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New Approach Breathes New Life into Leadership Development Program

Leadership and Management

New Approach Breathes New Life into Leadership Development Program

academic leaders in training

About 10 years ago, the academic deans and academic directors that make up the University Council on Teaching and Faculty Development at Tufts University noticed a problem. Academic leaders weren’t given the training and support they needed to excel in their positions. It was not a particularly unique problem—lots of institutions expect new leaders to magically know how to navigate the complexities of their new positions—but it was one in which they were committed to solving.

Working in concert, the Office of the Provost, the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), and the Human Resource Department created the Academic Leadership Development (ALD) Program. Despite its early successes, the program was completely redesigned last year to keep pace with the changing needs of its audience. The redesign has re-energized the program, leading to a record number of applications to join.

What was initially delivered as a series of five half-day seminars over a five-week period, is now delivered in a hybrid model of four modules delivered over a two-year period, according to Donna Qualters, director of CELT. Qualters and Mary Anne McInnis, human resource director of learning and development, serve as facilitators of the ALD Program.

“We found, over time, that fewer and fewer faculty were willing to commit that amount of concentrated time, even if recommended by their dean,” said Qualters. “Applications were at their lowest point two years ago, which is when we decided to take a year off and redesign the program to better fit the life of current and future leaders. The new model was launched last year, and we had more applications than we could accept, which was encouraging.”

The hybrid model includes a convenient, online component with reflection questions and a discussion board, which allows the cohort of 15-20 people to share ideas with each other. By extending the program over four semesters—one module per semester—the workload is much more manageable, and it gives time for relationships among participants to develop. Most had never met before, but “they quickly see the similarity in challenges no matter what department or school and are extremely generous in their willingness to share and problem solve together,” said Qualters, noting that some individuals continue to meet occasionally after graduating from the program.

After the initial meeting, the new ALD cohort comes back together for face-to-face sessions at mid-semester to explore questions that grew out of the online component, share ideas, and discuss any pressing issues. For special topics, say navigating academic politics, Qualters and McInnis arrange for a guest speaker. The cohort also meets at the end of each module for a wrap-up discussion and to introduce the next module.

“We eliminated a lot of straight lecture presentations and created more of a collegial environment for participants to share their expertise and questions with their colleagues,” said McInnis. “Curriculum-wise we took some of the previous topics such as Role of the Academic Leader and created it as more of a theme to be incorporated in all the sessions to make room for two new modules that faculty requested: Leading a Diverse Department and Nuts and Bolts of Running a Unit.”

A formal survey of past participants also helped inform the current curriculum. Although the results varied depending on the individual’s department, position, and situation, topics that dealt with communication, conflict management, and coaching/mentoring received the highest scores.

In its current iteration, the ALD Program consists of four modules:

  1. Coaching and Mentoring Faculty and Staff
  2. Leading Change
  3. Building and Leading a Diverse Community
  4. Nuts and Bolts of Running a Unit

Although historically participants will come with questions about a specific problem they are encountering in their department, such as mitigating difficult personnel issues or negotiating for additional resources, Qualters and McInnis noted a change in the topics that drive the most interest today.

“Over the last several years, a new strategic plan [here at Tufts] has led participants to request more information and strategies on change, not only leading it where necessary but also managing it so that all their faculty and staff feel ownership,” said McInnis.

“Secondly,” added Qualters, “like every other higher education institution, we are also examining how to create and lead diverse departments and the need to attract more faculty of color and women. This topic generates a lot of discussion around important issues and institutional challenges.”

There’s also been a slow and steady shift in the type of person who enrolls in the program. Although initially most participants were from the School of Arts & Sciences and a few from the School of Engineering, McInnis said the applicant pool has expanded to include participants from a total of eight schools. In addition, the gender is shifting as well—the past few cohorts had more female participants than male participants. Of the 159 graduates since 2008, 83 are male and 76 are female.

To date, the program is invitation only. Deans are asked to identify potential candidates from their schools. Either current leaders or potential leaders are eligible, however the majority who enroll are already in leadership positions, such as program directors or associate chairs who want to prepare themselves to do a better job in their current position as well as position themselves for potential leadership advancement. Increased interest from more junior faculty has ALD considering a more open recruitment process, according to McInnis.

A community of leadership

Although the goal of ALD was to provide leaders and emerging leaders with the specific tools and skills they need to be effective in their leadership positions, the program has delivered several ancillary benefits as well. Alumni report a new allegiance to the university as opposed to just their school or department, and they feel less alone knowing others are facing similar issues.

“They appreciated interacting and sharing experiences with others and that ALD gave them clear ideas and systemic and practical methods,” said Qualters. “However, what they most value at the end of the program is the community of colleagues that has been created.”

This sense of community is on display at the annual alumni gathering, which features an outside speaker tackling a topic that’s top of mind for most leaders. For example, last year’s session was titled Grace in the Time of Incivility. Both Qualters and McInnis noted that the level of support participants continue to offer each other remains one of the biggest surprises of the program.

“We feel proud that Tufts took the initiative 10 years ago to address an area of development often overlooked in higher education that has created what we are calling a “Community of Leadership,” said Qualters. “We hope to continue and grow this program as being a leader in higher education continues to present new opportunities and challenges.”


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