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Checklist for Working with Your Governing Board

Introduction

As a past board secretary and frequent speaker for the  Association of Governing Boards, I can tell you that most board members need guidance and support from institutional administrators.  After all, serving as a board member of a college or university is not their permanent job, nor should you assume that they have sufficient expertise in higher education administration.  Most board members are faithful alumni and/or major donors who have a keen interest in the success of the institution.  And although the President is primarily responsible for the care and feeding of the board, the Chief Academic Officer also has a role to play. Many Chief Academic Officers are charged with leading the discussion of the board’s academic affairs committee, and most CAO’s also provide annual reports on the state of the division or reports on accreditation issues and tenure decisions. You can help your board with careful preparation of your board materials and presentations.  The checklist below is designed to prompt your thinking about your role in educating and inspiring your public or private government board.1

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Mergers and Acquisitions in Higher Education – What Provosts Should Know

According to a July 2023 report by McKinsey & Co, since 2020, the number of mergers and acquisitions in higher education has increased nearly threefold from 11 between 2001-2005 to 31 between 2016-2020. Since 2016 Higher Ed Dive has been tracking college closures and mergers.  Last updated on April 29, 2024, New York has had the most activity with 11 schools closing, merging or planning to do so. Massachusetts follow with 10 schools, 9 in Illinois and 8 in California.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research released in January 2024 reveals that there are still more than one million empty seats on college campuses as compared to five years ago, and there is still no growth among Freshman 20 years old and younger (this number is 5.3% below 2019 levels).  Further, undergraduate enrollment overall is down and remains 3.3% below pre-pandemic levels. 

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Why Provosts Should Remain Active in the Classroom

There is no doubt that serving as the campus Provost is more than a full-time job.  In fact, rarely does a day finish as was initially planned in the morning, and there is an endless “to do” list that is constantly subject to reprioritization based on the continuous need to triage.  As the chief academic officer, most provosts arrive in their positions having been elevated from the ranks of the faculty (often coming from a deanship or chair position subsequent to a faculty position). While it is true that provosts must possess a range of skills including exceptional interpersonal communication and management prowess, provosts must also be creative and innovative, and they should possess entrepreneurial and business savvy.  To excel in the role, provosts must be student-centered and they should appreciate the challenges facing faculty particularly when it comes to policies and procedures, professional development and the balancing of teaching, scholarship and service responsibilities.

Keeping a foot in the classroom during the academic year is a smart way for provosts to stay connected to students.  An immediate reaction for provosts (and their presidents) may be that the provost has no time to spend in course and classroom preparation, providing formative and summative assessments throughout the semester, and being available to students for extra help, academic advising and/or career advising. However, quality academic time with students can be professionally rewarding for provosts and it is worth the extra effort to model the best practices we advocate for the rest of the faculty.  

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Radical Self-Care for CAOs

The foundational principle of self-care is that individuals must put themselves first before they can care for others.  However, as chief academic officer (CAO), the role is rooted in caring for all others before caring for oneself.  CAOs must be responsive to crises and are considered essential personnel.  They must be present in times of crisis and expected to provide vision and leadership in navigating them.  During the most stressful moments, they are on call at any time of the day or night.  This sentiment was evident during COVID-19, in which CAOs led efforts, organized teams, and played an integral role in addressing community needs.  CAOs face complex challenges within higher education environments and make collaborative decisions to manage them.  CAOs are required to react to some of the most horrific situations.  They must examine, experience, and address some issues that can cause vicarious trauma.

Nevertheless, the fast pace of the job, the expectations of stakeholders, and the need to foster a safe environment all come before self-care.  Often, no time is available to reflect or address emotions.  So when does self-care become apparent and needed?  CAOs need to be more focused on self-care.  After the world stabilized from the initial impact of COVID-19, the focus shifted to normalizing our environments rather than addressing the implications for human capital.  The increasing instances of traumatizing events within higher education environments are having an impact on wellness.  Nevertheless, we still need to focus on the effects of those on the front lines of addressing these issues.

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Authentic Leadership

I’ve spent my entire career in higher education, primarily as a faculty member and mid-level administrator. Ambitious since I left my mother’s womb, I knew I was drawn to executive level leadership.  Throughout my tenure in academia, I grew more and more convinced I would not be selected for c-suite leadership because of one thing: my honesty. My approach to working with people seemed so entirely different to all the examples I had witnessed. Top leadership most often seemed hidden, secretive, and certainly not wearing their hearts on their sleeve as I do. I feared there wasn’t a place for my style which emphasized relationship building, transparency, and authenticity.

I was steadfast in my belief that I could only be myself and I interviewed demonstrating this.  To my astonishment, one (very smart) president gave me an opportunity to live my dream of serving as a provost. One of the countless strategies and tactics I employed when I began was to send a weekly message, often with a motivational bent, to my extended team.  The messages typically came from a personal space and included quite a bit about me alongside some academic theme.  They appeared to be well received and I would often receive responses from staff sharing their opinions and insights. As the years progressed, I slowly began to send fewer of these messages. I felt I had established a very strong relationship with my team and wanted to save them from reading one more email.

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