I have frequently been challenged over the past decade working in higher education to adapt my approach to serving students. As a young professional, the obstacles seemed more indicative of institutional change rather than social change. My first position out of graduate school at Virginia Tech forced me to think about providing more large-scale programming because the institution was growing its enrollment. My next job at Georgia Southern University required me to design custom touchpoints for student leaders, faculty and staff to have with new students because the university wanted students to feel that it was smaller and more intimate.
As my career has progressed and I have had the opportunity to pursue greater oversight in departments with a wider scope, I have become increasingly aware that the challenges now facing higher education are not limited to institutional priorities but are also in response to a dramatic shift in the expectations held by its consumers. The way we do things has to change because our students are changing!
Thompson and Miller (2018) suggest that just as the movie industry has been upset by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and the transportation industry has been turned on its head by on-demand passenger services like Uber and Lyft, higher education is the next industry that will face a “massive disruption” to the way it does business. This disruption is brought on by a variety of factors including but not limited to declining funding, technological advancements, pressure to hire non-tenured faculty, shifting societal values, and generational differences. I might argue that some of these same factors motivated change in the aforementioned industries.
For the first time in over two centuries, the value of higher education is in question and its stability is wavering (Thompson & Miller, 2018). My work with new students and their increasingly involved families has taught me they want to know what the return on their investment will be. Gone are the days when families attending orientation would ask how their student can get involved, what their relationship with professors will be and what they can do to keep them from becoming homesick. The questions I’m faced with now center more on what we are doing to help their student make good grades, graduate in four or less years and get a job. Oh – and they want to make sure their student will have as much privacy as possible in the residence hall and will eat high quality food!
Our traditional methods of delivering education inside and outside of the classroom must be advanced to meet not only these consumer-focused needs but also the growing demographics and learning styles that our students represent. Less than 20% of our students are traditional 18 to 24 year old pupils (Thompson & Miller, 2018). Many of them are working and have families to care for. Students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds are showing up in classrooms with varying levels of preparation for college and many of them will need more time and attention than we are used to giving. So how do we respond? How do we lead?
Thompson and Miller (2018) suggest a number of leadership skills that will be necessary to face the future in higher education. Several of these skills are ones with which I’m familiar such as civility, inclusiveness and communication that is both clear and strategic. I was fascinated to learn about two new terms that were previously not on my radar: leadership agility and interprofessional leadership.
Leadership agility requires us to be flexible, creative and strategic in how we approach leading not only our students and stakeholders but also ourselves. The best higher education leaders must be aware of barriers and opportunities and be able to articulate their purpose. This reminds me of Simon Sinek’s concept of starting with why before moving to how or what and is an approach that really grounds me in my work. Understanding my purpose will help me to identify campus stakeholders with similar goals who can help me to better serve my students. Similar to the concept of strengths popularized by the Gallup Organization, Thompson and Miller (2018) posit that higher education leaders who practice leadership agility are self-aware and know which people to surround themselves with to make up for deficiencies in their own strengths profile.
Interprofessional leadership, a new term to me, demands the reduction of silos in higher education and calls upon us to be more collaborative and diplomatic with other leaders who have the ability to influence (Thompson & Miller, 2018). This is often something I’ve been challenged to find executed successfully in higher education as it seems many leaders are interested in making sure they get the credit for successful student outcomes. If our students are requiring more individualized attention, tailored programs and services and a focus on degree completion, we’ve got to stop worrying so much about who gets credit for that and instead focus on how we can work together more strategically.
I am excited about the challenges facing the field. I think it provides an opportunity for me as a professional to be creative in my work, engage with others and problem-solve. My food for thought going forward is summed up in a few questions that I hope to reflect upon in a future post and that I encourage others in higher education leadership to think about. How will I intentionally cultivate the leadership skills that are vital to the success of my students? What behaviors am I role modeling for others? Am I positive that I know my why?
Thompson, S.A., & Miller, K.L. (2018, March-April). Disruptive trends in higher education: Leadership skills for successful leaders. Journal of Professional Nursing, 34(2), p. 92-96.
Thompson, S.A., & Miller, K.L. (2018, March-April). Disruptive trends in higher education: Leadership skills for successful leaders. Journal of Professional Nursing, 34(2), p. 92-96. Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/science/article/pii/S8755722317302727