Axiom 38-The Undiscovered Country explores this topic. I hope you'll take a look!
I've recently been asked to participate in three interviews about my new book, which touched on questions such as "What is your vision for higher education in the arts?'
Axiom 38-The Undiscovered Country explores this topic. I hope you'll take a look!
Higher Education by Design: Best Practices for Curricular Planning and Instruction has been published!
Please visit the Routledge site: www.routledge.com/Higher-Education-by-Design-Best-Practices-for-Curricular-Planning-and/Mackh/p/book/9780815354185
I just posted a new Axiom called "Refitting at Sea." Take a look!
"You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology." ~Steve Jobs
From an art student’s perspective, the differences between the studio arts courses they take in their major and the general education or liberal arts requirements they must also complete are enormous.
First, let’s consider some typical standards and degree requirements.
Considered over the entire 4-year experience, students who pursue a BFA in studio art will spend 3.7 times as many clock hours in the studio as in the classroom: 7488 clock hours in the studio and only 2016 hours in a classroom. In other words, although the credit hour split is 65% studio and 35% classroom for the BFA degree, the actual number of clock hours translates to as much as 79% studio and 21% classroom, or almost 400% more actual time in the studio than in the classroom. If they choose to take their electives in a studio art discipline, this percentage would be even greater.
Next, we should recognize that the pedagogies utilized in traditional studio art courses have changed very little since the idea of “art school” emerged in the mid-1800s: a disciplinary practitioner, having attained mastery of his or her artistic medium, imparts a particular set of skills to a group of student-apprentices studying under his or her tutelage. This master-apprentice model is even older than art school itself, dating back to the guild system of the Middle Ages. Even present-day digital media and other technology-based artistic genres continue to rely on the instructional model of a master guiding an apprentice. Furthermore, instruction in the studio arts focuses almost entirely on the development of students’ skills and their acquisition of specific knowledge related to those skills. Generally speaking, a painting professor teaches students about painting. A ceramics professor teaches students about working with clay. A printmaking professor teaches students about making prints. Although these statements appear to be self-evident, this single-minded focus on art making limited to the context of a particular classroom and professor is dissimilar from the instructional approaches employed elsewhere in higher education.
Furthermore, the master-apprentice model of pedagogy establishes a different type of relationship between students and professors than is typical of other academic disciplines. Art professors provide individual guidance on students’ projects while these are in progress, and they assign grades that are primarily based on the professor’s assessment of the quality of the artworks produced during the course. This underlies differing contact hour requirements between studio-based and lecture-based disciplines, since students complete the majority of their important assignments in the studio under the direct guidance of the instructor. Moreover, the influence of each faculty member can be more pronounced in the arts than in lecture-based disciplines. An introductory photography course, for example, might contain some of the same instruction at every college or university, but students’ experience in the course will vary widely depending on the instructor. Each art professor has an individualistic approach to both artistic practice and pedagogy, so two sections of the same photography course taught in the same department of art by two different professors will provide students with dramatically divergent artistic and educational experiences.
In contrast, faculty in most other academic areas usually build their instruction around lectures and other learning activities designed to transmit a specific body of content-area knowledge to their students. They base students’ grades on their independent completion of assignments, papers, quizzes, and exams designed to assess students’ acquisition of the knowledge that the professor has determined to be important. Moreover, we presume this knowledge to be essentially consistent across institutional boundaries. History of Western Civilization 101 courses offered at many colleges or universities generally communicate highly similar bodies of knowledge, and the same is true of College Algebra, Introduction to Philosophy, English Composition, and so on. Certainly, individual professors have an impact on their students’ experience, but it’s usually less direct and personal than in a studio arts course due to larger class sizes. After all, the instructor of an Art History Survey course with 100 enrolled students cannot provide the personalized attention possible in a studio art course for 15 or even fewer students.
Differences between arts faculty and their colleagues in other disciplines extend beyond typical barriers between disciplinary knowledge domains that exist across the entire institution – their fundamental approaches to teaching and learning create stark divisions. Arts faculty want to teach their students to become arts practitioners because they are masters training their apprentices. Faculty from other academic fields want to transmit disciplinary knowledge to their students. Each presumes that the other understands and accepts the differences in their practice as educators, yet this is unlikely to be true. We usually take such differences for granted because they’ve been typical of higher education for decades. However, our students’ experience in higher education is brand-new with each freshman class, rendering the duration of our histories and traditions irrelevant. What matters most is that art students who have become accustomed to the personalized attention and immediate feedback of the studio may flounder in a large general education course where the professor is more likely to approach instruction as a “sage on the stage” rather than the “guide on the side” style of pedagogy that’s more typical of the arts. We seldom take the time to analyze this fundamental discrepancy in instructional habits from our students’ perspective. Instead, we presume that they will simply adapt to our way of doing things, usually with no tangible support.
We also presume that all of our students come to us equipped with basic knowledge and skills that have sufficiently prepared them for study in our disciplines. This expectation is closely linked to our disciplinary background – we know what is expected of students who qualify to major in our own academic field and assume that a similar level of competency will be present in all students whom we teach. This is untrue. Regardless of what we teach, our students are unique individuals with widely varying personalities, skills, background knowledge, and previous experiences. At an institution with open-enrollment policies, such differences in student preparedness can be very pronounced, but even where high standards for academic enrollment are present these might still vary according to the discipline in which they intend to study. We’d expect higher SAT or ACT scores from students planning to major in engineering or pre-med, for instance, than for those planning to study in the arts. Greater proficiency in writing would be expected for students to major in journalism, or mathematical competency for those planning to pursue study in economics or accounting. Students planning to major in studio art must similarly demonstrate their existing skill as artists, often by submitting a portfolio for review. In other words, we value in our future students what is important to us as disciplinarians, but this is far from consistent across all academic areas even though our students must complete coursework in many fields other than our own.
Given this reality – that students necessarily interact with faculty members both in the discipline they choose as a major and those teaching general education, liberal arts, or humanities courses also required for graduation – it is incumbent upon all educators to lay aside our preconceptions and expectations regarding their preparedness for study in our classrooms and their ability to be successful without our direct involvement. We must meet our students where they are, not where we expect them to be.
Let’s consider two parallel scenarios. First, image a student we’ll call Janet who was a member of a state championship-winning high school debate team. If Janet student enrolls in a rhetoric course to satisfy a humanities requirement, we’d expect her to succeed with ease. Now imagine that Janet chooses to take a drawing course to fill a fine arts requirement. Her last experience with drawing was in elementary school and she has no background knowledge of art, art history, drawing media or the elements and principles of art. Janet is very unlikely to be successful in the drawing course unless the instructor takes the time to work with her personally and fill in the gaps in her skills and knowledge of art.
Now consider another student in the same drawing class whom we’ll call Karen. As a studio art major, Karen entered the program based on the excellence of her artistic portfolio, which included several outstanding drawings. The instructor’s challenge in teaching Karen would be to help her become an even better artist, perhaps by providing a greater level of challenge in the assignments given to the class. But what if Karen enrolled in the rhetoric class? She might fail abysmally, especially if the instructor presumed her to have the same level of preparedness as Janet, the champion of the debate team. Furthermore, the drawing course meets for twice as many hours per week as the rhetoric course, which gives the drawing professor plenty of time to work with Janet to improve her skills as an artist, but leaves the rhetoric professor with half as much time to spend working individually with Karen to help her overcome her fears about public speaking. In essence, the system is inherently unbalanced.
Each of these professors faces a choice. They can bemoan Janet’s lack of artistic skill or Karen’s unsuitability to participate in a debate. Or they can demonstrate care, meeting each student where they are instead of where they assume their students ought to be.
Our duty to our students must go beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all approach that’s been common practice for decades. Some faculty are known for saying things like, “I set the table. It’s up to the students to decide whether or not they’ll eat.” That’s faulty logic. It presumes that the students will (1) recognize that they’re hungry, (2) understand which items on the table are food and which are not, and (3) possess the ability to eat the foods offered by using the utensils provided to a level of skill sufficient to accomplish the task of eating. We’d never sit a person down at a formal dinner table without providing some instruction in the norms of fine dining and skillful use of cutlery, but we regularly invite students to participate in learning experiences for which they’ve received inadequate preparation. To extend the metaphor, suppose you were invited to dine at Buckingham Palace. Sure, you already know how to eat, but would you be familiar with the complex rules of etiquette required to have dinner with the Queen? Or, perhaps, might you require additional coaching?
We should expect no less on behalf of our students. Some are prepared for success in our classrooms, while others find their entire experience with us bewildering and frustrating, especially those who have become acclimated to the norms of the art studio much more than those of a lecture-based classroom. It’s time to grow beyond the Darwinian model that says students must evolve and adapt to our instructional methods, that students’ success or failure is not our concern but rests solely on individual student’s application of independent effort. This mindset says, “If students fail, it’s not my fault. Those who are strong enough will survive and the rest will be weeded out. That way we graduate only the best.” Does this attitude support ideals of equity? Of access to higher education? Of respect for all learners? Of course not.
Rather let’s resolve to meet our students where they are instead of where we thought they would be or wish they were. Let’s stop lamenting their lack of preparation for college-level work and take action to help them achieve success. We should pause to consider our curricular offerings and pedagogical practices from the perspective of an art student, for whom it’s normal to receive guided instruction during class and unusual to have to complete all of their work independently, with nothing but lecture and reading to inform their efforts. The more we can exercise empathy by considering higher education from our students’ perspective, the more we increase our students’ chances to be successful in their coursework outside of the studio. As educators, our students’ success should be our primary concern and our courses should be designed to facilitate their achievements. This in no way suggests that we must erode academic rigor. But sometimes everyone needs help in overcoming a gap between where they are and where they need to be. Our job is to identify those gaps and build bridges over them, linking our students to the success that they – and we – uphold as the goal of higher education.
AXIOM: Considering the curricula and pedagogies of every discipline from our students’ perspective helps us to facilitate their success in every educational experience, not just in their major field of study.
 Jobs, S. May 1997, World Wide Developers Conference(online video)52:15/52:22
 NASAD Handbook 2016-2017. XVII.A.8.a. page 142
 78 credit hours x 6 clock hours x 16 weeks per semester = 7488 clock hours
42 credit hours x 3 clock hours x 16 weeks per semester = 20164 clock hours
 King, A. (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching, Vol. 41. No 1. Pp. 30-35. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27558571
 At the University of Illinois, for example, the average ACT score for entering freshmen is 27-33, and SAT is 1360-1480. But students admitted to the College of Engineering have an average ACT of 31-34 and SAT of 1420-1520 – above the overall norms, whereas the students in the College of Fine & Applied Arts range from 25-30 on the ACT and 1260-1400 for SAT – at or below the norm for the student body as a whole. From http://admissions.illinois.edu/Apply/Freshman/profile
Economics is the study of infinite wants and finite means, the study of constrained choices. This is true for individuals and governments, families and nations. Thomas Sowell said it best: no solutions, only tradeoffs. To get the most out of life, to think like an economist, you have to be know what you're giving up in order to get something else. That's all opportunity cost is: what you have to give up to get something.
~ Russell Roberts[i]
To get what we want, we must also give something up. It’s basic to the human experience – we cannot “have it all” 100% of the time. (It’s also the source of the curious idiom, “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” because if we eat the cake, we don’t have it anymore.) The economic term for this is “opportunity cost”: the tradeoffs that must be made in order to achieve a goal or obtain something we want. This concept is among the core principles of both economics and academic leadership. Often, opportunity cost is a simple exchange of money for a product or service. We don’t usually think much about the impact of small transactions like filling the car’s gas tank, but every decision we make is accompanied by a set of related options we did not select and the impacts of these choices within a web of interdependent factors. Academic leaders must be constantly aware of this principle, because each decision, large or small, will have multiple consequences. For instance, if we want to add a new course, someone needs to teach it. If it will be taught by a current faculty member, then another faculty member will have to shoulder the responsibility for one of the courses that the professor who is assigned to the new course taught previously. If the new course requires hiring a new faculty member because no one in the department possesses the necessary expertise, the cost of that professor’s wages will have to be included in a budget. However, budgets are finite, so any increase usually requires a corresponding decrease in another area. Where will the money come from? Furthermore, bringing a new person into an organization will also have non-monetary impacts such as potentially changing the interpersonal dynamics of the department. All of these factors and more are inseparable from the decision to add a new course to the schedule.
Opportunity cost is not limited to monetary factors, just as fiscal responsibility is but one aspect of our job as academic administrators. It extends to every aspect of the organization and the people within it, from our oversight of faculty development, to our interactions with community members, to the vision we cast for the organization – it encompasses all of the strategic trade-offs we make each day, often without even being consciously aware of their impact. Therefore, learning how to manage the complex and varied opportunity costs of academic leadership requires the application of four key strategies: prioritization, strategic planning, pragmatism, and resourcefulness.
Prioritization begins by accepting two realities. First, we cannot meet each of our responsibilities optimally each and every day. If we’re focusing on completing Task A, then Task B (and C and D) will remain un-done. The key is to ensure that our attention shifts from day to day, not spending too much time on one thing at the expense of another. If, today, we choose to address a faculty concern, then tomorrow we deal with the analysis of recent trends in enrollment. The day after that, we focus on meetings with new faculty members. Of course each day will be filled with multiple activities and we must give our attention to more than one task, but it’s exceptionally difficult to continuously devote 100% to every area all of the time. Prioritization forces us to determine where it’s most advantageous to focus our energies, and maintaining a logical rotation of priorities helps ensure that each one receives attention in due course.
This brings us to reality two: we cannot do everything alone. When it’s not possible to devote the personal time or attention a problem will require, we must find someone who can carry that responsibility on our behalf. Administrators need a core group of trusted individuals who work collaboratively to advance the organization’s mission and vision. Prioritization is crucial here as well. Some tasks should remain the provenance of the leader, such as any time we’re called upon to be the face and voice of our organization, when we need to interface with upper administration, or in matters where we must exercise the authority of our position to achieve a goal. Other tasks can and should be handled by other people whom we trust. We have to apply our best judgment to the decision of whether to complete a task ourselves or trust another individual to take care of it, just as we determine the sequence in which tasks will be accomplished. Some priorities demand our immediate attention, while others are less pressing. Knowing what to do, when to do it, and by whom it must be done is crucial to organizational success. Conversely, thinking that we can do everything alone and all at once is a recipe for disaster. Planning and prioritization ensure accountability and prevents lesser responsibilities from falling through the cracks or being subsumed by more pressing matters.
An academic strategic plan is the outcome of our prioritization efforts. It formalizes who’s responsible for achieving different priorities, clarifies roles, and establishes benchmarks for accomplishment and schedules for when different tasks must be done. A sound strategic plan removes doubt and confusion, replacing them with clarity and shared purpose. Strategic planning should occur at a minimum of two levels. First, a long-range plan maps out where the organization should be five or more years into the future, setting challenging goals that inspire collective effort. Second, it should also encompass short-term goals with step-by-step measures for their achievement, defined by attainable objectives and concrete benchmarks providing evidence of progress.
Next, we must approach leadership pragmatically. Both vision and idealism are necessary to our forward momentum, but because every decision an administrator makes has a cost, we must temper our outlook with practicality. This includes accepting that our choices will spark resistance. No innovation, no evolution, no growth occurs without opposition. The members of our organizations tend to prefer the status quo and some will vociferously object to any proposed change, even when the situation is dire. Accepting this fact and handling it pragmatically allows us to both anticipate the negativity that we are going to encounter and also to learn from those in opposition to us. Critics serve an important function in pointing out the deficiencies in our plans, giving us the opportunity for revision and refinement. We will probably not be able to change the minds of those determined to cling to the status quo or to resist change, but our challenge is not to earn their endorsement – it’s to reach a point where the organization we lead is better than when we began. Pragmatism allows us to make a clear-eyed assessment of a situation, to anticipate likely outcomes and challenges, and plan a course of action that allows us to navigate the maze successfully.
Finally, resourcefulness allows us to work within institutional structures but not to be constrained by them. Perhaps no human institution is as tradition-bound, complicated, or difficult to change as higher education, yet leaders need not be confined by its apparent inflexibility. Applying an entrepreneurial mindset to the challenges we face allows us to find a path through what at first appears to be an impenetrable forest of obstacles. Even as we accept the economic reality that to gain we must be willing to lose, we should remain adamantly unwilling to settle for defeat until all possibilities have been exhausted. An entrepreneurial mindset seeks opportunity, fueled by vision but facilitated by a spirit of resourcefulness. Where can we find the resources we need among those that already exist within the institution? Can we re-purpose, revise, transform, or utilize existing resources differently? Can we identify community or corporate partners who might help us reach our goals? Most importantly, resourcefulness is about finding opportunities that we can build upon to improve the organization we lead. Institutional legacies, histories, or traditions – “But this is the way it’s always been done!” - prevent us from perceiving these prospects. Resourcefulness helps us to find a way around this obstacle, allowing us to consider situations from a fresh perspective and to envision new ways to meet the challenges we face.
The principles of economics don’t apply to higher education because of its high cost or financial complexity. They apply because higher education is a human institution and therefore follows economic patterns that have been observed, analyzed, and applied for generations. Recognizing and applying these to our practice of leadership allows us to identify strategies that will foster to the greatest success for our organizations. Therefore, prioritization, strategic planning, pragmatism, and resourcefulness empower us to engage in continuous improvement of both the institutions we lead and our own expertise as academic administrators.
AXIOM: To maximize their organization’s success, academic leaders should remain aware of the opportunity cost of their decisions, engaging all available approaches and assets and taking a pragmatic stance that incudes strategic planning and prioritization along with resourceful identification of opportunity.
[i] Roberts, Russell (Feb. 5, 2007). Getting the Most Out of Life: The Concept of Opportunity Cost. Library of Economics and Liberty. http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2007/Robertsopportunitycost.html
Taylor, T. (March 15, 2013). How Successful Leaders Prioritize – Examining the Steps to Successful Tasking. Dale Carnegie Training. http://www.dalecarnegiewaynj.com/2012/03/15/how-leaders-prioritize-examining-the-steps-to-successful-tasking/
Strategic Planning in Higher Education: A Guide for Leaders. Center for Organizational Development and Leadership. http://oira.cortland.edu/webpage/planningandassessmentresources/basicassessmentresources/RutgersPlanning.pdf
Gunelius, S. (April 15, 2010). Are You a Pragmatic or Idealist Leader? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2010/04/15/are-you-a-pragmatic-or-idealist-leader/#532db0e83e67
Baldoni, J. (January 13, 2010). The Importance of Resourcefulness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2010/01/leaders-can-learn-to-make-do-a
McCadden, S. (January 10, 2011). Shared Responsibility: Advantages of Creating a Team of Leaders. Remodeling. http://www.remodeling.hw.net/business/operations/shared-responsibility-advantages-of-creating-a-team-of-leaders
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that's what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” Musk has said. “It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
"Crazy things can come true," Musk said. "I didn't really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it's amazing when they do.". . . "I've seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it's a big relief for when it actually works," he added.
On February 6, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket, an unprecedented feat in the history of space exploration that not only sent a Tesla roadster into orbit around the sun and Mars; it landed two of the rocket’s three reusable boosters back on Earth intact. SpaceX’s achievement was no overnight wonder, however. Founder Elon Musk first announced the Falcon Heavy project in 2011, predicting launch by 2013, yet five more years of testing, innovation, development, and experimentation were needed to achieve this goal. Of course, a large and complex team finally made the launch possible, but the true rocket fuel driving the entire SpaceX enterprise emanates from SpaceX founder Elon Musk himself, through his powerful vision of making humanity into a spacefaring civilization.
Vision is more than just a compelling idea about the future – it’s the very heart of leadership. Vision is the source of a leader’s energy, the spark that ignites a flame in others, and the sustaining fire that powers the entire organization towards achieving its goals. A leader’s most important responsibility is to formulate a vision for the organization and to cast that vision so compellingly that it instills the leader’s passion in others’ hearts as well. Without vision, an organization ceases to achieve forward momentum. Without the vision of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the US might still be a British colony. Without President John F. Kennedy’s vision of manned spaceflight, Neil Armstrong may never have stepped foot on the Moon. Or would we have made as much progress in space exploration without the creative visions of the future cast by Jules Verne, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas? Even on a smaller scale, cellular telephones were directly inspired by communication technologies in Roddenberry’s StarTrek, and Elon Musk named the Falcon rocket project for the Millennium Falcon in Lucas’s StarWars. Dreams can and do become reality.
Vision alone, however, is impotent without subsequent action. Furthermore, a vision nearly always requires a dedicated team to bring it to life, radiating out through concentric circles of stakeholders who partake in a shared idea of what the future could be.
How does the process begin? Visions sometimes strike like a bolt from the blue, but they might also dawn slowly, built on a leader’s years of gathered experiences and observations. Conversely, vision might depend on a leader’s deliberate act of will, engaging in a thorough and thoughtful analysis of present conditions and considering what will be necessary to lead the organization into a better future. Regardless of how the vision emerges, it remains only an intellectual idea unless it’s harnessed to passion. Leaders cannot just think their visions are worthwhile – they must believe in the vision to the core of their being. Visions should be so strong, so compelling, that leaders would gladly pursue them without support; they must be so committed to a vision that they embody it, unhesitatingly working towards the vision’s achievement with their own hands. Former President Jimmy Carter didn’t just serve as a spokesman for Habitat for Humanity: he put on his old clothes and swung a hammer alongside the other workers. George Washington could have spent the winter of 1777-78 in the comfort of Philadelphia, but he chose to stay with his troops at Valley Forge, sharing in their hardships and using the bleak winter to train them for the challenges to come. This kind of participatory, self-sacrificing leadership is more inspiring than any pep talk. Others see this commitment and cannot help but be moved. But unless the leader is 110% passionate about the vision and personally invested in its achievement, nobody else will be inspired to act. The leader’s passion and action combine to form the lynchpin upon which the successful achievement of the entire vision depends.
Once recognized, the vision must be shared, but casting this vision across the organization as a whole should occur in three stages. First, the leader should gather support by meeting individually with members of his or her core leadership team to share the vision as a private conversation between colleagues. The more such meetings can occur the better, igniting the imaginations of the core group’s members and building a strong base of support. The next step is to bring those individuals together, discussing the vision and working in concert to craft a vision-casting presentation for the entire organization. The team helps to anticipate and work through potential problems, providing valuable insights that the leader might not have considered. Sharing the vision among the members of the core group multiplies everyone’s passion, fostering the ownership and commitment that will be essential for implementing the vision. The team must also clarify and crystalize the vision into a short, inspirational, memorable statement. In The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization (2011), management expert Peter Drucker said that an effective statement should be “short and sharply focused. It should fit on a T-shirt. . . . It must be clear, and it must inspire. Every board member, volunteer, and staff person should be able to see the [statement] and say, ‘Yes. This is something I want to be remembered for.’” A vision statement should immediately communicate why action is imperative, whereas mission statements tell how the organization will achieve its purpose. Vision statements are less comprehensive than mission statements but more inspirational, and they might be specific to a particular initiative or project rather than attempting to encapsulate the organization’s overall purpose for existence. A crystalized vision statement also provides focus and prevents distractions by allowing the organization to differentiate between actions that support the vision and those that do not.
The last stage in casting the vision is to persuasively present it to all of the organization’s stakeholders. Timing is important, with natural starting points of the organization’s year tending to be most advantageous. In higher education, this usually happens at the beginning of the fall semester when everyone is preparing for the new academic year, and a second opportunity for a fresh start occurs in January after the semester break. It’s very important that the leader personally deliver the vision-casting message, convincingly communicating his or her passion for the vision. Nevertheless, vision-casting events cannot rely only on a prepared speech, no matter how heartfelt. Incorporating creative elements designed to accentuate the emotional content of the message such as multimedia presentations, storytelling, music, and drama draws upon the power of the arts to reach beyond the audience’s intellect, stirring their hearts to truly catch the spark of the vision. An effective vision-casting presentation will amplify passion far beyond the leader’s original vision, producing joy, energy, determination, and ownership. The audience should respond with enthusiastic affirmation – “Yes!” “This is why I’m part of this organization!” “This is what I’ve dedicated my life to achieve!” It’s the rocket fuel that propels the organization into the future.
Once the vision has spread across the organization, the leader must direct this newfound energy towards achievement. Implementation of a vision demands a different set of skills than vision-casting, but the process occurs in similar stages, beginning, again, with the core leadership team. Collaborative strategic planning catalyzes energy into accomplishment. The team must work in concert to transform the abstract ideas of the vision into concrete action steps with measurable and achievable goals. Vision statements only address the key question of “Why?” but the team will need to identify answers to many other questions as well. Where are we now? Where do we want to be? What will we need to do in order to get there? How can we divide the work into manageable steps? Who will take responsibility for making each step happen? The team might also need to revisit the organization’s mission statement and previous goals to ensure that every effort contributes to the actualization of the vision.
The strategic plan should establish measurable and achievable long-term goals, broken down into short-term targets. As the team leaders work with the organization’s members to implement the vision, the leader’s role changes from vision-caster to vision-sustainer. Vision naturally diminishes and grows cold across the organization without regular infusions of the leader’s passion and energy, just as a bonfire needs fresh logs to keep it burning. It is the leader’s duty to sustain the flame, in one-on-one interactions, team meetings, and occasional gatherings of the entire organization’s membership. The team members who have accepted responsibility for leading implementation of the action steps should collect data as the process moves forward. Progress fuels continued momentum, and celebrating the achievement of each action step also helps to keep the organization’s energy level high.
Furthermore, the leader must discern where forward momentum is lagging or where individual commitment has faded, determining how best to apply motivation to address the problem. This stage of leadership requires application of the leader’s management skills, pressing on towards the goal with relentless resolve even when decisions might be painful or difficult. Action steps sometimes fail, and projects often reach dead ends. We often have to pick ourselves up and start over again. Elon Musk said he’d seen rockets blow up in a thousand different ways, which was why he was so overjoyed at the success of the Falcon Heavy launch. Part of leadership is to endure many failures along the way, sustaining the vision even in the face of repeated setbacks. Diligence, commitment, dedication, and unflagging resolve are all essential to visionary leadership, as is unflinching willingness to pitch in and work with one’s own hands.
Leadership is messy and frustrating and disheartening sometimes. Even when we know our mission is urgent, even though our vision still compels us, we grow weary. We provide the fuel that sustains vision in those we lead, but how do we maintain our own energy? By remaining committed to the continual development of our leadership practices and potential. Finding a mentor, reading voraciously about leadership, and seeking the company of other leaders who can serve as a support system are just a few ways that we can continue to grow as leaders, refueling our passion for our work.
Vision at its best takes on a life of its own. It endures beyond the leader who cast the vision, beyond the leadership team, and sometimes even beyond the organization itself. Space exploration outlasted both President John F. Kennedy and drastic cutbacks in NASA’s budget and operations, now taken up by visionaries like Elon Musk. The fight for civil rights continues to the present day, half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Democracy has grown beyond the work of Adams and Jefferson and spread across the globe.
In this same vein, no leader remains in his or her position forever. Perhaps the greatest legacy we can give the organizations we lead is a vision that carries the organization forward well into the future. The fire we ignited in the hearts of others has grown to a stable, sustaining flame, ensuring that our efforts will continue long after our own leadership has come to an end. This is truly the measure of success – to inspire, establish, and provide for the sustainability of something larger than ourselves.
As academic administrators, we maintain a passion for our disciplines and for training young scholars to advance the borders of human knowledge beyond our classrooms. We deeply believe in facilitating our students’ success, equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and competencies they will need to achieve sustainable careers. We motivate our faculty to share in these dreams and to work with us towards their achievement, and we inspire our students to develop dreams of their own. Therefore, our ability to cast a vision is an important part of academic leadership, supported by the application of management techniques to sustain that vision. Furthermore, we not only need to fuel the passion of those we lead but must replenish our own passion through the continuous study of leadership. It’s a tall order, to be sure. Nevertheless, the visions we cast will endure beyond our time as deans, chairs, directors, provosts, or presidents. We strengthen the academic enterprise, but even more importantly our efforts make a lasting impact on our students. We touch thousands of lives over the course of our careers, both directly and indirectly through our faculty and staff. A vision for improving graduation rates, for example, is not a matter of mere statistics – the life of each student who graduates as the result of our efforts is demonstrably improved by the implementation of our vision. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of what we do, to be preoccupied by our daily responsibilities. Keeping our eyes fixed on a compelling vision and allowing it to re-energize our passion for higher education might just be the most important thing we do as academic leaders.
AXIOM: Vision is the heart of leadership but it must be coupled with concrete action by all members of the organization to bring that vision to life.
 Drucker, P. (2011). The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. John Wiley & Sons.
Education can be stifling, no question about it. One of the reasons is that education — and American education in particular, because of the standardization. . . does not emphasize diversity or individuality; it’s not about awakening the student, it’s about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all. ~Ken Robinson
Our systems of higher education are built around a centuries-old legacy that has touched the lives of countless administrators, faculty, staff, and students. When this involves traditions such as covering a campus statue with red crepe paper before a big football game, or newly-engaged couples ringing the landmark tower’s bell seven times, it’s charming – serving a valuable purpose in building and maintaining community. Other legacies, however, are less beneficial. We unquestioningly accept “the way it’s always been done,” refusing to look beyond longstanding institutional practices that ought to be open to examination. As Sir Ken Robinson so ably pointed out, the systems still in place across all of American education developed during the industrial age, designed to yield a consistent product – educated citizens. This has been true for so long, we don’t even recognize the obvious connection to manufacturing. Our colleges and universities are designed to ensure uniformity – each person who earns a certain degree will have received similar instruction, met the same requirements, and had a comparable educational experience. This means that a B.S. in Chemistry, for example, will be essentially the same no matter which institution grants the degree, notwithstanding the relative prestige or status of the institution. We even apply metrics that quantify and evaluate our work, much like the quality control practices in factories. However, no matter how consistent and reliable our educational methods may be at imparting a pre-determined set of knowledge, skills, and competencies, it does not mean that students who earn a degree are truly educated. Certainly, students progress through our systems, abiding by the stale rules that change with glacial slowness, but many never become fundamentally transformed by the education they received. They are merely recipients of a standardized credential.
When someone who earns a living in higher education makes such a claim, it raises the specter of controversy, since those who contribute to such systems appear to be complicit in their perpetuation. Nevertheless, each person who works within the educational system can and should strive for improvement where opportunity exists or circumstances demand change. Every faculty member or academic administrator should support continuous improvement of our institutions and the expansion of our disciplines. We should resist the tendency to take the easier path that leads inexorably to the comfortable trap of legacies, rules, and traditions, guarding against our natural inclination to allow our longstanding institutional habits to limit the advancement and improvement of higher education. After all, progress occurs every day, even when our colleagues turn a blind eye to changes occurring beyond the campus gates.
Furthermore students come to us expecting our best, believing that we are leaders in our disciplinary fields. Do our credentials uphold the trust students place in us? Do we actively maintain our disciplinary engagement? Or has our professional involvement been stalled by legacy or tradition? We should never lose sight of the fact that students quite literally mortgage their futures for the privilege of studying with us, incurring staggering debt to avail themselves of the opportunities that they presume we will provide. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a private college for the 2017-2018 academic year was $38,830, which translates to $151,320 for a four-year bachelor’s degree. An in-state student at a four-year public university could expect to pay $20,770 per year for tuition, fees, room and board, or $83,080 for a bachelor’s degree. Unless we ourselves are the parents of college-age children, we seldom stop to count these costs, yet knowing the financial burden that our students place upon themselves (or that their parents incur through “Parent Plus” federal student loans) should give us pause. By way of comparison, $150,000 could buy a comfortable single family home in many areas of the country; and $83,000 is more than the cost of a brand-new Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe, or a Chevy Corvette Grand Sport, or a Jaguar F-Type R Dynamic. Some faculty and administrators may bluster at this comparison, saying that we cannot measure the value of college education in mere dollars and cents. Nevertheless, we DO put a price tag on it, which means that we must also consider whether we are giving students their money’s worth.
We in higher education must help one another perceive change and opportunity through a benefits-oriented lens. In other words, we must ask ourselves: does our choice to remain steeped in legacy, tradition, and manufacturing-era operational models draw us closer to the goal of preparing students to lead successful, sustainable lives after graduation? Or does it drive us further away? Academic maturity, leadership (and make no mistake: all educators are leaders), and scholarship each allow us to develop the ability to judge the constructiveness of our decisions, allowing us to recognize that high-quality scholarship has nothing in common with doing things the way they’ve “always been done.” We should never allow our intellectual curiosity to be sated, nor our eagerness for professional growth and achievement to wane. We cannot permit our departments, colleges, or schools to remain stagnant when the world all around us continues to evolve. If we do, our houses of learning become mere museums where we are but docents, introducing students to the treasured antiquities of our disciplines. Instead, we should each remain on the cutting edge of disciplinary achievement so that our students will be exposed to the most current information it is within our power to provide, empowering them to go forth from our institutions prepared for the ever-changing rigors and challenges of the professional world.
Higher education can no longer adhere to a model of mass production, using the obsolete machinery that has been in service for many decades. We should recognize that each student deserves an individualized educational experience that will be personally transformative, not only delivering the tools to succeed now, but instilling a passion for lifelong learning, an insatiably curious mind, and a spirit of innovation that transcends the basic skills and competencies typical of standardized degree progressions. When we can truly say that we do this, then we can legitimately claim to be educators.
AXIOM: Higher education must provide students with a transformative education that empowers them to transcend the skills and competencies of a given degree program.
 Brown, Karen. (May 24, 2013). An Interview With Sir Ken Robinson. Etsy Journal. https://blog.etsy.com/en/sir-ken-robinson-on-creativity-and-finding-your-element/
 Robinson, K. (2010). Changing Education Paradigms. RSA Animate-TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms
 College Data, a service of 1st Financial Bank. “What’s the Price Tag for a College Education?” https://www.collegedata.com/cs/content/content_payarticle_tmpl.jhtml?articleId=10064
 Road and Track (June 27, 2017). The 15 Best Cars Under $100,000. http://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/g4277/the-13-best-cars-under-100000-dollars/?slide=2
“Silos build the wall in people’s minds and tie the knots in their hearts.” ~ Pearl Zhu
It’s only natural for human beings to prefer the company of others like themselves. A study conducted by Northwestern University professor Lauren A. Rivera revealed that hiring process in the labor market rest not only on finding a qualified candidate for a position but someone who was culturally similar to the hiring manager. Rivera’s findings support earlier research by scholars such as Kanter (1977) or Lazarsfeld and Merton (1954), who also found that cultural similarities were the basis of attraction and social stratification. In higher education, “culture” is often defined by our academic disciplines, so it’s no surprise that scholars choose to associate with like-minded colleagues. We understand one another’s research and practice, and most importantly, we share a common passion for our disciplines. Close association between scholars in the same field of inquiry creates an environment in which teaching and learning in that field can grow and develop, striving to expand knowledge within the discipline and convey new discoveries to students. But this attractive familiarity can also become a barrier separating us from practitioners in other fields, resulting in disciplinary silos with their own value systems, insider language, and norms for scholarly inquiry and accomplishment. The more deeply steeped we become disciplinarily, the more difficult it can be to forge productive relationships with colleagues whose research, teaching methods, professional jargon, and habits of mind seem foreign to us. Rather than serving to enhance scholarly productivity and protect academic rigor, disciplinary silos slowly become little more than border walls, keeping insiders in and outsiders out, reinforced by longstanding habit.
Make no mistake, the advancement of disciplinary knowledge is crucial to the mission of every institution of higher learning, as is the training of new practitioners. Nevertheless, the workplace outside of academia emphasizes teamwork and collaboration over monodisciplinary focus. Employers want to hire candidates who can communicate clearly and effectively, work well on teams, and solve problems creatively, not just those with particular disciplinary expertise. Corporate professionals work on interdisciplinary teams, and some workplaces such as IDEO abandon the idea of professional disciplines altogether. Outside of academia, no discipline exists in isolation, even though our institutional structures, histories, and traditions can make it seem so. The world’s problems are complex, requiring a systems thinking approach that examines the linkages and interactions between a problem’s interrelated components and parts. No single discipline can solve “wicked problems” like world hunger, poverty, crime, disease, or political unrest alone. Instead, we need to bring our finely-honed disciplinary expertise to bear on collaborative projects where each participant can make a meaningful contribution to something greater than a single discipline alone could achieve.
Furthermore, interdisciplinarity strengthens both teaching and learning. Students learn more effectively when we help them to connect their disciplinary skills and knowledge to other contexts or applications. Because our disciplines don’t exist in a vacuum, it is incumbent upon us to show students how their learning will intersect with their other studies and their professional lives. This applies to all courses from general education requirements to senior seminars and graduate study. After all, why do we require all students to complete liberal arts requirements? Because they have value outside of the classroom, imparting a specific set of transferable competencies that prepare students to communicate clearly, analyze and evaluate intelligently, think critically, and work collaboratively – the very qualities employers are seeking in our graduates. All disciplines have both intrinsic and instrumental value, but it is up to us as faculty and administrators to convey both of these identities to our students and help them build the connections they need in order to fully mobilize all of their learning after graduation, not just their specialized disciplinary achievement.
So how do we break out of our silos? As with many other things in life, it is up to us to take the first step for ourselves. Find a partner in another field who is also interested in working on an interdisciplinary research project or co-teaching a course that incorporates both of your fields. Study successful instances of interdisciplinarity already occurring at your institution or elsewhere and investigate how you could apply similar strategies. Or conduct a little background research, like reading Surveying the Landscape: Arts Integration at Research Universities (2015), which outlines a number of approaches to interdisciplinary research and teaching, along with examples of institutions where this has been especially successful.
As important as it is to move beyond our silos, it’s still not easy. Colleges and universities often voice their support for interdisciplinarity, or establish centers and institutes that bring varied disciplines together, but longstanding systems and practices may stand in the way of their best intentions. When retention, promotion, or tenure rests only on individual disciplinary achievement, it’s difficult to invest significant professional energy into research or teaching that might impede career advancement.
Certainly, we must continue to hone our skills within our disciplinary divisions, so admirably equipped for that purpose, and persist in our hard work to deepen disciplinary knowledge. But we must also carry our valuable expertise beyond the self-imposed walls of our silos, strengthening the linkages and intersections between our fields of expertise in order to truly achieve the ideal of a university - establishing a whole and cohesive body of knowledge far greater than the sum of its formerly siloed parts. In this way, the human body might serve as an effective metaphor, with each physical system representing a distinct entity that functions in concert with all others in order to sustain life. All are essential, and none can do the job of the others, yet they work together so that we can do all of the amazing things humans can do, from composing an aria to competing in a triathlon.
Un-siloing our disciplines allows these productive interactions to occur unhindered by the structures and systems that have long kept us separated by custom, policy, or tradition. Institutions that establish greater flexibility in matters of retention, promotion, and tenure to allow for interdisciplinary work realize positive growth. Offering incentives to faculty who choose to pursue interdisciplinary research or teaching, or providing support systems for those who choose to venture in new directions beyond their prior comfort zone are also productive strategies. There are as many paths to success as there are faculty and administrators willing to boldly travel beyond their disciplinary borders, leaving the doors of the silo open in the ardent hope that others will follow. When we unlock our silos, we emulate most of the world outside our doors, where interdisciplinarity is the norm and disciplinary exclusivity the exception. This can only be of benefit to our students and our professions, not diluting our disciplinary rigor as some may fear, but infusing our disciplines with fresh ideas and new vitality, propelling us into a brighter future.
AXIOM: Disciplinary structures and systems continue to serve a valuable purpose in higher education but they should also allow for interdisciplinary research and teaching beyond longstanding borders.
 Zhu, Pearl. (2016). IT Innovation: Reinvent IT for the Digital Age. BookBaby.
 Rivera, L. (2012). Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms. American Sociological Review. 77(6) 999-1022. http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/journals/ASR/Dec12ASRFeature.pdf
 Kanter, Rosabeth. 1977. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books; and Lazarsfeld, Paul and Robert Merton. 1954. “Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis.” Pp. 18–66 in Freedom and Control in Modern Society, edited by M. Berger, T. Abel, and C. Page. New York: Van Nostrand
 Ryan, L. (March 2, 2016). 12 Qualities Employers Look for When Hiring. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/03/02/12-qualities-employers-look-for-when-theyre-hiring/#77eaf2352c24
 Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design. Harper Collins.
 Ireland, C. (June 6, 2013). Mapping the Future. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/06/mapping-the-future/
 Mackh, B. (2015). Surveying the Landscape: Arts Integration at Research Universities. University of Michigan Press. Full text download available at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015095766708;view=1up;seq=2
I've been working on a series of short writings about teaching and leadership in higher education that I've loosely titled "Axioms." This project is ongoing, with Axiom 28-The Challenge Coin completed today. You'll find the document below, and others on the Leadership page here on my site. If you have ideas for new Axioms, I'd love to hear them! Please post them in the comments below.
Bruce M. Mackh, PhD