At many institutions, development of leaders begins once people are selected for formal leadership positions. This approach is partly the result of a resistance to leader development borne of higher education’s egalitarian ethos—faculty often feel uncomfortable with the idea of the institution investing in them as leaders, says Ross Peterson-Veatch, associate academic dean at Goshen College. In addition, “people in the academy are universally pretty good at learning quickly. We say to ourselves, ‘I’ll deal with that when I get there. I don’t want to spend my time learning to be a leader if I’m not going to be named.’”
Despite this ability to learn quickly, most faculty would benefit from having some leadership experience before taking on a formal leadership position. But given all their other responsibilities, investing the time and effort into a hypothetical leadership role may not be all that appealing.
To overcome this issue, Peterson-Veatch tied leader development to a major curriculum restructuring—“a big cross-campus project we had to do anyway,” he says. “From the beginning, I really wanted to end up with a committee that was campus-wide and dealt with curricula that you didn’t need to be a department chair to sit on.”
One of the goals was to provide opportunities for potential leaders to gain experience working with people from throughout the institution.
“If people have opportunities for getting a view of the entire institution before they become chairs and see how people respond then they get to see and that helps them decide whether or not they want to accept the post of chair,” Peterson-Veatch says.
Selecting committee members
Peterson-Veatch began with a series of lunch conversations on what every student who graduates from the college should be able to do and should feel a personal or social responsibility for doing. These lunches were open to all interested faculty members.
A diverse group of faculty attended, including those in formal leadership positions, such as department chairs and tenured and untenured faculty members. Based on their participation, Peterson-Veatch and his colleagues chose half of the committee and asked faculty to select the other half of the committee.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ lead outcomes served as a conversation starter, which provided a “predetermined set of fairly balanced outcomes for general and liberal education. [Participants] weren’t in conflict over content considerations. They were really thinking about how knowledge is constructed and revised in different disciplines,” Peterson-Veatch says.
As for the leadership part, that was informal and contextual. It consisted of two components—personal training and team coaching. “To develop leaders within an organization, it’s important to have people who can be mentors and people who can be coaches for the team. … As the leader of the process, I did a lot more coaching of the team, and there were other administrators and faculty who provided mentoring and leader development to other people based on their expertise,” Peterson-Veatch says.
Some committee members went to national conferences and workshops based on their roles within the committee. One team went to a general education conference, and another went to an assessment conference.
Unlike offering leadership development to faculty in a general way for a possible leadership position, tying leadership development to a project that these individuals chose provided a strong motivation for them to learn leadership skills that will serve them and the institution in the future. It also provided opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in a timely manner.
As participants move through their careers, the leadership skills and knowledge they’ve gained are having a positive effect on their work.
“We have people who were on the committee who are now moving up and getting tenure who have already seen intersections between different departments that they wouldn’t have seen if they hadn’t participated in the curriculum restructuring,” Peterson-Veatch says.
Peterson-Veatch asked those who served on the curriculum restructuring to serve at least one year on the core curriculum committee. “They’re participating in the larger faculty meetings as leaders—more than just sitting back and listening to what’s happening. It seems that they have a stake in the outcomes of the meetings in a way that they didn’t before.”