The Greatest Course You’ll Ever Teach

Why become an academic leader? Elizabeth Simmons argues that it offers a unique opportunity to extend a love of teaching into novel realms.

November 30, 2012

What could I accomplish as an academic leader? Am I prepared for the role?  These questions confront each faculty member who considers becoming a director, chair or dean. Some may hesitate to serve, thinking that their prior faculty experience has not provided appropriate background and that the responsibilities will be too alien to be enjoyable.

Based on my nine years as a director and a dean, I believe that a fundamental role of any academic leader is to serve as a teacher and coach for the individuals, teams and units he or she supervises. These positions offer an opportunity to extend a love of teaching into novel dimensions. Here, I hope to show faculty members how the skills they have honed as educators provide valuable preparation for rewarding experiences as administrators.   

I am the dean of Lyman Briggs College, a residential undergraduate science college at Michigan State University. The college’s faculty members are teacher-scholars in STEM fields ranging from astronomy to zoology, and in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. Since our research areas have little overlap with one another, what unites us as an academic community is our common love of teaching and our desire to help students appreciate science in its full societal context. At the same time, due to a recent expansion of the college and a concurrent wave of retirements, nearly all of the faculty members have joined Lyman Briggs since my own arrival nine years ago, and most are still assistant or associate professors. This environment has made the connections between leadership and teaching particularly evident.

While leadership roles are often described as constituting  “service” to the institution, much of what one actually does on a daily basis as an administrator involves acting as an educator. If you become a chair or dean, you will find yourself simultaneously teaching a faculty class, a staff class, separate seminars for disciplinary research groups or departments, and even a slew of individual tutorials for faculty or staff mentees at transition points in their careers.  These courses may also intersect in multiple ways, through their topics or participants.  Applying your prior experience as a teacher to your new leadership role can help you approach unfamiliar responsibilities more effectively.  

In this article, I take a few examples of responsibilities that chairs and deans often face (leading meetings, coaching faculty, building inclusive excellence) and show how one might approach each of them as extensions of familiar teaching tasks.  Analyzing my administrative work through this lens has helped me maintain perspective on what I am trying to accomplish as dean; I hope it will be of similar benefit to others. 

A Simple Example: Make Meetings Worthwhile

It is widely assumed that administrators love meetings.  I can attest that this is not necessarily true.  But we are certainly tasked with running many of them.  At first I found this intimidating and bewildering.  Some of our faculty meetings were well-attended and others sparse; some involved substantive discussion, while others were merely a sequence of announcements. Fortunately, Michigan State offers a variety of workshops for administrators (your campus probably does as well, and many are also available online), and I discovered one dedicated to the art of running meetings. Mirabile dictu, applying the facilitator’s suggestions led to a marked improvement in the attendance and value of our faculty meetings. 

In retrospect, however, the solution should have been obvious even without a specialized workshop: Plan meetings using familiar techniques from the classroom:

  • set clear goals and provide readings in advance;
  • stick to core objectives (quality trumps quantity)
  • encourage attendees to participate and interact;
  • adjust on the fly to clarify issues or explore hot topics
  • as the end approaches, summarize progress and indicate next steps.

We are all aware that students learn best when they apply their knowledge directly to a concrete problem, work in teams, and explain what they have learned to others.  The same is true of faculty and staff. Meetings, like course sessions, are most valuable when they foster a greater collective understanding of a topic and inspire plans reflecting that new understanding. This approach takes continual attention (and, as with class sessions, not every meeting will live up to your expectations) but the overall outcome is worth the effort.

A More Complex Task: Acculturate New Faculty

The recent generational turnover in Lyman Briggs has brought many junior faculty members into the college. Thus, much of my time has involved teaching the new faculty about roles and expectations. I have found that approaching this responsibility flows naturally from an educator’s experience in working with students. A few key elements include:

Establishing clear, written expectations for scholarly development in teaching, research, and engagement. The familiar “course syllabus” becomes a detailed position description, a tailored offer letter, a memorandum of understanding (especially for faculty with joint appointments in multiple departments), and a written guide to evaluation and promotion criteria and processes.  While composing these documents requires effort, experienced teachers know that more-clearly defined class assignments elicit higher-quality work and greater student satisfaction.

Providing clear detailed feedback.  Most of us are used to assigning grades and critiquing student work. The faculty equivalent in this case might be an annual evaluation letter or the report on a promotion case. Students learn from detailed critiques of their writing, calculations, and arguments; given the effort they have expended on an assignment, they also appreciate evidence of the professor’s corresponding effort to help them improve. Likewise, faculty members benefit from and value an explanation of the steps they can take to enhance their teaching, research, or self-evaluation materials.  Initiating a conversation about someone’s need to improve may feel daunting – but it is a leader’s responsibility to help make that change possible, just as it is a teacher’s to help a student strive for success.

Being available. Your “office hours” lie in the meetings, hallway chats, and e-mail exchanges where you answer pressing questions about faculty life and politics, as well as logistical or administrative matters. The more quickly you get to know the students in an academic course, the greater your opportunity to help them achieve the learning outcomes you aspire to promote. Similarly, becoming familiar with the professional strengths and goals of your faculty and staff will make you most helpful to them. As a bonus, it will show you how each of them can best contribute to the department or college.

Conveying perspective. Just as you may coach a student on how to approach a course or enter a career, be ready to guide faculty on the path to tenure and promotion. Having already traversed that road, you know the stress points they will encounter and the most prevalent missteps. While they must still surmount these hurdles on their own, you can prepare them for the encounters. For example, you can help them understand the importance of following their passions in the focused, deliberate way that will lead to a strong tenure portfolio. And you can remind them to practice describing their work in terms that will resonate not only with their peers, but also with the diverse individuals who will read their portfolios. 

Scaling up this approach suggests how to foster cohesion within a disciplinary group, center, or department.  Just as you would set student teams clear assignments, give feedback, and reward positive outcomes, it is logical to do so with faculty teams. For example, in the fall, I ask each disciplinary group in our college to write a brief report on its goals, progress, challenges, and needs. In framing the request, I try to provide a sense of the current academic and budgetary climate and I mention that the reports will form the backbone of the college’s annual planning letter. I meet with each group to review its report and identify elements for inclusion in the planning letter. Over the years, these have developed into lively discussions of creative new ideas and the data marshaled to support them. The more cohesive the group and the more convincing the evidence it presents, the more likely it is to gain the requested resources; over time, the groups have become more collaborative, assessment-focused, and ambitious, to the benefit of all.

An Ongoing Challenge: Engage every individual.

As a teacher, you are expected to help every student in your classroom succeed to the best of his or her ability.  As an incoming administrator you face a similar duty to the faculty and staff.  Accordingly, you should strive to recognize the strengths that each person brings to the unit and to welcome each of them to contribute to its mission.

Begin by openly establishing the values that will guide your work as an academic leader.  For instance, in an academic course, it is natural for a teacher to stress the importance of academic integrity, civility, and teamwork; you might mention these issues in a syllabus, talk about them at the first course meeting, and model good behavior during the term. Similarly, as a director, chair, or dean, regularly speaking and writing about the importance of honesty, professionalism, and inclusion can set the tone for interactions within the entire center, department or college. So can talking about how these values influence the tough decisions you make in your administrative role. Below are some examples of concrete ways to model and promote inclusive excellence in your daily work:

Level the playing field.  Just as you distribute the same course syllabus to all students, be sure to distribute crucial department or college information to everyone affected so that “old boy” networks don’t unwittingly favor some over others.  You probably have favorite ways to encourage (or even require) all students to ask questions or speak up during class. Similarly, nudge all faculty or staff to speak up in crucial meetings; effective techniques can be as simple as a “round table” where each speaks in turn or noting who has spoken and asking each of the others, by name, what they think of the topic. Stating why full participation is beneficial can encourage everyone to speak up. In our college’s meetings on tenure cases, for example, I open by reminding everyone that there should be no surprises in the vote at the meeting’s end: vote tallies should reflect the reports and commentary that were part of the meeting. Full participation in the conversation follows with little or no further effort from me.

Make differences a source of strength. Students enter your classroom with varied preparation and aptitudes. Accordingly, well-designed courses employ multiple activities and assessments ranging from individually-completed essays, problem sets or exams to team-based research projects or presentations; the variety gives students more avenues to demonstrate what they have learned. Not surprisingly, the faculty and staff in a given department or college will also have different professional experiences and skills. Use this to provide each faculty member with appropriate options for meeting core expectations and earning professional advancement, while helping your unit meet its diverse responsibilities. For instance, suppose that your department needs both to train new instructors and to engage freshmen in scholarship. Targeting your best teaching mentors at one task and your best student mentors at the other, while crediting both contributions in annual or promotion evaluations, can yield positive outcomes on many levels.

Spur professional development. Assigning a faculty member a responsibility that will foster professional growth can be valuable – especially if you are clear about why you have asked the person to take on a “stretch” role. I have found that asking someone to take on a challenging peer-evaluation assignment or to coordinate a college assessment project can provide a venue to develop and demonstrate organizational, interpersonal, or writing skills. Honing these skills will serve them well in their primary teaching and research roles. Moreover, my seeing what these individuals are capable of can help me identify good candidates for training as academic leaders.

Recognize success. Just as you nominate students for scholarships and awards based on their achievements in your classes, seek opportunities to publicly recognize the accomplishments of faculty and staff. Locally, a mention in departmental newsletters and web bulletins is a good start. Highlighting achievements in your annual reports to the dean, provost, or president reflects well on your unit and garners the individuals wider recognition on campus. Additionally, your college or university may have formal awards for which individuals and teams can be nominated; in some cases, relevant prizes may be offered through professional associations or philanthropic foundations. Over time, you should be able to recognize a very large and diverse cohort of your faculty and staff for their varied contributions to the success of your unit.

Final Lesson: Keep Learning

Approaching academic leadership as an extension of your educational role will also help you avoid complacency in the longer term. As a teacher, I find that there is always something I can be doing better, some area to keep striving to improve. On the one hand, I keep learning from my students about what has helped or hindered them in my courses, and on the other hand, I keep learning from colleagues about intriguing methods they employ. Similarly, in my role as dean, conversations with the faculty and staff are constantly revealing where I need to improve, while leadership workshops or casual chats with other administrators offer new ideas of what to try.   

In fact, as you help educate others through your leadership role, you also have an unparalleled opportunity to consciously learn from the faculty (and staff) who are your “students” – just as you do in teaching any ordinary course. This will be the topic of a future article in this column: “The Toughest Class You’ll Ever Take.”


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Michigan State University's Lyman Briggs College.


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