Using Academic Retreats to Enhance Academic Affairs Performance
Every academic leader invests time in strategic planning groups, presidential cabinets, councils of department chairs, dean’s council meetings, and similar regularly scheduled meetings. Academic leaders occasionally leave the campus for meetings of professional societies or to participate with other academic leaders in retreats. What few institutional leaders do is develop a meaningful retreat on campus or at a location close to campus for a day to day and one-half of their academic team including deans/assistant deans, service units (registrar, counseling, support services), institutional research, budget officer, etc.), head librarian, and the secretaries servicing major officers.
Frequently, deans of academic affairs and vice presidents meet only with their individual direct reports, either on set schedules or for crisis consultations. This means that inter-unit collaborations are often not explored or fully developed, leadership messages are not understood in the same way by all team members, and faculty do not experience seamless relationships across academic affairs. These limitations generally lead to less successful execution of the academic mission and partial confusion and miscommunication about key academic directions.
What kinds of factors lead to the limited use of academic retreats to maximize academic affairs performance in service of the mission, faculty, students, and other administrative units of the institution? Probably one of the most important factors is that many service unit leaders are needed to problem solve and serve their units every day during regular school hours. Another is that non-faculty units are often perceived to be of secondary value in academic affairs plans and successes. Further, some unit leaders feel uncomfortable working with peers they generally don’t work with, and secretaries and administrative assistants generally do not see themselves as having much to offer in retreats. Finally, in most academic affairs departments there is a hectic atmosphere that causes many to see taking time out for retreats as time taken away from more vital activities and/or increasing their workload when they return from the retreats.
One generally has to communicate clearly the value of academic retreats to get buy-in and full and positive involvement from the entire academic team. It is vital that chief academic officers communicate the value they believe will be achieved by having an annual academic retreat. One of the most important values of a retreat is the support for consistency of message within academic affairs regarding standards and procedures and institutional direction, plans, and vision. A second value of academic retreats is the creation of a better understanding of the limits of the work environments and daily stresses encountered by each subunit. This understanding will inevitably lead to better sharing, more timely requests for assistance, and better acceptance of time requirements for meeting each other’s needs. A third value is the full development of a team attitude among the members by their respecting each other’s expertise and working for the success of each other’s units. A fourth value is communicating with one another strategies that are working or not working in serving faculty, student, parent, and non-academic units’ needs. A fifth and critical value is the opportunity to share information about the future challenges units will be facing due to knowledge from environmental scanning and peer professional meetings that will inevitably affect other units in academic affairs. Finally, retreats are a time for individual development of communications skills, empathy, professional self-confidence, and personal appreciation of the work of each member to ensure the success of the university’s academic affairs.
The bottom line is that academic affairs retreats are an important time for interpersonal development in the hectic, challenging, and often isolating environments that can be experienced by most academic affairs staff members.
How can one develop a successful academic affairs retreat? The first issue to be resolved is to find a time that works for all parties. There is a rhythm to the academic calendar, and few dates can work for everyone. Generally, the best times are shortly before the spring or fall semesters begin or during student breaks. Once a common time is found, the next issue is to provide skeleton services in units either through other people in the units or, if the units are too small, through reduced hours set at the beginning and end of the work day; for example, the registrar’s unit might be open from 8 to 9 a.m. and then again from 4 to 5 p.m. only. It is critical that faculty, nonacademic staff, and students be informed about the retreat several weeks in advance with constant reminders through e-mails, posting signs on office doors, and other mechanisms common to the campus.
After one has established the day (or days) for the retreat and communicated them to the campus, the critical work of a successful retreat is achieved by carefully planning the day; it should be relaxed and informal. Food and snacks should be a part of the day, including a shared communal lunch. Sessions should break into thirty- to forty-five-minute units with morning and afternoon breaks. Topics should be a mixture of substantive academic affairs issues and time should be set aside for team and personal development activities suited to the wide variety of participants.
What would be typical topics or activities to build into a retreat, eliminating some from a one-day retreat and adding others if the retreat is one and a half days? Academic affairs vision, direction, and goals should always be included with time for questioning and clarification led by the chief academic officer. One unit of academic affairs should be highlighted, led by the unit’s leader, to provide an in-depth understanding of that unit for better collaboration and for the unit leader’s professional development. A key element of any retreat is sharing environmental scanning trends across all units that are likely to affect academic affairs in the future. At least for some years, one should bring in an outside person from another unit of the institution or an expert on some topic of relevance to academic affairs success such as changing students’ attitudes or behaviors, handling difficult customers, or communicating with parents. In most years a self-assessment/development session should occur with teams of individuals who don’t usually work with each other. The session should cover such topics as conflict management, time management, communications styles, and reading body language. During lunch a short praise session should be led by the chief academic officer to highlight exceptional performances. Finally, the retreat should end with a practical assessment of what worked and didn’t work as part of the chief academic officer’s summary of what was achieved. That should be followed by a thank-you to everyone for participating.
Henry W. Smorynski is a Midland University Leadership Fellow.
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