Learning in Public

To achieve positive change in higher education, we must create campus cultures that celebrate shared learning as we go, writes Judith S. White.

June 1, 2016

How do we achieve more positive changes on our campuses? This question was posed during a workshop with Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, during the 2016 annual meeting of the American Council on Education. Heifetz, author of the classic 1994, Leadership without Easy Answers, gave a not easy answer: Create conditions for more learning in public.

The theme for the session was Heifetz’s assertion that, with all the changes and challenges facing higher education today, those of us trying to address such situations are generally in uncharted territory. We are “leading at the frontier of our competence.” In Heifetz’s framework, in grappling with our challenges, we have available to us either technical solutions or adaptive ones. Technical solutions call on experts to match the problem to already tested responses that, if we follow the technical procedures correctly, will fix what’s wrong or missing. An adaptive solution is an attempt to match some available information to a situation we have not faced -- using our best judgment without the certainty of previously tested outcomes.  We are testing and learning as we go, including the responses from those affected by what we tried. Thus, we are forced to learn in public.

If we are going to achieve more changes that result in success for our colleagues and students, then we have to plan for learning what works and for adjusting what does not. It would be great to have campus cultures that value the experience of constant experimenting and adjusting, celebrating the shared learning as we go. But, more often, the people leading such efforts find that the first round of bringing projects to approval and implementation is as much as they can take. The experience of engaging in the campus political arena is too bruising and dispiriting to encourage leaders to stay for learning and applying adaptations in a follow-up stage. 

What would it take to create conditions for more of us to stay the course in leadership roles in these challenging times? After discussing leadership projects with hundreds of women at the HERS Institutes this past decade, I believe we need to challenge the way we start our projects.    

Better conditions for learning in public will require that we rethink three key elements at the beginning of any change effort. The first is the role we will play in leading change. The second is the role we expect of committees -- a fundamental mechanism for most efforts to take any actions on a campus. The third is the role we assign, usually inadvertently but still inevitably, to a few people on the campus who seem to set the tone for our initial public discussions of any institutional change. My key recommendations for changing the current script of each of these are:

Lead with your skills, not your expertise. Your role as a campus leader is not to have all the answers yourself. No one has all the answers even to technical questions. In the adaptive realm, there are no single right answers because the best results will keep posing new questions.

But, as we describe the role of leader, too often we assume leadership requires exhibiting expertise in a particular subject. Yet while knowledge of the topics we are considering is essential, it is not the main contribution we need from the person in a leadership role. Leading requires the skills of negotiating, communicating and consensus-building. We need leaders with more expertise in helping others be heard. 

What will be required to bring the individuals and groups involved into positive conversations about the future? They will, of course, need trusted information.You, as the leader, must clarify what you need to learn and what existing knowledge seems most useful to the group, and then ask for help from experts whom you trust.

The people who will be affected by the changes will also need processes that they trust. In a world of adapting to new territory, the processes for testing and evaluating the changes are as important as the evidence presented. Commit yourself to leading with such learning skills and resist the temptation to establish your own expertise as your source of authority. 

Recognize that committees tend to represent certain interests rather than to develop new approaches. Committees are necessary to endorse and facilitate whatever changes you propose to tackle challenges on your campus. They are a critical part of our systems of shared governance. Committees should bring together people of knowledge, experience and goodwill; the tasks they take on will require all of these characteristics. But rarely does the ritual process of committees include learning and developing new approaches. Committees represent interests by which they are appointed or elected. Their assignment is generally to rearrange a situation while redistributing as little as possible to accomplish the goal. 

Most representative committees have only a small role, if any, in bringing ideas and options into the public arena for early evaluation. Generally, the committee presents a proposal only later, in a formal setting with more defined roles for who is expected to participate and vote. You want to provide opportunities for committee members to use what you are learning from broader conversations, but if you are going to model learning in public, you will probably have to create other groups to help with that. You need a setting in which you can trust the process of trying ideas, getting considered responses and developing a shared new understanding. Imagine the best seminar or team experience you’ve ever had.  It probably does not sound like most committees you’ve served on. 

If it seems outside the process that you are also working with people other than the official committee members, it is always fair to have a resource group. That sounds so close to a working group that no one is likely to press to join you!   

However you get there, you will want a group of people who are familiar with a range of options and are ready to “go public” to collect opinions for comparison rather than endorsement.

Prepare for people whose role is not to learn in public.  Once your committee, or other people with whom you are working, have prepared a range of options for review, you will start your process of learning in public conversations. But remember, in public, the first round of learning is one-way.

Anticipate those initial encounters. You are less likely to be wearied or discouraged by them if you know what might happen. As you prepare for moving on to the public stage, seek advice from seasoned leaders on your campus who have experience with the specific players whom you are addressing and their concerns. What you need is more understanding of the issues that you can expect to emerge as you move into the political-theater stage of your efforts. 

At this point, you will want to speak to campus experts on whatever topic is being considered, the representatives appointed or elected to guard specific interests, spokespersons for groups who feel they are not represented. Their job is to make statements that reiterate positions they hold and are committed to holding.

They bring valuable information and perspective. Do not argue with them. Avoid being drawn into a faux debate when you are really there for a soliloquy. Learn from them, but do not expect that they will learn or change their positions in a public forum. That sort of learning in public is not part of the script.

If you can hold your peace instead of feeling you must hold your ground in these first act debates, then you have a chance to engage other people in the process. While the script says that each debate needs a winner, most of our colleagues admire and feel more trust in those who can show respect for the person rather than going for the last word.

Heifetz gave a not-easy challenge for those of us who care about making more positive changes on our campuses. Creating conditions for more learning in public is not simple. But it is possible. Starting differently will allow you to use important skills and insights to avoid unnecessary confrontations at the beginning of the process. If you can move into the next act, you will have a better chance for people to take on new roles and new adaptations as you apply what you have learned together.


Judith S. White became president and executive director of HERS in 2005. For more information on HERS, visit www.HERSnet.org.


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