5 Tips for Academic Retreats

Why academic retreats usually go so wrong.

July 27, 2014

Summer is academic retreat season.

It is the time when many work units and groups make an attempt at long-range planning.  When we try to grab a few consecutive hours to step outside the daily crush of tasks and mini-emergencies.  

It is a time to ask how we can align the work of group, unit, or department with the larger strategic goals of our institution?

We book a day or an afternoon (or sometimes longer) where we will stop our daily operations, get out of our offices, (or maybe just lock the door), and engage in some long-range team planning.

Many of us dread nothing more than a work retreat.


For many an academic, the annual work retreat ranks somewhere above the annual performance review and just below the annual report.

We wonder if it is really necessary to spend yet more time with these people.  They annoy us enough in regular meetings, it is close to a violation of the Geneva Conventions to be stuck in a room somewhere in a single room with a bunch of our co-workers.  (Don’t worry, they are thinking much the same about you).   

How many times have we gone to work retreats that are poorly planned, poorly conceived, and poorly executed?  

The thing is that it does not have to be this way.  Work retreats can be incredibly valuable in creating a space where colleagues can re-align the work of the group.  Where priorities can be evaluated and re-set.  Where projects can be created as well as eliminated.  

Having recently participated in our Dartmouth Center of the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) retreat, I’m here to tell you that a great retreat is eminently doable.

I’ll be curious about your tips for planning and executing a productive academic work retreat.  Here are my X tips:

Tip 1 - Get Off Campus:  

I can already hear you saying that an off-campus location is not feasible. Too expensive. Too far. Too disruptive.  

Do it anyway.

You don’t need to go very far. And you don’t need to go fancy. We did our DCAL retreat at a little cabin down the road from our offices. This cabin has the basics, which means it has a bathroom and a bunch of chairs and tables. It is the opposite of fancy.   

Your college may lack a surplus of rustic cabins, but try to think creatively. Maybe the back room of a local bar or bowling alley. A campground.  Someone's house.

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is how much the interpersonal vibe changes once you get people out of their work habitats. We stop being just work colleagues and we become individuals. Hierarchy is less salient. People are nicer to each other. Get off campus.

Tip 2 - Enforce a No Connectivity Policy:

Everyone will first hate you for cutting off their e-mail (and Twitter and whatever). Later they will thank you.

When was the last time any of us went 4 hours during the workday without checking in?

Now that it is so much easier to glance at our messages on our smart phones and tablets we are never really out of touch.

If you are in charge of the campus network, then yes, you may need to have some alert if everything blows up. My assumption that nobody is actually going to die if are a few hours late in returning an e-mail, so the risk for almost all of us of going offline during the retreat is relatively small.

You will be amazed at the clarity of thinking when everyone is focused on a single discussion.

Having our attention split and fragmented is exhausting. A retreat without connectivity can be invigorating.

Tip 3 - Create a Tight and Relevant Agenda:

The necessity to create (and share ahead of time) a relevant agenda seems to be so obvious that it does not warrant mention. Why is it that most of us are so bad at this basic step?  

My guess is that figuring out a good retreat agenda is like writing a good syllabus. Common sense is not always the best guide for best practices. It is hard to strike the right balance between too much and too little information.

My advice is to avoid boiling the ocean. Keep the agenda to two or three big areas of discussion. Provide links or attachments with the relevant background material that everyone needs to know before entering the discussion. Clearly articulate the goals for the discussion.

Agenda items should be brief but open ended. Provide just enough structure for creative thinking and vibrant discussion, but no more.

Tip 4 - Stick to the Agenda:

Are academics better or worse at process than the rest of the world? I have a limited comparison group (a few years spent in the wilderness of the dot-com bubble), so I have no idea. 

We academics don’t seem to be overly good at process. At starting and stopping on time. On staying on the agenda, on-point, and on progressing through the agenda at a reasonable pace.  

On figuring out how to make the discussion inclusive. On taking good notes, and disseminating those materials in a timely manner.   

The good news for your retreat is that process issues are all under your control. With enough preparation and discipline, (and sometimes even with the help of outside facilitator), it is possible to stick to the agenda and have a productive and inclusive retreat experience.   

Tip 5 - Make the Retreat About the Future:

My final recommendation is to think only about future gains and benefits. Don’t let past problems cloud your future planning. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn from worked well or worked poorly in the past year, only that any discussion of the past should be in service of creating a better future.

Try to get everyone in a future oriented mode. I’m a big proponent of the idea that we can’t start planning for 2020 in 2019. We need to start today. You may take a different approach to getting everyone into a future orientation.

What are some tips that you have for planning and running an academic retreat?

What has been your experiences, the good the bad and the ugly, with your academic retreats?


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