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Toward a Caring University: An Interview with Kevin McClure, Part 1

Institutional Culture

Toward a Caring University: An Interview with Kevin McClure, Part 1

Kevin McClure, PhD, is an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and codirector of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. He regularly publishes about leadership and higher education structures in publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education and EdSurge. He sat down with contributing editor Rebecca Pope-Ruark to discuss the book he is working on about the caring university and his views on preparing future leaders for work in higher education. Part 1 of the interview is presented here, lightly edited for clarity.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Hi, Kevin, thanks for chatting with me to today. You’re working on a new book now. Tell us a little bit about how it came into being.

Kevin McClure: Yes, the book was not planned. Basically, I started writing a column myself on questions of leadership and communication in some of the early responses to the pandemic. And, through a combination of personal experience and observation and conversation with other people, that pivoted into a few columns exploring issues of the workplace, primarily focused on this pandemic moment that we are in. As I was exploring some of those issues, though, it became clear that some of those workplace problems that I associated very much with the pandemic have a much longer history in higher education, a much more structural or organizational history. Some of these are just long-standing problems that we have had in higher education. Through some of that writing, I started to see a series of possible organizational changes that could do a better job of supporting faculty and staff well-being.

So, the book is about how we can pursue a set of six organizational changes, and I collectively refer to the pursuit of those changes, the achievement of those changes, as the caring university. The ultimate vision that I’m hoping to share through the book is that there’s a different way of structuring working conditions and cultures that better demonstrates care for employees in higher ed.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about culture issues as well. That’s the next step of the burnout work, right? What do we do to change? How do you change culture, who has the voice to make change, and who do we empower to be the voice to do that? Is it the people who are designated leaders, or also the folks who are on the ground and in the trenches living the conditions that cause burnout and demoralization and the like? It’s a rich topic right now, to be thinking about how to address those aspects of well-being and culture.

Yeah. And the questions are, At what level does this happen, and who’s part of the conversation? Those are hard questions and ones that I feel like I’m wrestling with constantly. Ultimately, the book that I’m writing is addressed to individuals in leadership roles but broadly defined to include faculty leaders, student leaders, and people in staff roles whose titles may not necessarily signal leadership in the way that we customarily think of but who, by virtue of their experience and knowledge, are definitely leaders nevertheless. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that just a purely top-down kind of approach to culture change is not going to be successful, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try to address organizational problems by placing them in the hands of one person or a small group of people. I’ve landed on this idea of it being certainly up to leaders to take on a large chunk of this, as well as folks that are in middle management positions to also be champions of the change process because they’re very often the experts at implementation. But there needs to be a high degree of transparency. We certainly need to be encouraging shared governance, and there have to be ways that we ensure that we are collecting data and input from people across the organization for it to be successful.

You’ve said elsewhere that organizational problems require organizational solutions, so we can’t assume that these challenges are something that one individual at whatever level can take on. There has to be a cultural shift, and that has to come from groundswell as well.

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been thinking about what makes these problems organizational as opposed to something else because you could read, for example, the experience of someone that maybe had a not particularly effective supervisor and say that’s more of an interpersonal dynamic. If we were to swap in a different supervisor, they may have had a very different experience. But at the same time, other problems don’t magically disappear just by swapping in or out a given individual. Bringing in a brand new president or provost or dean, I think, is not going to necessarily result in the types of transformation that we’re talking about. For me, what makes these organizational problems is the fact that they often persist irrespective of the presence or absence of a given person. You are going to find yourself running into a wall or not really making the type of progress you want to see if you aren’t figuring out ways of building teams to approach this through coalitions and, in some cases, by allowing a type of collective effort in higher education. Which makes people a little bit nervous, this idea of collective action. But what if it’s collective action toward positive change before you get to the point where people feel like they have to use collective action in a much more forceful way?

So, what exactly is your framework for a caring university?

The idea behind the caring university is that it is a university where we can point to specific actions that demonstrate care for faculty and staff well-being. And one of the ways that I distinguish an institution that has moved in this direction or is working toward this is through six areas of emphasis. First, they have built the employee experience into their mission and collect data on it. Second, they design workplace policies and practices around real workers and not ideal workers. Third, they are pursuing structural changes toward equity, diversity, and inclusion because, in my view, you can’t really have a caring university where there are also persistent structural issues related to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Fourth, the caring university pays very close attention to professional pathways and growth of employees. Fifth, there is meaningful training for supervisors and a nurturing of the next group of caring leaders. And then lastly, it encourages shared governance and transparency. It leads from a strong ethical standpoint and, in cases where faculty and staff feel like it’s necessary to do so, they respect collective action as a way of arriving at solutions.

Tell me a little bit about some of the research that you’ve been doing around this and maybe an example that fits a caring university.

In terms of exemplars, it gets a little bit tricky because I think, in many ways, the caring university is more an aspiration than something that I can point to as existing right now. There are some institutions that I’m aware of that are doing a good job on certain elements of this or working hard on certain elements of it, but few are focused on all of them. Which does raise the question, To what extent is this feasible? And I don’t think that I’m trying to kind of propose this with the idea that we’re going to achieve perfection. Instead, I’m trying to propose this as really a resource where a leader could sit down with it and say, “Here are some ideas that have merit that we could implement across a couple of different domains of the institution, all of which could improve the employee experience.”

But there are certainly places that, whether by necessity or because they really believe strongly in this idea, have started to invest some real resources in things like professional development or leadership training. There are institutions that are experimenting and innovating around how to better track the employee experience and collect data on it, because one of the things that I have been noticing through my research is that higher education does a really bad job of collecting data on its employees and what their workplace experience has been like. At a basic level, something like doing exit interviews is not common practice, and so it means from an organizational learning standpoint that we don’t have the type of infrastructure that would allow us to raise awareness and shift practices, because we just don’t have the information.

Often, in the face of what feel like big challenges, our response is to get overwhelmed, understandably, and not know where to start, and I want this book to offer some options for taking an initial step.

Yes, I think that’ll be powerful to have just a repository of ideas and possibilities. In your work, you’ve been talking recently about dead-end jobs and talent management in higher ed. And I wrote the wrote down the phrase “community-wide reorientation of what it means to work in higher education.” So how do we do that on a scale that’s manageable, when it’s across so many silos that don’t often cross in higher ed. You’re talking human resources and faculty affairs issues as well. So, the complexity is really interesting.

Yes, and because of the way that higher education organizations are structured, it is entirely plausible within a given organization that you’ve got a unit that’s doing some of this really well and/or you’ve got an HR office that has already in-house folks with the expertise to be able to move on some of this and what they need is just the opportunity to come together and collaborate. They need the bandwidth to be able to do that, and they need some resources. Not all these things necessarily are going to require a wholesale transformation of the structure of organizations or huge investments. I do think that there are already pockets of expertise and change that just need a good opportunity, someone to say, “We’re going to give you a chance to set aside this other piece of your work because we really value what you know and what you could bring to this question. And so we’re going to form this collaborative team and see what we can come up with.”

It’s the idea of looking for the positive deviance, where is it working, and why is it working there? And what is portable—not putting it on those people to make change, but to learn from them and to figure out what is possible in other in other instances.

Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it.

Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up this first part of our interview?

Part of the case that I’m making for this is an ethical one in the sense that I’d like to think that, as human development organizations, we would like to do a good job of supporting faculty and staff because it’s the right thing to do. There is also an organizational case to be made for this. In many ways, the ability of our institutions to kind of fulfill the promise of higher education and meet some of the lofty goals we set for ourselves—ultimately, to provide quality services to students and educate them well—all these things have links back to the types of organizational cultures and the working conditions that we’ve established for faculty and staff. So, by pursuing some of these changes, I don’t think that we’re necessarily in competition with or in contention with those organizational goals or with student success. These are interrelated. Just because it’s not necessarily a direct investment in a student success center, the fact that we are focusing on working conditions for faculty and staff, I think, can have just as positive downstream outcomes for students. As we are thinking about what we do, what we do now, and what we do after this period of the Great Resignation? It will certainly be the case that institutions are still thinking really hard about, How are we recruiting students? How are we keeping students? How are we educating students well? Giving thought to the employee experience should be part of those conversations.

Thanks for mentioning the ethical impact of what you are proposing. This is the side question, but do you have a futurist’s lens on how long the Great Resignation will last?

That’s a really good question. I was just looking at this recently because technically, like they say, it has not ended. And my own view on this is similar to COVID itself: there’s going to be a long tail with the more acute signs that may be associated with it, like a higher level of turnover. I do think some of that will temper, but we’re going to see issues like longer vacancies and difficulties around searches for certain positions. But some of that has to do with the fact that we haven’t changed anything. We basically experienced the pandemic and then have done not a ton to change employees’ experiences. We could potentially shorten that tail or prepare for whatever the next crisis is, be better prepared for that by actually taking a shot at some of these things I’m proposing.

We continue our interview with Kevin McClure next month, when Rebecca and Kevin discuss leadership morale, training, and the potential role of coaching.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, 2022).


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