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Illustration: people sit around conference table with person at the head of the table gesticulating toward two people describing charts on a whiteboard

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We call it the presidential teach-in, and one of us, Mary Dana Hinton, has firsthand experience with the value and success of this approach. As a new president at Hollins University, she was eager to get to know the culture, challenges and opportunities in her new community. She also wanted to create an intentional, purposeful time for people across the campus to learn together and begin to create a space where everyone would have access to key information. She wanted to make transparent how the institution operates in ways that would encourage members of the campus community to imagine a future together.

She decided to create a series of conversations that everyone in the community could participate in. All faculty and staff members, from the grounds crew to senior professors and administrators, were invited to participate. The topics of the sessions ranged far and wide, including the institution’s mission, endowment, enrollment and retention, and athletics, among many others. Starting the sessions with a mission conversation ensured all participants were thinking about the work from an institutional perspective.

The 16 sessions convened on Zoom in January 2021, and the people who led the sessions—often cabinet members, faculty or staff with expertise about the topic, or external consultants—were instructed to share what was really going on and not sugarcoat the issues. They presented all the relevant data and information, both good and bad, and engaged the participants in honest, generative conversations.

Somewhat ironically, as educational institutions, colleges and universities often neglect creating time to intentionally learn together in community. One key moment when that most needs to happen, however, is when a person becomes the new president of an institution. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed recommended that a campus leader, in particular a new dean, “should make the effort to understand the programs and people they were leading, but others must educate them, as well.” We agree and would like to share in some detail a specific highly successful onboarding practice that puts a new president or other leader in a “student” role and has campus stakeholders “teach” them about how the campus actually operates.

The goal of the series was to educate Mary as a new president in all aspects of the institution. But it had the double benefit of ensuring that any employee who had questions about how the institution was run and how they could help shape its future was engaged and heard.

The series was incredible and directly led to the Imagination Campaign, a project where 32 programs/initiatives were launched and resourced to change Hollins, which has been updated and repeated on an annual basis. It has become a tradition at Hollins University going forward.

Mary got the seed of this type of teach-in from Patrick, the other author of this piece. He had helped create and organize this strategy in a large urban district in the Northeast several years ago for a superintendent who, at the time, was new to the school district. The superintendent suggested a learning process that the senior team could organize and implement—one that could colleges and universities should also consider, as the approach could be easily applied in higher education, as well.

The superintendent asked each functional unit—curriculum, finance, security, technology, community relations and so on—to organize a 20-minute presentation that would describe what their area of responsibility actually did to fulfill the mission of the school district. He communicated that he wanted to learn as much as possible about the district and that he would be a student for the presentations and was eager to learn.

He asked each presenter to:

  • Show how their unit was organized in as simple detail as possible.
  • Describe their top (no more than three to five) priorities for the new academic year.
  • Highlight their area’s five greatest strengths (for example, creative thinking, effective and transparent processes, good assessment process and scorecards, experienced and dedicated personnel, and so forth).
  • Identify the two key challenges they expected to face over the next several years.
  • Share a best practice they used that made them smarter as an organization (for example, a process that responded quickly to a customer, a protocol they used to communicate effectively with multiple stakeholders, a meeting design that tapped the creative thinking of their people or a process that showed district employees their successes and accomplishments). 

The new superintendent said the units should present this information in language that everyone could clearly understand, without lots of acronyms and insider jargon—in short, the presentations should be layperson-friendly. Last, he communicated that each presentation would be anonymously evaluated by participants for its clarity and educational value.

The respective units were given a week to prepare, and the superintendent invited anyone who was interested to attend the presentations in the district auditorium during the learning week. A schedule was created and sent out to school district employees, parents and business and community leaders. Over the course of the learning week, more than 800 people attended the sessions.

In many ways the teach-in was a home run, and the participants, especially the parents, assessed the presentations as an excellent learning experience. One of the priority themes that emerged was that most participants had little knowledge of how the school district actually worked and how complex it was.

By organizing the teach-in, the superintendent was immediately brought up to speed on the key issues confronting the district. In addition, as a learner, he created an opportunity for many other people to shine, and he gave many members of the district community a broad view of the district and its schools for the first time.

Implications for Campuses

Over the past two years, we have seen this type of teach-in adapted for two very different campuses besides Hollins. One was a large state university in a rural area, the other a large technical college in the Midwest. Both times, the new president requested the same kind of format after hearing about how it might work. The focus was on brief but informative presentations that avoided being glorified dog-and-pony shows and that shared a similar set of questions to be answered by the different departments, divisions and schools.

This obviously have taken some effort by the departments, units and schools, but it has proven to be worth it. When Hollins conducted such a teach-in via Zoom, more than 180 people participated in one of the sessions.

The bottom line here is this: the new president puts themselves in a learner role, and stakeholders learn together about the college or university that they serve. That builds a more comprehensive picture of the complexity of the institution for the new leader and the enhances relational capital between that leader and people throughout the campus community at the same time.

We hope you will consider using a transition strategy like this on your own campus. Such an approach significantly flattens the learning curve of the incoming president. Briefing books and presidential tours have a place in the transition process, but creative ways to get new leaders acclimated and help them quickly understand their new institution are also needed. And presidential teach-ins have the additional advantage of educating not just the new leader but also everyone else on the campus, as well as building community among them all.

Patrick Sanaghan is the president of the Sanaghan Group, a higher education consulting firm, and the author of From Presidential Transition to Integration. Mary Dana Hinton is the president of Hollins University.

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