Last week I spent the morning with a group of colleagues, mostly from outside of academic affairs. I had reached out to folks in academic advising, student affairs, admissions, athletics, and career services (they’ve just moved to academic affairs) to help me think about how we might weave together some shared goals. There were just a few faculty members and the academic deans for this conversation, mostly because I wanted to expand my thinking and I needed this group’s help with this. The discussion prompts were essentially, 1. How do your areas align with the university learning outcomes, and 2. How might we work together to build an organized plan to achieve those goals with contributions from all areas of the university? The conversation did not disappoint.
Much of this conversation happened without my participation. I left for another meeting and returned to check in after about ninety minutes. I had thought to regroup, but they were still busy discussing the ideas at hand, so I waited for the final report out at the end. There were lots of important observations about how communication occurs with our students and with each other, how we do or do not connect across areas, and, of course, that we should revise those newly approved university learning outcomes. Like emerging observations in our NECHE accreditation report (being overseen by a different group), there was a keen interest in revising our mission. Interestingly, the drivers for why it should be revised were very different. That was a great “aha” for me. Then the folks in the room asked to meet again. For three hours again! And perhaps continuing on a regular basis for the rest of the term.
As the folks in the room continued to talk, I agreed to schedule the next meeting and suggested that I would add a few more representatives from the faculty. This led me to a bigger puzzle, how do I foster these conversations everywhere? I have a meeting with department chairs this week and we will engage a piece of what this group did last week. The Steering Committee for our NECHE report will be meeting in another week and I hope that they will help to facilitate related conversations as we bring our report out for comment. Our University Senate meets next week, and I will provide updates on new programs, our accreditation report, and I will start a conversation about mission. These are the normal steps, moving through governance meetings, divisional meetings, and so on. These practices allow me to start conversations and try to keep folks in the loop, but they don’t always (often) lead to continued action or engagement.
At some point we are likely to decide to have a retreat, which is great for some of this work, but I’m not sure it really gets us to the heart of what we really need. Having run many retreats over the years, in good times and tough times, they don’t seem to foster the intended inclusivity that they are designed to create. No matter how many ways I try to cluster people in smaller and larger groupings, when we get to reporting out, it is clear that not all perspectives make it to the summaries. The process of reporting out stimulates an attempt to find consensus, and as great as that is, dissenting ideas disappear. Or maybe I’m wrong about this, but this is only part of why I am not seeing this approach is an obvious next step for thinking about our university mission and outcomes right now. The real reason is that Friday’s conversation made it clear to me that we are aching for community.
It is always a struggle to engage our colleagues outside of official meetings. The demands of our varied roles are pressing, and we prioritize our efforts there. We have families and things outside of work that we care about, and they, too, are prioritized. We find ourselves coming to work, doing our jobs and going home (often to continue doing our jobs), without much casual interaction. Making time to connect with each other and really learn from and about each other is usually the bottom of the list. Then we start feeling less connected, less respected, less seen, and less happy. It is a lonely experience to say the least.
Since last Friday’s conversation, I’ve really been puzzling through ways to address this. As great and open as that conversation was (and it will continue), I think it is in the less formal but more consistent conversations that we build understanding of our peers, students, and the perspectives that come with each person’s area of expertise and experiences. It is through the routine interactions that we build community and it is there that the opportunity to really have a shared vision can emerge. I think this is what we are all craving.
So, here’s where I’ve landed so far. I’m not looking to establish a common hour because folks will just schedule meetings in those time slots. We need some common hours for activities, but they won’t help solve the community problem. Instead, I am proposing community hours. I am not going to schedule them, but we all need to to do so. These will be time slots that we put on our calendars to have coffee, tea, or whatever with a colleague. I recommend that we block out a couple of hours each week, but starting with one will do. Schedule it now so it doesn’t get absorbed by something else. Then just start sending invitations. Sometimes it might be with someone in your department so you can deepen your understanding of an idea, or just relax together with no pressure to solve anything. But most of the time, we should reach out to people from other areas – students, faculty, staff, administrators – and get to know each other.
This is a small, and maybe silly, thing, but I suspect it will do a world of good for us. Maybe it will help us solve big problems or move new ideas forward. Maybe it will uncover barriers to success or new opportunities to create together. That would be awesome. But most of all, I hope it will help us build a true sense of we. When that happens, the mission will be obvious.