive) to your ideas if there is some self-care built in.
But above all else, don’t give up. Change unfortunately doesn’t happen at the pace we set out for it. It happens when the circumstances are right and we are prepared for them. It sounds like you are prepared. Just be patient and recognize that the fact that the world is not prioritizing your concerns isn’t a sign of failure on your part.
LINA in Maryland
Dear Drowning Dean,
First, kudos to you for being unwavering in centering your values of positive change during these trying times!
Your message speaks to the idyllic: a pause in the chaos to have a bit of sustained strategic conversation around programmatic changemaking with the goal of making the institution and the lives of those in it better. But, higher education is under constant attack, which means its leaders are as well. The pause in the chaos and the idyllic setting and time for strategic change remains elusive. This is our current normal.
The solution to carving out a strategy for change may be to accept the constraints within which we work and plan and build accordingly. There is something truly exciting about the prospect of decanal-level thinking about problem-solving and change agency precisely while we are working through crises. That is when we need support the most! Programmatic change to counter or mitigate crises is precisely the kind of intervention that affirmatively impacts our work, self-care, and our ability to retain our colleagues.
The solution to carving out a strategy for change may be to accept the constraints within which we work and plan and build accordingly.
So what does a shift in methodology look like?
1. Developing new strategies for this current normal. Smaller group, 20-minute virtual “mini-sessions” about a single topic or idea may be more likely to get participation. I do this myself and I am amazed at how much we get accomplished in these speedy meetings. Or, perhaps you can create gatherings of another kind using a host of e-tools, be it from Qualtrics to AI.
2. Knowing what your change project is and moving it forward. Not everything needs to start with a fully democratic process. Propose or initiate the kind of change you would like to see. For example, during my stints as an administrator, I found myself spending much of my time on faculty-related disputes that were negatively impacting the overall climate of a unit. The interpersonal issues were often deep and extraordinarily disruptive to the belonging of students, staff, and other faculty. However, the issues fracturing the unit rarely rose to the level of a finding or action by our civil rights office. In the chaos of in-fighting, new proposals for a college-level embedded ombuds, educational opportunities on intergroup relations and difficult dialogue, and partnering with HR to provide coaching were welcomed by senior administration. A suite of interventions was formed that resulted in an improvement in unit climate.
3. Partnering with other Deans who have the same needs and goals. The thing about seeking positive change is that you are rarely alone in understanding that change needs to happen. Decanal initiatives are powerful ones. At an already scheduled Dean’s meeting (no need for a separate meeting!), inviting the Deans to advance change under a unified effort is more likely for success (and provostial resource support). For example, Deans joining together to advance anything from cross-college postdoc programs to joint DEI workshops is not only fiscally prudent thanks to cost-sharing, but it also promises a broader cross-campus reach of positive change.
Drowning Dean, I hope this is helpful.
LINA in Illinois and Virginia
How do you make change when there is absolute chaos at the uppermost levels of your university’s administration? I’ve been at my institution for twelve years. In that time we’ve had four presidents and six provosts, plus a number of years of interim leadership.
It always goes the same way: New leadership is brought in with great fanfare, conducts a “listening tour,” and starts new and exciting (and time consuming) initiatives. Then, two or three years later, they depart, either because of scandal or a better offer. The initiatives fall apart, and the cycle starts again with a new president who has new priorities. It’s exhausting.
It seems like the days when university presidents served a decade or more are behind us. There are things that need to be done if the institution is going to survive, much less thrive, but it has been very difficult to accomplish anything. At this point, even initiatives that have the backing of current leadership are met with skepticism, because no one wants to invest time and energy into something that will be left on the cutting room floor when leadership turns over again. I can’t say I feel much different.
Thoughts? Ideas? I’ll even take commiseration.
Not Another Listening Tour!
How do you make change when there is absolute chaos at the uppermost levels of your university’s administration?
Dear Not Another Listening Tour,
I have been at my institution for 8 years and there have been 37 senior leaders during that time, so I can and do commiserate. BUT, when senior leadership changes over that much, a lot of the locus of power at the institution starts to devolve to lower levels, by necessity if nothing else. I’ve kept my own sanity through the following steps:
1. Identifying who my consistent partners are likely to be (where and at what levels is their stability?).
2. What elements of my change work can happen at those levels with those partners? Recognizing that I’ll never get everything I want, no matter how optimal the circumstances, I prioritize what I can do with the people and resources that are present and attentive, and file the rest away to share on listening tours.
3. What can I pilot/try out on a smaller scale so I have the data and evidence I need when conditions are right/stable at higher levels?
4. Even if you can’t act, if you are able to keep emphasizing certain needs, framing, priorities, it will gradually make its way into the unconscious mind of the core institutional members doing the work, and when you finally have the senior leadership ready to listen, you will have a lot less work to do getting the rest of the organization to come along.
I’ve been there. It’s frustrating. I’ve found this kind of recalibration is the key to productivity and sanity. Good luck!
LINA in Maryland
Dear Not Another Listening Tour,
When there is a lot of changeover in leadership, I’ve found that it can help to keep an eye on the big picture goals and rely on colleagues and committees that are unlikely to change any time soon. Here are some thoughts that came to mind as I reflected on what has worked for me at various institutions.
1. Distributed leadership: The work should be decentralized and done in a manner that recognizes and honors leadership that is found at all levels of the institution so that the work of implementing strategic priorities does not rest exclusively on the time and attention of a select few. Implementing strategic priorities that have strong stakeholder buy-in can continue despite changes in senior leadership. The new leader can be invited to see the value in the existing priorities even as they introduce some of their own ideas and priorities. The listening tour is an opportunity to engage the new leader in these ideas at the level of distributed leaders.
2. Vision and strategic priorities: An institution’s strategic priorities are those that various stakeholders (not just university leadership) have recognized and identified as important directions for the institution to explore and grow to be able to thrive. They are important but not urgent, in contrast to operational priorities, which are both important and urgent. The people who are involved with operational priorities need to be consulted but should not be the (only) ones involved in carrying forward the implementation of the strategic vision and priorities. Smaller working groups can implement the goals of the strategic plan on an ongoing basis with periodic sharing of progress and celebration of successes. This can help prevent priorities that are important but not urgent from getting lost in the shuffle.
3. Creating a culture of innovation: A culture of innovation can carry you through turbulent times by ensuring that culture doesn’t eat strategy for lunch. Look for new models for supporting innovation and figure out how to integrate them with long-standing committees or campus units. For example, a long-standing committee with the responsibility of approving curriculum and ensuring compliance is unlikely to be the one that innovates the curriculum. But a working group for curriculum innovation working in alignment with the curriculum committee is much more likely to bring about this kind of change.
LINA in Connecticut