If you ask a provost, VPAA or other administrators in Academic Affairs what they do in their role on a day-to-day basis you might be surprised by the answer you receive.
As the Chief Academic Officer, the Provost and her staff are responsible for making sure the academic mission of their institution is achieved. Based on this description, you might guess that the work done by those leading in academic affairs is wholly strategic and primarily involves setting and assessing goals.
Yet, while most academic leaders would say that they do spend some time planning and assessing how well they are carrying out their academic missions, most would tell you that the majority of their time is spent supporting and managing people, navigating relationships, and communicating with and listening to their teams. They also serve as a supporter, arbitrator, negotiator, and main advocate for faculty, staff and other administrators. It is no wonder then, that the best academic officers understand the importance of being an excellent people manager.
As another academic year begins and provosts intuit their priorities for the 2021–22 school year, their top areas of focus are related significantly to the people they lead and serve.
The significant national race, gender and ethnic issues of the last few years have given rise to a new sense of urgency and prioritization of DEI goals among academic leadership. The best academic leaders know that meeting DEI goals requires people-centered, hands-on leadership.
From the HGSE COACHE study we learn, “the broader change that we think needs to happen is instead of viewing diversity as just a matter of numbers to actually see diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging as assets that will change our institutions — including tenure and promotion — for the better. That kind of change doesn’t happen from behind a desk. Judy Singer once told me that this work is “retail work — not wholesale work.” Sociologists say, “Culture happens on the shop floor,” so I used to tell provosts and deans before COVID to check their FitBits at the end of the day. If you haven’t gotten in your 10,000 steps then you’re probably not doing the work required to really change your institution for the better.” (Measuring Faculty Perceptions of Diversity)
People-focused academic leaders also know that to make DEI a reality everyone must be engaged in the effort. Top-down, bottom-up and everyone in-between must make DEI a priority.
“If we don’t have the highest level of administration and leadership actually committed to taking this forward, the pace of change becomes much slower,” said Mangala Subramaniam, Professor and Butler Chair and Director at Purdue University in a recent APL nextED Mini-Pod episode. “The top leadership, even if they surround themselves with half a dozen people, if those people are compliant and not willing to ask the difficult questions you are never going to see anything moving forward. ”
These leaders also understand that the people on their academic teams must be provided with certain skills to meet their DEI goals. For example, people hire people. One very practical way that leaders at Georgia State are equipping their teams to meet DEI goals is to provide training for anyone involved in the hiring process.
“We do a Best Practices in Faculty Hiring workshop with all new department chairs,” said Georgia State Associate Provost Nicolle Parsons-Pollard in a recent episode of the APL nextED Mini-Pod. “Department chairs play a key role in making sure that the hiring process not only adheres to all of the rules and policies, but the reality is that the candidates have a good experience. When we hire, the person is interviewing us as much as we’re interviewing them. We also speak with the search committees. You’d be amazed at the things people think they can’t do or say. Ensuring that process gets you to the point where you have enough information to make a solid recommendation about who should be hired is so valuable.”
2. Helping faculty, staff and administrators manage burnout and fatigue.
A second priority for people-focused academic leaders is making sure that their teams are not suffering from burnout and fatigue. Much has been written about the very real and serious state of mental and physical burnout being experienced by some of those working in higher education. Characterized by exhaustion and disillusionment, this unique form of work stress has affected faculty, staff and administrators particularly during these last two years, when disruptions caused by COVID-19 and social unrest have shaken most everyone.
People-focused academic leaders recognize that their team members’ physical, mental and emotional health matters and they are doing whatever they can to support good health.
“We recognize that faculty, they are a person outside of that role. So we make sure we offer professional development that will support the whole person,” said Baker College Provost Jill Langen. “We have diversity, equity and inclusion professional development training opportunities and stress relief. We have a newsletter and options for people to [receive information on] how to be healthier, how to cook healthier, and video workouts. We really try to offer resources that support the whole person and then we track that participation to make sure what we’re offering is what people need and what they’re looking for.”
3. Instituting Hybrid and Remote Work Policies
While many of those working in higher education have returned to face-to-face work in their offices and on their campuses, academic leaders are having to manage the demand for more flexible working models that were shown to be viable during the periods of remote working required by COVID-19. According to Future Forum by Slack, about 60% of workers want the flexibility of a hybrid remote office model (Hybrid rules: The emerging playbook for flexible work).
People-focused leaders are figuring out ways to allow for more flexibility while making sure that there continue to be ways to connect and collaborate both face-to-face and using technology.
This year, in a partnership between EAB and Future Forum by Slack, university presidents gathered at the Presidential Experience Lab to discuss a new way of viewing Higher Education. EAB’s Chief Partner Officer Sally Amoruso stated, “The future campus is not fully on-site, or fully remote—it’s in between.” During this year’s Presidential Experience Lab, 75% of the presidents attending indicated a preference for working at home less than 25% of post-pandemic workdays. However, VP of Future Forum by Slack, Brian Elliot, shared that a staggering 83% of workers would prefer to not return to their pre-pandemic work model. Adopting a hybrid work model opens up opportunities for change in the areas of diversity, savings in time and money, and better work-life balances. (What 126 presidents learned from Slack about future work)
Great academic leaders have always understood that the work they do is primarily people-centered. These leaders understand that missions do not get achieved, cultures do not change, and students are not likely to experience success and satisfaction without a people-focused strategy to ensure the whole academic team feels heard, engaged, and supported.
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APL nextED Mini-Pod Episode 2, Reignited Focus on Faculty
APL nextED Mini-Pod Episode 5, Prioritizing and Institutionalizing DEI on Campus
APL nextED Mini-Pod Episode 7, COVID-19’s Impact On Diversity, Equity and Inclusion