As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into its next phase, academic leaders are facing a new set of organizational challenges. A return to pre-pandemic programs, structures, and processes is unlikely at best. A changed environment is confronting an old institutional model. Students are expressing a preference for a more flexible college experience, one more individualized and supportive. The world of work is evolving, inviting a closer tie between college and career. After the past three semesters, faculty and staff have found different work styles challenging yet inviting. A new fiscal environment presents both opportunities and changed priorities for both students and colleges.
Repositioning the institution and its units to respond to this new era is an important leadership responsibility for academic leaders at all levels. Building a shared commitment to a “new normal” will be critical for institutional and unit success in the semesters ahead. Repositioning is not a one-and-done activity. It takes time, energy, and constant focus.
As a starting point, academic leaders must provide opportunities to involve everyone with a clear understanding of purpose, direction, and needed areas of change to guide unit repositioning. A focused staff retreat is a powerful vehicle to begin these critical conversations.
The goal of the retreat is to develop a common understanding of the needed direction of the department or unit. The retreat outcome is the development of an action-oriented work plan for the academic year.
A staff retreat to begin unit repositing is different from more traditional start-of-the-semester sessions. It has a specific, not generic focus. In both design and execution, it signifies that “business as usual” can no longer be the norm. It requires careful planning, conduct, and follow-through, a primary responsibility of the academic leader.
Based on our work conducting several such retreats at both community colleges and research-intensive universities, three elements have emerged as central to retreat success. They are retreat content, post-retreat activities, and logistics. Together they present a road map for the semester and beyond.
The essence of repositioning is to bring the departments functions in line with the demands of a changed environment. Consequently, the retreat content will need by structured around several interconnected conversations.
A review of the alignment of the units’ priorities and activities with institutional directions is a critical first conversation for any repositioning effort. While institutional mission will remain constant in the post-pandemic environment, priorities and activities will change. So, too, must the priorities and modes of delivery for each department or service unit. Alignment with the institutional direction and related units is critical to future effectiveness. The identification of changes needed to bring the department or service unit into alignment is the foundation for repositioning.
Repositioning should be in response to student demand and workforce needs. A conversation about the relationship between current activities and marketplace changes is central to the future of the department or unit. Reactions from graduates’ employers, input from transfer institutions, or feedback from members of related units would serve to inform the conversation. With this background, needs for unit changes can be identified, evaluated, and prioritized.
Relevant data will serve to illuminate issues and concerns. Three data sets are necessary for each variable. Status data reports on current conditions. Trend data highlights past findings and, with identified assumptions, can project future activities. Highlighting differing assumptions permits the development of differing scenarios of future department performance. Comparative data illuminates the relationship between the department or unit and other comparable units. Such data sets can be from comparable units or aspirational ones.
Making informed, data-driven decisions requires a concurrent analysis of all three data sets. Failure to consider one permits dismissal of the import of the data.
A repositioning retreat is more than a series of conversations about the state of the department or unit in the post pandemic environment. Its goal is to create an agreed upon plan to realign unit efforts. Over the course of the session, ideas and conclusions for needed change will emerge. They can be highlighted on whiteboard or flip chart. The assignment of responsibilities, needed resources, and milestones for completion should be articulated. The leader should task one or more participants to draft a final work plan for all participants.
The design and conduct of the retreat can serve to set the stage for a serious discussion of needed department or unit changes to meet the challenge of the new environment.
A different location than is usually used for department and unit staff meetings communicates that this is not a usual session. Off-campus locations are ideal; different locations on campus are possible. Often, organizations, companies, or other departments that the unit has connections with can offer their conference room for such a session. A representative could be invited to make a brief presentation about how they are repositioning as a result of the pandemic.
Consideration should be given to including relevant non-unit personnel. This provides for additional points of view and an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with important partner units. It also provides a communication channel to the institution that the department is addressing the realities of the present and future.
In advance of the retreat, the leader should develop an agenda outlining the topics to be discussed, the time frame to be followed, and roles and responsibilities and distribute it to participants. Additionally, the leader could compile and distribute an agenda book. Organized following the agenda, it might include relevant data sets, internal and external documents illuminating the issue to be discussed, and a suggested outline for the work product document.
A major challenge to the success of a realignment retreat is the tendency to avoid the matter at hand in favor of a less challenging conversation. Two strategies have proven helpful. First, begin the retreat with the acknowledgement that the pandemic has forced all to adapt, and it is difficult. A “once around the table” provides each participant with an opportunity to express their frustrations and concerns and raise other issues. It also models a retreat expectation that all participate. Then it’s on to work.
Second, as items that are not directly related to the retreat agenda emerge, place them on a whiteboard or flip chart with the direction that they will be included in the next regular department staff meeting.
Without a clear follow-up or “checkpoint” to assess retreat goals and paths forward, participants often become frustrated, even cynical about the leader’s intentions. An announced six-month checkpoint session is beneficial to ensure that goals are on the way to being met or in need of modification. It communicates that the retreat was not just an event but a session and plan that is of importance to the future of the department. On a personal level, it illustrates that the leader values the time and contributions of retreat participants.
The pandemic has clearly affected every college and university. An academic leader who fails to understand and act in response to these new conditions does so at their peril. Most academic leaders accepted their leadership positions because they wanted an opportunity to make a difference. The times call for a critical reappraisal of departmental and unit functions and an appropriate response. This is the leadership challenge for the new semester.
Charles P. Ruch, PhD, is retired, having served over 40 years in academic leadership positions, including president of Boise State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Cathleen B. Ruch, EdD, is currently the director of student success at Lake Region State College in North Dakota.