The Importance of Culture

New administrators need to be sensitive to the culture of their workplace, even when making an internal move, advises Terri E. Givens.

January 26, 2017
 
 
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When I started as provost at Menlo College in the summer of 2015, I entered with a great deal of enthusiasm. I also was acutely aware that it would take time to understand the institutional culture that I was becoming a part of -- and not quite sure of the impact that culture would have on me. What I mean by culture is the way the key players on campus interact with one another. Some cultures are more corporate and hierarchical, with interactions being very formal, while others can be informal and more community oriented.

As my career has shifted from professor to administrator, I have had a great interest in issues of leadership in higher education. My new position at Menlo College has led me to look even more closely at issues related to team building and the ways that institutional culture can shape an organization. We often hear that changes in leadership impact an institution’s culture. It is equally important to recognize that an institution’s culture has an impact on leadership

I spent most of my academic career at large public institutions, where institutional culture generally meant the culture within a particular department. An appreciation of institutional cultural dynamics at the department level is important even as a graduate student. When I was still a student, I recognized that the culture within my department varied somewhat as faculty members came and went. Some were more supportive and encouraging of students, while others tended to be hard on their students, often in the spirit of preparing them for the tough world of academe. I did not, however, become aware of the importance of understanding departmental culture until it was time to choose my dissertation committee.

As a political scientist, and a budding behavioralist, I had to develop an understanding of the interactions between particular faculty members and how those interactions would impact the progress I could make on my dissertation -- and ultimately my success in the job market. It was important to me to have advisers who would challenge me, but it was also crucial to make sure that I did not get caught up in any cross fire or become collateral damage in battles that had likely begun before my time. Choosing a dissertation chair was not only important in terms of subject matter but also in terms of who could play a leadership role for that committee while also guiding me in writing a successful dissertation.

As an assistant professor, many of those same issues came to the fore in a department that may have been less conflictual yet where the stakes were higher, as I was working my way toward tenure. I knew it was important to develop mentors and allies within my department, but I also realized that I had to make connections beyond my department. That meant understanding the much broader institutional culture where administrators played a greater role in determining the tenor of interactions.

I had already begun the process of developing mentoring relationships as a graduate student, but I had to move beyond those relationships and develop connections with leaders in my field -- and in the process become a leader myself. Over time, I became involved in various committees within the American Political Science Association and made connections with think tanks in my field of study, immigration politics. And, while conducting research in Europe, I learned about many types of institutional cultures that existed in different government entities and NGOs, as well as across countries.

All this experience was extremely useful as I began my transition into administration, particularly when I became a vice provost at the University of Texas. I had a better grasp of the interactions and tensions that can exist between faculty members and administrators, as well as those between administrators and state government officials. I also had to learn to function as a manager, which drew on a broader range of skills than I had developed as an academic.

Although the learning curve was steep, it was rewarding, which precipitated my recent shift back into administration -- a decision that I described in a previous column. Going into my current position, I understood that it was not only necessary to make my mark on an institution but also to allow the institution and its people to have an impact on me. Almost every member of the faculty, staff, administration and board plays a role, and I have developed strong relationships with people in those different groups. I have become more sensitive to individual student needs, as well to being decisive and taking the lead when difficult decisions must be made. Some people feel more comfortable addressing me as “provost,” but I encourage folks to use my first name. I tend to dress more casually and work to foster an open-door policy for students and faculty concerns.

Seeing the interrelationship of leadership and culture at a small private college has led to me see the need to play a greater role in my community as well. Everyone on the campus feels the impact of current events, which has led me to start a series of dialogues to help us address issues related to race, policing and inequality in our community. The common thread is the importance of keeping an open mind, being sensitive to different backgrounds and life experiences, and taking time to develop relationships -- all vital components to thriving in any institutional culture as well as to making the link to our broader community.

A small institution of higher education has many of the same structural requirements as a large institution, albeit with fewer resources. A smaller institution also brings more focus to the main purpose of higher education: educating students. It is therefore at an institution like Menlo College that I am able to have a greater appreciation of the fact that my primary objective as a leader is to navigate the culture in a way that facilitates the educational mission, one day at a time.

My main advice for new administrators is to be sensitive to the culture of your workplace, even if you are making an internal move. Take the time to learn about the people, the current type of community that they are comfortable with, and also what they strive for. Levels of formality matter -- don’t take them for granted. In the end, it is just as important to have an impact on the day-to-day functioning of a college as it is on the way that people interact in that culture.

Bio

Terri E. Givens is provost and dean of the arts and sciences at Menlo College.

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