Higher Ed Summer Camp

Learning with and from college administrators.


July 28, 2014

It’s camp season in New England.

My 9 year old son, Jack, went to sleep away camp for two weeks in early July - Camp Hale in New Hampshire. Days after he returned, I left for Camp IEM in Cambridge, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Summer camp for 9-year-old boys consists of swimming, hiking, kayaking, camp fire songs, talent shows, hot dogs, and s'mores.

Summer camp for higher ed vice presidents/associate vice presidents looks a bit different but I think the process and outcomes are more alike than I would have initially anticipated: building teams, sharing stories, taking time to reflect, and highlighting what you have in common with others to create a pivot point in your life and inspire you to live a more meaningful life of greater impact.

My summer camp included 110 vice presidents, associate vice presidents, and even a few presidents. We were corralled by incredibly generous and inspiring team leaders committed to building leadership capacity in higher education. Stories were shared - in small groups, in large groups, by inspiring presidents such as Juliet Garcia, Beverly Daniel Tatum, and Larry Bacow. Instead of learning to tie knots and build fires, we learned to appreciate the power of shared governance, to be adaptable to change, and, perhaps most importantly, we learned how to lead in the midst of a sector-wide crisis that seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Although we were inspired and the general mood was uplifting, there was a sobering tone throughout the time we spent together and on the last day, many of the men (and some of the women) openly cried. Leadership is easy when you're winning. Right now, no one in higher ed is winning - not the students, who face rising tuition costs in the face of decreasing employment opportunities, not the faculty, who are seeing the erosion of tenure, academic freedom, and full-time employment, and, contrary to popular belief, the administration and staff aren't winning either - as we are forced to balance budgets by closing programs, cutting jobs, raising tuition, and, in some cases, by merging with other institutions or even by closing our schools. These are tough times and, for many of us, one of the best parts of coming together with 109 others was the realization that we are not alone.

A few left this summer camp counting down the days to retirement or vowing to look outside of higher ed for their next career move. Others were reinvigorated and found a renewed sense of mission and purpose, with a recurring theme - IEM made us realize that we are exactly where we need to be and doing the work that needs to be done.

Several of our colleagues came from community colleges and all of us recognized that they are the ones doing the heavy lifting in our world - never enough money, way too many students to serve, and a day-to-day environment where every decision is a lesser of two evils. Others came from across the globe, leading teams that are building universities in remote areas - universities that will become the economic catalysts for their regions - building capacity through education.

I was thoroughly awed and inspired and I also realized that I am very grateful to be doing the work I am doing at a public institution that prides itself on serving first-generation working-class students and on supporting the faculty who are also committed to serving these students. This is where I need to be and this is the work that I need to be doing today.

Not only was I inspired to give more and to do more today, I was also inspired to have greater aspirations for the future. Everyone had a favorite session at IEM and mine was Jim Honan's session on Collaborating for Collective Impact. Jim opened a window into my future. He made me realize that this is where I want to go.

When I originally made the move from faculty to administrator it was because I wanted to have a greater impact. My students were facing challenges that were beyond the scope of my Social Movements course. Unfortunately, many of those were directly related to outdated and unreasonable rules at my institution. I realized that if I moved into administration, I could help the 40 students in my class and also the hundreds in my department and, eventually, the thousands at my institution. At IEM, Jim shared a case study that focused on collective impact, the Achieving the Dream initiative, that includes more than 200 institutions working together to improve the lives of over 3.8 million community college students. Now that’s IMPACT!

So, one personal takeaway from summer camp --- I’ve refined a future goal: collaborating across institutions and sectors to impact millions of students and working together to build a better future.

This morning I’ll begin by catching up on laundry, figuring out how to to creatively cook up my accumulated CSA produce and taking my 9-year-old to his piano lesson - one day at a time!

Salem, Massachusetts in the USA.

Mary Churchill is Associate Provost for Innovation and Partnerships at Salem State University. Find her on Twitter @mary_churchill.








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