Challenges in higher education often require prompt individual and collective effort towards their resolution. And while working as a team is a mantra almost universally understood, it can demand that one or more individuals go above and beyond the call of duty. These acts of excellence, while valued, often go undocumented in the traditional framework of research, teaching, and service. Creating program brochures for the information/recruitment night held later in the week, developing a proposal to overhaul the student rating system for teacher effectiveness, sharing information about interactive apps with colleagues that aim improve student engagement in their online learning portals, or researching/promoting a new mentoring structure based on participant feedback are a few examples of contributions that cannot be easily identified as research, teaching, or service. In the following real-life scenario, I discuss two situations that prompted our School to re-examine how we evaluate faculty contributions and encourage faculty to rise to the occasion.
The accreditation site visit was rapidly approaching. Yet, the data that has been collected may not have been robust enough to fully gauge and predict post-graduation success. Thankfully, James, a faculty member with experience in multi-level modeling, recognized this challenge from attending an accreditation meeting and offered to create a statistical model that could identify variables related to reducing teacher burnout. This model proved helpful to curricular modification and alignment, and permitted both the University and local school districts to augment their practices. Together, they found spreading out experiential learning over a two-year graduate program of study and inclusion/active participation in a teacher-mentor program reduced the likelihood that teachers would leave the profession by 86% during their first 5 years on the job.
James’ support to his department exists outside of his predetermined service, teaching, and research responsibilities and wasn’t envisioned as part of his annual goals at the beginning of the year. Yes, he served the department’s needs and used his expertise in quantitative research to lead this charge of data analytics, though it wasn’t required or expected. Moreover, this expertise wasn’t found on his CV; it was simply a passion of his from self-study of financial markets and equity management. Individuals almost always know how they can support initiatives better than others (including their administrators) who think they know. While higher education is known for its hierarchies and artificially created committees of expertise, leaders must be open to the swarm, or the filling of self-identified voids in small- or large-scale operations that impact the overall success of the organizational unit.
Faculty and staff are the most valuable resources to a university if they are given the autonomy and opportunity to support operations. From streamlining policies for academic approval to fundraising in the corporate sector to growing enrollment amidst a challenging environment, faculty and staff have most of the answers if given the space to think and act. A new dean may have ideas but lacks the context needed to move the bar. And thus, effective collaboration requires the opportunity for faculty, staff, and even students to swarm to the occasion in filling the void in higher education. Swarm is one such mechanism to foster creative problem solving for lasting change agentry.
One of the greatest challenges to leaders in higher education is how to increase enrollment in low-enrolled or even steadily-enrolled programs. In almost every department and school across the country, low-enrolled programs create financial challenges for academic leaders. Without going into the copious number of reasons for these strains, the onus and responsibility for aligning programs to societal need is ever present. And yet again, a dean’s ideas are almost certainly future failures without the local ingredients for change—the context of policy and educational needs, the historical knowledge of programmatic iterations, the networks and connections in the field, and the grit to get the job done.
In the second situation, one faculty leads a charge to bring common sense solutions to academic course offerings.
Sally, a faculty member with previous high school principal and teaching experience, rises to the occasion and uses her respective networks in school districts and communities to re-engage stakeholders in the community. She champions the charge for the School of Education to be a genuine partner in educational empowerment, re-establishes cohorts of teachers, counselors, and educational leaders in nearby school districts, and leads a related initiative to streamline the course architecture for students to have a pathway from an M.Ed. to Ed.S. to Ed.D., whereby content knowledge can be built upon so as to develop leaders through education systems improvement science.
Promoting opportunities for faculty and staff to swarm as well as availing oneself to listen to and be receptive to ideas for change are of the utmost importance.
These lived scenarios may seem obvious to some stakeholders but for a new dean, but they aren’t always as clear. Faculty expertise is at best only partially documented on a résumé or curriculum vitae. The lived experiences, the personal pathways, and the journeys that enable one to thrive in academia individually are at times only partially connected to school or university-based agendas.
As a new dean, I hoped that through informal conversations and sharing my co-constructed annual goals that points of possible connection would emanate. It is always challenging to solve long-standing problems in higher education, but it is next to impossible to do when they aren’t explicated in a manner that is both transparent and opportunistic.
This is where swarm comes in. Faculty and staff can reflect upon the synergies between one’s strengths and the tenets of organizational focus that shape the ensuing academic year, for instance. This notion echoes the value of diversity to team success and interpersonal collaboration in academic circles. Greater possibilities than what could be done in isolation (1+1 = more than 2) is one of the primary purposes of gathering great minds together to improve upon (and sometimes challenge) tradition. This is the new scientific method of making progress during an economically tumultuous time where human resources should be viewed, valued, and utilized as the greatest resource of all.