Giving Provosts Room to Grow

What professional development experience, Kiernan Mathews asks, would compel chief academic officers to leave their work (and families) behind to become better leaders?

February 28, 2019
 
 
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In a prior essay, I described five “growing edges” of chief academic officers -- that is, the challenges for which their careers have left them (so they have told me) least prepared. Those concerns include:

  • cleaning up their predecessors’ messes;
  • leading institutions with many disciplinary and cultural differences;
  • knowing when to be patient and when to make haste;
  • showing difficult employees the door (or learning how to live with them); and
  • adapting to the sheer volume of decisions they are expected to make every day … and most nights.

Where can provosts and deans go to have so many developmental needs met? Last year, to do more to support those responsible for creating the conditions in which faculty members do their best work, my research-practice partnership launched a one-day Strategy Workshop and a four-day Seminar on Leadership of the Faculty at Harvard University. In these programs, we taught provosts, vice provosts and deans how to use survey data and the abundant research on the professoriate to engage faculty in solving their institutions’ tough challenges.

Still, I have learned that something is missing from the academic leader’s developmental tool kit. While the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education’s “fantasy camp” is unmatched in scope and caliber (note well my conflicts of interest), these programs are not designed for an individual’s participation on an annual basis. In fact, their two-week, in-residence commitment is too long a sacrifice for many provosts and deans to make more than once or twice in a decade.

And when asked about their ideal learning periodicity and location, the academic leaders I’ve met describe a chance “to get just us provosts away.” They want an annual, two-and-a-half day retreat, probably in July, arriving Friday afternoon and concluding on Monday morning. They prefer a setting -- like Banff, Alberta; Aspen, Colo.; or Bowen Island, British Columbia -- that represents an “authentic place” where the natural beauty is incorporated into the professional growth experience.

Concerning the audience, provosts agree that having the “right” peers in the room is essential. A liberal arts college dean suggested creating small groups around seniority, for example, separating provosts in their first three years and provosts with eight or more years on the job, because “they’re leading differently.” At the same time, they acknowledge the value of having a cross-section of institutional roles to expose them to how people in other corners of the campus see a problem.

And the agenda? Academic leaders want learning, of course, but a limited amount of direct instruction. They are seeking space for reflection, moments to be quiet and time to build trust and share vulnerabilities. They want strategic thinking -- “Not the what to do but the how to do it” -- delivered by expert case study facilitators. But they’d rather not just guess at the B case, because they want the actual outcome to be revealed eventually. “Talking about what went wrong is most valuable here,” explained one public university provost, “but frame it in terms of the pivot that happened, not in terms of failure.”

They want diversity “baked into everything, rather than just tagged on.” And while prework is an acceptable expectation, it should be “light enough” to be accomplished on the inbound flight. “I have so much to read,” a provost complained, “and this is just adding to the stack.” “Don’t give me a course,” pleaded another, “but I would read a great paper.”

These descriptions of where, how, what and with whom academic leaders want to develop had all of the hallmarks of a signature Aspen Institute experience for executives or the exclusive World 50 event community. These kinds of opportunities command registration and travel and entertainment fees ranging from around $10,000 to $50,000 or more annually. Yet when pressed, even provosts of sprawling multiversities admitted that $10,000 would be too much to ask. Just $5,000 or less would be closer to their capacity.

Chief academic officers and I share a genuine excitement about the impact this program of their dreams could have on the practice of academic leadership. Like medicine, after all, leadership improves through reflective practice and peer observation.

Our shared problem, however, is the lack of budgetary appetite for a well-designed and sustained growth experience for provosts and deans (and indeed, for many presidents, too). The pitch deck -- whether to trustees or donors, regents or legislators, foundations or agencies -- has no room for this kind of ask. A sizable request to invest in one’s own growth smacks of self-aggrandizement; the institutional benefit seems too indirect.

So when these senior administrators leave their campuses to find a community of peers, they travel to countless conferences of concurrent sessions, each promising innovation, brought to you by so many proud sponsors.

The academic leaders I have met are growing weary of that frenetic scene. They are already under pressure at home to perform, flawlessly, or else face an early exit. Yet their challenges change week to week, even day to day. In this context, organizations offering “best practices” and “research briefs” for institutional improvement add limited value. Provosts and deans need the time and space to work on themselves. They are yearning to clear their minds for fresh and refreshing insight.

But where will leadership on leadership come from?

There is a particular breed of organization positioned to answer this call: the college consortium. The Association for Collaborative Leadership offers a glimpse into their wide variety of missions, activities and sizes. (Full disclosure: I serve on the ACL board.) Many consortia are governed by a board comprised of college presidents or provosts: a ready-made peer group, convening several times each year and capable of being greater than the sum of its parts.

Some consortia are particularly envied for their tightly knit communities of leaders: the Big Ten Academic Alliance and the Great Lakes College Association, for example, are organized for cross-institution problem solving, and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest have launched excellent programs that invite faculty to see, like their leaders do, behind the curtains of college finances and shared governance.

Yet we have not realized the full potential of these and similar organizations to deliver sustained, transformative developmental opportunities to presidents and provosts. As many, consortium members have access to a network of thought leaders from their faculty, alumni and business communities who could stimulate new thinking about shared challenges, even the existential. As one, they can accomplish more to overcome those challenges than could any individual campus. Working together openly and honestly, they share the foundation of trust necessary to admit their vulnerabilities -- and to invite each to call the other out, from time to time.

College leaders tell me they wish to be more deliberately developmental. Let’s give them time and space to grow.

Bio

Kiernan Mathews is the principal investigator and executive director of COACHE, the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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