Why You Should Be an ACE Fellow

Considering academic leadership at the institutional level? Elizabeth Simmons explains how pursuing a fellowship both prepared her for future positions and altered her perspective on her current position.

September 12, 2014

I have recently returned from spending the year as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow.  If you are attracted to the idea of serving as a president or provost someday, I strongly urge you to ask your institution to nominate you for this valuable program. Between the formal seminars, the placement at another institution, and the interactions with your cohort of Fellows, it is an incredible learning experience in the company of some truly amazing people.

As I will describe below, the ACE Fellowship is an intensive full-year experience. If a yearlong program is impractical for you at present, or if you would like to start on a smaller scale, there are many other ways to begin acquiring the skills and awareness academic leadership requires. 

Your own college or university may offer leadership seminars on campus; here are a few examples at Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, Towson University, and Tufts University. Some academic disciplinary societies provide leadership training online, at special conferences, or at workshops during their annual meetings, as in these examples from the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society.

Short-term programs for leaders at all levels are offered through the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education or the American Council on Education. There are training institutes aimed specifically at women or underrepresented minorities, such as Carnegie Mellon’s Leadership and Negotiation Academy, the HERS Institutes, or the ACE Spectrum program. Finally, there are some yearlong programs with relatively moderate schedules, such as the CIC Academic Leadership Program or the Executive Leadership Academy, and comparable programs at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. I participated in several of the above programs before embarking on my ACE Fellowship year, and found each to be quite valuable.

The Shape of the Fellowship

The process starts by securing a nomination from your institution’s president; sometimes there may be an internal process for choosing among potential applicants across campus.  Then, you and your nominator must complete application materials describing your background and leadership philosophy, what you hope to learn, and how you plan to contribute to your home institution upon your return. After a review of the paper files, the ACE interviews finalists and assembles the year’s cohort. 

The 2013-14 Fellows were a diverse group from many types and sizes of institutions throughout the U.S. (and abroad), representing varied disciplines and levels of administrative experience. 

The traveling year of the fellowship includes four meetings in different US cities and an invitation to participate in ACE’s national meeting in springtime.  Each Fellows’ retreat features classes on topics including marketing, finance, diversity, strategic planning, governing boards, public speaking, and crisis management.  Many sessions require advance readings in order to leave room for interactive exercises and lengthy Q&A sessions.  

You will also undertake several team-based case studies during or between the retreats; these are a great way to apply the general principles to realistic situations.  Similarly, having undertaken a case study makes it easier to transplant the new ideas to your home institution; the marketing sessions showed me some tangible ways in which the development, admissions, and communications offices at my college could collaborate more strongly.

During these retreats, you also meet regularly with individuals who have distinguished histories as university or college presidents.  They provide small-group and individualized mentoring throughout the year.  Hearing their stories and getting their perspectives on your fellowship experiences is incredibly valuable. They are also a wonderful source of advice on how to approach the return to your home institution at the end of the traveling year.

The centerpiece of the program is the residential fellowship placement.  ACE staff members help you arrange to spend half or all of an academic year working in the president’s or provost’s office at an institution that is a good match for your interests and aspirations.  As I describe in more detail below, the host institution provides the opportunity for you to watch higher education leaders in action and also to join projects that stretch your skills and broaden your horizons. 

Finally, you are encouraged to visit a large array of universities, either on your own or in the company of other Fellows, and to interview the president and members of the leadership team.  Academic leaders extend amazing hospitality to visiting ACE Fellows and provide candid overviews of the opportunities and challenges facing their institutions.

Many of us visited institutions that had been on our list of possible hosts, since we had already researched the leadership team and knew who we wanted to meet.  Others toured selected regions of the U.S., U.K., Mexico, or South Africa to compare proximate institutions with very different missions.  While I relished solo visits because I could focus on the topics of greatest interest to me, the joint visits were also fascinating because my colleagues asked probing questions about areas I had not thought to explore. 

My Year Away

Although many Fellows spend the full academic year in residence at their host institutions, that turned out to be impractical for me.  Instead, I made extended monthly visits to my host institution (Yale) and treated my home institution (Michigan State) as a second host, in that I interviewed and observed leaders at both places.  At MSU, I continued serving as dean of Lyman Briggs College; at Yale, I was embedded in the provost’s office, working directly with the deputy provost for science and technology.  I am deeply grateful to the many individuals at both universities who were so generous with their time and insights and so responsive to my many questions.

I commuted by air every two weeks between my home in mid-Michigan and a studio apartment in the heart of New Haven.  The transitions reminded me of old TV episodes of "Dr. Who" or "Quantum Leap": abrupt immersion into an ongoing story, the need to find my feet and establish my role, the constant tick of an internal clock as the next “leap” approached.  Each time I arrived, there was an odd sense of temporal dislocation, as if time had flowed differently for me. In a sense it had: scores of meetings, discussions, and decisions had occurred while I was away.  There was also a linguistic disruption, since the two institutions often used different words to describe identical structures (e.g., faculty positions) or had different definitions for identical words (e.g., dean, college) … not to mention the endless lists of acronyms!

Since many institutions with new leaders are wary of hosting fellows, I was especially glad that Yale’s new president and provost had agreed to invite me for the year.  It was very informative to watch the steps they took to establish their agendas for moving the institution forward: memos, meetings, speeches, interlocking systems of committees, and individual persuasion all played important roles. 

It became clear that, just as you must clearly establish the format, methods, and priorities of a course from the very first class meetings, it is important to do the same when taking on a new leadership role even at a familiar institution.  Details may be filled in later, but having a clear framework in place helps everyone understand what is expected.

I also benefited from working with a mentor who involved me in a variety of his ongoing projects, but also left me ample time to explore the campus and interview scores of academic leaders.  While in residence, I helped to create guidelines for improving faculty mentoring and inclusive academic searches, conduct a cross-institution survey of lab renovation practices, support a campus planning committee, and help an outreach office prepare to apply for grants.  But there was also time to join a FEMA mass casualty exercise, tour the musical instrument collection, watch classes in a new active-learning classroom, and visit the Cushing Center’s brain collection. 

Key Lessons

Three main themes stand out from my time at Yale: seek intellectual challenge, look for the structures underlying the issue at hand, understand cultural context without being unduly constrained by it.

Spending time at an unfamiliar university with a different funding model, administrative style, governance structure, and culture led me to rethink everything I had previously learned about academic leadership within my home institution.  I constantly found myself wondering, “What are they doing? How do we do this? Why? Is there a better way?” This was truly exhilarating.  Every day at my host institution, I had at least one conversation that left my pulse racing from intellectual excitement and my mind feeling stretched beyond its previous conceptual boundaries.  And that is exactly the context within which I learn the most.

Being jolted out of familiar approaches forced me to think more deeply about structural questions inherent in academic leadership, to look beyond the specific problem at hand and find underlying patterns that could indicate the likely form of a resolution. This is one of the key skills I teach in my mathematical physics course: how to recognize what class of equation is confronting you and therefore deduce the key components that any physically relevant solution must possess.   Whether in mathematics or leadership, one must still solve the presenting problem in detail, but having a sense of where you are headed can be valuable.

My ongoing puzzlement over the ways my host institution chose to address certain situations eventually led me to deliberately investigate its history and culture by interviewing some long-serving or emeritus administrators.  It was an incredible help.  And it was a useful reminder that data isolated from broader context can be uninformative or downright misleading. 

This, of course, is exactly what we teach the STEM majors in my home college through their Science Studies curriculum.  Knowing more about the structural, administrative, and fiscal history of my host institution made it far easier to understand why certain approaches came readily to hand there. 

At the same time, it underlined that one should not merely allow history to be determinative; ideas arising outside one’s institutional niche in the higher education ecosystem may prove far more valuable than one would have initially assumed.  That is part of what makes the diversity of the Fellows cohort so powerful. By talking about the contrasting approaches used in our differing home or host institutions – community colleges, regional universities, research universities, think tanks, and for-profit institutions – we came away with a much broader sense of the landscape of possibilities.


As the traveling year waned, my cohort began to focus on returning to our home institutions for the follow-on year.  Comparisons of follow-on projects and plans to stay in touch became common topics of conversation.  Listservs were established for general conversations and for more specialized peer mentoring on professional development.  Several months after our last retreat, we are starting to miss the sense that the next meeting is just around the corner, but we are managing to stay in touch and keep sharing ideas and advice.

As we have integrated back into our home institutions, many of us are discovering that we have changed.  Whether or not we have new titles or responsibilities, we certainly have very different perspectives than a year ago.  While the ACE staff had repeatedly told us to expect this, I had not known precisely what they meant.  It was only when I was writing a final reflective report for my nominators and hosts that I suddenly realized I had “hatched” from a more parochial view based out of a single college in one land-grant university into a wider perspective that could anticipate variations that might play out in other fields or at other institutions.  I literally could not have written the report a year earlier; now the words flowed naturally.

I am looking forward to a most unusual follow-on project this year: serving as interim dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University while remaining dean of MSU’s Lyman Briggs College.  Over the past few weeks, as I’ve started meeting new colleagues and learning about the college’s mission and policies, it has felt oddly familiar, as if I were beginning a brand-new fellowship placement, albeit with a shorter commute.  

Your Fellowship

I hope I have convinced you that the ACE Fellowship is full of excitement and unusual experiences: being immersed in a new institution’s culture and operations; getting drawn into projects that channel your talents in new directions; interviewing a dizzying array of presidents about their leadership journeys.  It is also full of fellowship in the best sense: your cohort members will astound you with their complementary expertise in crucial aspects of academe, their insights about working productively with others, and their generosity of spirit.  This is an extraordinary way to prepare for the next stages of your academic career.


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College, acting dean of the College of Arts and Letters, and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.


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