Begin By Listening

Tenured faculty: smart people who are not afraid to challenge us

October 25, 2015

Last Friday, my Associate Dean and I traveled south of Boston (Bridgewater for those of you who know the region) to attend a system wide meeting for those of us leading graduate, professional, continuing, and/or extension units in the nine state universities.

It was fantastic!

On our own campuses we struggle with issues that seem unique to us. Once we come together we realize that these challenges are ones that most of us are facing.

Here’s a funny fact about Massachusetts - the culture is hyper-local - to the street of each neighborhood and often, to the block of each street. When I first arrived here in the late 1980's, I was constantly being reminded that we are a commonwealth, not a state. While our neighboring state has the SUNY system, we have nine state universities, fifteen community colleges, and five campuses of the University of Massachusetts. Sigh.This is one of those things that I really do love about Massachusetts: intense local pride and ownership.

Of the nine state universities, six of us are comprehensive state universities spread across the commonwealth and three are specialized colleges - focused on art and design, maritime education, and liberal arts. These historic institutions have changed dramatically since their respective inceptions and have been sites of an interesting push/pull between the needs of the commonwealth and the local regions and more general trends in higher ed.

So, we all think we are unique and highly idiosyncratic - and we are - but when we get together, we easily see how much we share and the conversation flows between similarities and differences, advantages and disadvantages, challenges and solutions. Friday's conversation was truly collegial. No rights or wrongs, just a generous offering of different perspectives on similar challenges.

What are those challenges?

  1. Local competition with private nonprofit and for profit institutions was top of the list. These institutions are often able to innovate much more rapidly and have flexibility in meeting the students where they are in terms of offering what they need when and where they need it (online/hybrid/evening/weekend/etc). They also spend quite a bit more on marketing and have more to spend.

  2. The second challenge many of us face was what one provost referred to as being on the margins” at our institutions. For the moment, the core student body at the majority of our institutions continues to be full-time traditional undergraduate students and our business processes, strategic priorities, funding patterns, and organizational structures bear witness to that pattern. However, as reported daily in the media and as witnessed on our campuses, this is shifting and we see this as some of our institutions gain graduate students and others experience declines in the traditional full-time undergraduate population. Investing too much too soon in these areas can be seen as too risky. So, for those at more risk-averse institutions, this can become even more of a challenge.

Working with faculty can also be a challenge but it is one that I love so I am not going to include it as a challenge. If you don’t love faculty, you shouldn’t be in higher ed. If you don’t love teachers, you shouldn’t be in education. I have a deep appreciation for those who have devoted their entire lives to teaching students because this is a lifetime commitment. You don’t stop being a teacher when the bell rings.  

This brings me to a couple of a-ha moments I experienced earlier this week when I had the pleasure and privilege of hearing Margaret McKenna speak on leadership. She shared many lessons learned and words of wisdom. One key message that resonated with me was to surround yourself with smart people who are not afraid to challenge you.

That is one of the key advantages of working with tenured faculty -we have unlimited access to smart people who are not afraid to challenge us. If, as a sector, we could only get to the place where we see this as a strength, an asset, a true advantage! When we see our faculty as a unique asset, we are eager to give them the tools to better understand the business side of what we do and to weigh in on and help us develop solutions to the challenges we face. I feel deep gratitude to the faculty I work with and I appreciate their patience with my urgency and insistence. Daily, we read of institutions that have adopted a paternalistic and condescending tone towards faculty, marginalizing them on the sidelines. As McKenna would say, this is the work of "weak egos." She also advised us to “hire people who are smarter than you,” noting that this takes self-confidence and a willingness to learn from others.

My takeaway from yesterday’s system wide meeting was that we must be in a constant discovery mode, entering into dialogue eager to listen and learn. We have far more in common than any of us realize.

Begin by listening.

Salem, Massachusetts in the USA.

Mary Churchill is Associate Provost for Innovation and Partnerships at Salem State University. Find her on Twitter @mary_churchill.


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