Launching Toward New Leadership Horizons

Based on her recent experience at a major public university, Elizabeth H. Simmons reflects on the surprises new chief academic officers may encounter in their first year.

November 15, 2018
 
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“Chief academic officer” is a mysterious title. All of the nonacademics I meet nowadays -- and many of the academics, as well -- ask me in tones of genuine bewilderment what my job encompasses. The fact that different institutions designate the CAO role by varied combinations of opaque terms like “provost,” “executive vice president” or “executive vice chancellor” doesn’t help. Even academic leadership development programs gloss over the CAO title, focusing on the more accessible role of the dean or on the ultimate campus authority represented by the president or chancellor.

A year ago, I joined the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, and became the institution’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. None of the leadership training programs I attended during my time as a dean and associate provost at Michigan State University had specifically addressed the chief academic officer’s role. Those programs, along with the talks I had heard at national meetings of the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges & Universities, did certainly provide a theoretical foundation for the transition. Notably, the ACE Fellowship’s combination of cohort-based workshops on approaching unfamiliar problems and months spent embedded in a CAO’s office has proven especially relevant, as I have described elsewhere. Yet the available training did not capture significant elements of the transition.

This essay summarizes key aspects of what I encountered in my first year as a CAO hired from outside the institution, in hopes of helping others approach the role with additional perspective on what may lie ahead.

Initial Surprises

The first unexpected aspect of being a chief academic officer was the immediacy of the transition into the role. On Sunday, I was a jet-lagged traveler installing myself in temporary lodgings that I still required Google Maps to locate. First thing Monday morning, I was the chief academic officer of a university that I had visited only half a dozen times in my entire life, endowed with all the authority and responsibilities of the position.

None of the leadership training programs I had attended over the years had mentioned immediacy as an important feature of the transition. I recommend that anyone moving into a CAO role reflect specifically on the impending moment of change. Think about how you will strike the appropriate balance between establishing your presence, interest, engagement and authority, on the one hand, and acknowledging all that you need to learn from others on your team or in units reporting to you, on the other.

The second unexpected aspect was the centrality of the working relationship between the chief academic officer and the president or chancellor to whom they report. The leadership development programs I attended did not provide any insight on this topic. Fortunately, my chancellor ensured that we had some very clear discussions of how we would work together -- before I assumed my new role.

As a director, dean and associate provost, I was always one of many individuals with similar titles. Operating in a decentralized environment, I was expected to take full responsibility for all operational and financial matters pertaining to my well-defined academic unit. Each of my supervisors was a valued mentor who provided crucial input on request but also operated on a distinctly higher level within the university.

In contrast, a given university has only one campus leader and one chief academic officer, placing them in more closely overlapping arenas that each cover a wide and flexible range of university units and operations. Moreover, since the academic mission is the raison d’être of the institution, it is also at the core of the president or chancellor’s vision for the university.

That is often observed symbolically in the way the pair fulfill complementary roles within a given university ceremony. While some presidents or chancellors structure their roles to be focused almost entirely on external matters such as development, capital construction, community connections, athletics and government relations, others retain a strong interest in and connection to academic matters.

As a result, the working relationship between the chief academic officer and the campus leader can take on multiple forms, ranging from parallel efforts in relatively separate arenas to a close partnership with frequent consultation back and forth. Its nature may even vary across topics and over time. Before taking on the CAO role, you should learn which model -- or models -- your president or chancellor favors, discuss how to keep communication flowing freely between you and prepare to structure your work accordingly.

Incomplete Knowledge

Any fan of the George R. R. Martin series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire (or the related HBO drama), will be familiar with the phrase “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Embedded in an unfamiliar culture, poor Jon is reminded frequently and bluntly by his closest companion of just how ignorant and politically naïve others find him.

While my new colleagues were too kind to use this phrase with me, I initially found myself in Jon Snow moments daily -- learning that my understanding of a situation was flawed by my not knowing the organizational idiosyncrasies of this new campus. How indirect costs recovery funds are assigned. How teaching assignments are determined. The length and pay structure of a sabbatical. Who determines a new hire’s rank and salary. What the term “joint appointment” implies. All are key to the life of a CAO, and all must be learned quickly.

Moreover, as a newcomer, one tends to assume that the incumbents and structures of various roles, and the financial and academic organization of a campus, have been in place for years or decades, are clearly understood by all and are immutable. But that frequently is not true, and when untrue, it is highly relevant. There may be ambiguities or political sensitivities around a person or structure that partly relate to the longevity of its existence: a structure that has become fossilized and inefficient but endures through hallowed tradition, a program whose creation resulted from a hard-fought and tenuous compromise, a colleague whose knowledge of the local landscape is only a few months deeper than one’s own.

It is crucial to ask questions and to keep reminding yourself not to assume you needn’t ask them or to worry that doing so will expose your hidden ignorance. Just as you might test each step before shifting your weight when hiking a rock-strewn trail, so as a new chief academic officer you must constantly probe your grasp of organizational issues and structures before offering opinions.

You can try many techniques, depending on the situation. In a one-on-one meeting with a close colleague, you might ask point-blank how a certain structure operates on the campus or whether your understanding of an issue bears any resemblance to reality. In a group meeting, you might frame statements as starting points that are open for revision or critique in order to quickly gather multiple perspectives on how a sector of the university operates, while still advancing the conversation on the issue at hand.

Above all, don’t let a misplaced sense of pride keep you from asking questions. Your colleagues know you are a newcomer and will not find your queries unexpected. Yet since they know neither what you have already learned about your new institution nor how differently things operated at your old one, they cannot anticipate what information you will need at any given time.

Language Immersion

Besides having its own way of organizing processes and structures, each institution has its own language for describing its operations. People joke about the necessity of learning an institution’s roster of acronyms -- and that is an important element, especially at institutions like mine where many acronyms have two, if not three, distinct local meanings. But the acronyms are only one small piece of a larger language shift that a new CAO must confront.

I found that issue to be reminiscent of the time I skipped fourth-year French in high school by taking a crash course in grammar over the summer. That fall, I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar classmates who were far more fluent than I. Since it was a literature course, class sessions were extended discussions of novels, plays and poems. Uncomfortable as it felt, I had to speak in order to participate -- even though that constantly put my weaker speaking skills on public display before relative strangers.

To fulfill my role as CAO, I have had to constantly speak up in meetings with people I have known only briefly -- asking questions, summarizing information, offering opinions on how we might try to make progress. My imperfect knowledge of the local language has constantly been on display. In speaking, I still miss nuances, mislabel offices, conflate buildings. When listening, obscure acronyms and common first names remain puzzling.

At a surface level, that meant that I had to rely on the good nature of my new colleagues as they inquired which of three different programs I was attempting to reference by a name not precisely denoting any of them. But there is a deeper level here: when names sounded similar to those at my former institution, it could mask profound differences of structure or approach. For instance, the word “college” meant “degree-granting academic structure” at Michigan State University; at the University of California, San Diego, the name for the analogous unit is “division,” with the term “college” reserved for residential undergraduate communities with academic, advising and co-curricular components. Or take the term “shared governance,” which is uniformly invoked by institutions of higher education. At some places, it exists mainly at the department and college/division levels, with inconsistent impact on the central administration. Yet its powerful instantiation in the UC San Diego Academic Senate influences virtually all aspects of university operations. Understanding that is crucial for anyone aspiring to academic leadership here.

In short: language matters. You must be willing to develop fluency in the local academic dialect and appreciate the ideas embedded within it if you are to join a university community, let alone lead it.

Island Mynahs

Due to the differences of language and structure that you will be grappling up with in very public contexts in your first weeks and months as chief academic officer, it is worth recalling the mynahs that roam the forests in the Aldous Huxley novel Island. Constantly calling “attention” or “here and now,” they remind the inhabitants to be mindful of their surroundings both in the sense of immediate physical and social context and in the larger sense of an overarching meaning of life.

  • Be attentive. Listen not only to what people tell you but also to which questions they ask and which topics they avoid. Try to discern what they are proud of and what they fear. Celebrating the former and assisting with the latter are both essential aspects of the CAO’s role.
  • Be consistent. Part of the impact of the mynahs’ calls lies in the repetition of a focused message. Especially during the initial period when people are trying to discern how you will operate as chief academic officer, articulate your priorities and principles frequently, widely and clearly.
  • Be patient. It is tempting to leap to solutions as soon as you (mistakenly) think you have grasped the situation. Sometimes the most important queries are, “Who else should we consult before acting?” and “What data should inform this decision?” I am forever grateful for the frequency with which my staff members raise those particular questions.

Taking the Leap

A dramatic story recounted in countless televised nature documentaries is that of the newly fledged albatross. Raised in the relative security of an island’s interior, its first flight will take it away from land on a journey lasting several years. While visiting the Galapagos a few years ago, I actually witnessed a young albatross testing its wings in the gusty breeze on the cliff’s edge above the sea: wavering, retreating, advancing … and ultimately obeying the impulse to launch from its familiar natal ground and soar into the unknown air.

In the days leading up to my current position, that moment kept returning to my mind. No matter how much information you gather beforehand from websites or colleagues, it is impossible to fully anticipate what the role will involve. Seminars, cohort programs and shadowing opportunities provide useful exercises to build your leadership muscles, but they are only approximations of what you will encounter.

In particular, they cannot prepare you for the first moments when you must project your presence as chief academic officer by your choice of where to sit or when to enter a conversation. Unlike an ACE Fellow shadowing a senior leader, you cannot simply hang back and watch the room. From the very first, you need to actively engage and be fully present in the role in order to learn how you will perform it for the longer term. Like the young seabird, you must trust the winds to support you and launch toward that exhilarating new horizon.

Bio

Elizabeth H. Simmons is executive vice chancellor of academic affairs and distinguished professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.

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