Leadership Matters: What Leaders Can Do to Advance the Liberal Art of Science

by Susan Elrod

To achieve the lofty goals called for in this revised version of the Liberal Art of Science, changes to our institutions of higher education must be made that are not only systemic but are also implemented at a scale that will affect significant numbers of students. These systemic and scalable changes must also be sustained over time. Institutions of higher education are complex organizational and operational systems. This means changes must necessarily impact not just a few but multiple courses in a majority of academic programs across many departments. They may even cross academic college boundaries, depending on the size and organization of the institution, or cross divisional lines, such as academic and student affairs. And, that is just at one institution. State systems of higher education or those governed by a coordinating commission have an added complexity to address when exerting change across institutional borders to impact students across regions, counties or boroughs in a single state.

There are many models and theories of change currently being used in initiatives aimed at improving undergraduate STEM education. These models take different forms, from proscriptive actions to process flows. For example, the model shown in Figure 1 developed by Elrod and Kezar (2016) shows a process flow of steps recommended for creating a successful systemic institutional change plan. It outlines recommended steps in the process of institutional change and is drawn using the concept of a river to emphasize that the process of change is not linear and may involve setbacks or “eddies” as shown by the rocks in the illustrated river. As noted at the bottom of the figure, leadership is required to navigate the “river of change”; however, at the time the model was developed, we had not yet fully explored what leaders needed to do to positively affect change.

Figure 1. Model for Systemic Institutional Change

The Building Leadership Capacity (BLC) project was initiated to define the set of change leader actions, or “moves”, that are required to lead scalable, sustainable systemic institutional change. So far, the BLC project has built a taxonomy of eight initial change leader moves categories, each with 5-12 specific sub-moves, combining for over 60 possible moves leaders might make in a change project. While the taxonomy is still being more fully developed, one purpose it has served is to shed a much-needed light on the importance of leadership and what leaders do to intentionally ensure successful change outcomes occur. It has also shed light on how different leaders working on the same project can interact, leverage their own strengths and opportunities as leaders to work collectively towards their shared goals. As a long-time higher education leader, it has helped me reflect on my own leader moves in various projects at the different campuses where I have served. In this chapter, I will share insights from the emerging change leader taxonomy as well as reflections from my own leadership experience that I think are important for changing the landscape of STEM education.

Change Leader Moves for STEM Education
First, in the change leader taxonomy, there were ten change leader moves that were identified by those involved in the development of the taxonomy as particularly important for STEM-focused change projects (Table 1). While these are still being verified by further research, they provide some great food for thought for those leading STEM change projects. The first one on the list is a tried and true move for most leaders – to develop a shared vision that will guide the project. A shared vision is one that is articulated and agreed to by those involved in the change project. The aspect of this that was specifically identified as important in STEM projects was to be cognizant of the institutional history of reform and where the new project may fit so change leaders aren’t reinventing the wheel or repeating the past without awareness of what worked or didn’t so new approaches might be used. This may be because there has been such a long history of reform focused projects, going back at least to the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, published in 2007, and dozens of reports published since then. Too often new projects start on a campus without knowledge of what might have been tried several years ago, so leaders cannot learn and build from either failures or successes. Failures may not often be documented, making them more difficult to learn from; however, a process that begins with a deliberate review of what has been tried, successfully or not, will start with that knowledge and can incorporate it into planning.

The second on the list, connecting the dots to the bigger picture and beyond, relates to the exact point of the Liberal Art of Science publication. Learning about the scientific process and understanding the important concepts of science is critical for everyone in our society. This also relates to ensuring the project connects to other relevant agendas for change, such as the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice movements that assure attention to important DEIJ issues and approaches.

Table 1. Change Leader Moves for STEM Change Project Leaders
1. Facilitate development of a shared vision with an understanding and ability to navigate the relevant internal and external landscapes, including institutional history of reform and where your project fits in to broader goals
2. Connect the dots especially to the bigger picture and beyond the university to societal/political, challenges/issues
3. Understand and manage resistance to change, with a deliberate plan to do so
4. Understand how implicit cultural norms and biases intersect with, inform or may impede change
5. Gather resources, including fund-raising, grant-writing
6. Identify and use relevant data to inform strategy and decision-making
7. Foster collaboration
8. Value new voices/other voices/credible voices
9. Communicate effectively, from active listening, creating conversations and soliciting feedback to developing a coherent message, advocating for the project, persuading others, and amplifying the voices of change makers through stories or other mechanisms.
10. Have a growth mindset

Third, all of us have encountered resistance to change and so it is understandable why this made the list. As human beings, we are resistant to change when we are comfortable with certain aspects of our lives, or in the case of teaching courses, we are comfortable with how we were taught and how that translates to our comfort (or lack thereof) with new methods or approaches. If change is to be successful, leaders must understand what people are afraid of regarding the proposed change and help to create ways to help people overcome these fears.

Correspondingly, the fourth move on the list, which relates to understanding what cultural norms may be impacted or how implicit biases may exert negative influences in the project is important. For example, it may be a cultural norm that faculty are off campus or busy in their labs in the summers doing research so may balk when asked to participate in a new summer STEM bridge program for underrepresented minority students that would take them away from their funded research. However, this can be used for the project by leveraging this norm to build on the summer research focus in a way that expands it to include the summer bridge students. Another example is implicit biases that each of us hold and may even be unaware of that may have serious consequences for how faculty interact with one another but also with students. Stereotyping is an example, such as girls are not good at math. This may include microaggressions (e.g., “you’re good at math for a girl”) that can have devastating effects on changing behaviors that are necessary for productive progress forward.

The fifth STEM-identified change leader move is probably one of the most obvious and perhaps the most understandable in STEM parlance. Grants and funding are at the heart of what most scientists need to do for their own research, so extending this to the world of education reform is an understandable extension. In addition, catalyzing change requires an infusion of funding to spur program development and pilot-testing, provide time for someone to analyze evaluation data, and/or travel to aspirational sites or conferences. This may be particularly important when the change is driven by faculty leaders who do not have easy access to institutional funds. Receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation or other highly recognized funding agency also lends credence to the project, which might help in bringing administrative leaders on board to provide further support for the project.

Likewise, the sixth move on this list likely comes from the data and evidence orientation of scientists. As scientists, we are trained to make evidence-based decisions, typically using what might be referred to as “hard” data – numbers, facts, figures, results based on mathematical calculations, etc.; however, in the context of educational reform it may be necessary to use “softer” information, generated using social science methods that may include demographic data, student survey results, interviews with students or other evidence less familiar to biologists, chemists and physicists who are used to numerical data being collected about the natural world. Leaders serve an important role when they can help science faculty members understand the value and importance of these data in the context of the reform project’s goals and desired outcomes.

Fostering collaboration, the seventh move on this list, may also stem from the collaborative and team-based environments scientists are used to in laboratory of field-based research endeavors. Thus, an effective leader should leverage this foundational aspect of the research process to build collaborative teams that can work together on the change project. It should be easier in the sciences as we are all accustomed to research and team collaborations in our work.

In doing so, the eighth move on this list comes into play. That is, leaders need to be sure to include and actively value new voices and different perspectives, including skeptics, as they build teams to complete project objectives. Sometimes bringing a skeptical view to the project can change minds but also offer valuable feedback regarding opposition or barriers the project may face and need to overcome to be successful.

The ninth move relates to effective communication in all its forms, from active listening to advocacy for the project and its leaders. This may be obvious, but it cannot be overstated and many change leaders overlook this essential component of effective leadership. Especially during a change project, leaders need to have a communication plan and stick to it in order to keep people informed, recruit new people to the project, maintain momentum and celebrate results.

Finally, the tenth item on this list is more than a move. It is a mindset. So many institutions are embracing the growth mindset approach, originally developed by Carol Dweck (Dweck, 2006) and subsequently developed by others (for a recent example, see Yeager, et al., 2019). Growth mindset outlines a set of aspirational beliefs that students can adopt to change their beliefs about their own abilities from a fixed mindset that they are just not smart or talented and therefore cannot learn and succeed, to a one that acknowledges they can develop skills and talents by working hard, overcoming barriers, embracing failures and learning from their mistakes. In the context of change leader moves, a growth mindset refers to leaders having this mindset for themselves, meaning they have a belief that they can develop as leaders by working hard, overcoming barriers and learning from mistakes, as well as promoting a growth mindset in leaders they are empowering and mentoring.
Contextual Factors that Influence Change Leader Moves
In addition to taking a deliberate approach to what leaders do, it is important to understand the additional contextual factors that influence what leaders do or impact their ability to be successful. There are several contexts that the BLC project has identified but I will focus on a subset in this chapter. The first context relates to the goals and scope of the change project as important factors. For example, is it a department-focused or university-wide project? Is the outcome a desired change in faculty teaching approach or student learning? This will necessitate the leader orient themselves toward strategies and the associated units that are involved in directly impacting these goals.

The second context refers to the type of institution as well as its size, mission and culture as influential in determining leader actions. For example, how leaders operate in a community college or a research university differs not only because of the organizational structure, but because of differences in mission, size and culture. Also, a smaller college or university may have a more collaborative culture simply because everyone is located together in fewer buildings and higher-level campus leaders may also be more visible because of the small campus size. Larger universities may have more formal leadership and organizational structures that create distributed leadership systems, meaning deans and department chairs may be more visible and influential in particular for STEM projects. There is also a difference in impact – the same size project may encompass an entire small college but only a couple of large departments on a major campus. These are just a few ways institutional size may be a factor.

The third context identifies internal and external factors at play on any campus that may positively or negatively impact what leaders can or cannot do. This may be one of the least recognized but most difficult contexts to manage for a leader. For example, policies enacted by a governing board or state laws and policies, such as performance-based funding formulas, may empower or constrain what leaders can do on campus. There may also be internal political forces, such as competition between large professional schools and the humanities for resources. Alumni and donors can also be a factor that can put pressure on leaders to act or provide resources for particular programs that enable leaders to take certain actions.

Finally, a fourth set of contexts relates to the different cultures operating on a campus, from the leadership culture to the culture of change (or status quo!) to the cultures and norms influencing diversity, equity and inclusion work on the campus. Many of these cultures involve formal policies or procedures but may include unspoken norms or ways of doing business that present either opportunities or challenges for change leaders. It is important for change leaders to spend some time thinking about and identifying key cultural landscapes that may be influencing change project progress and outcomes.

A System of Campus Change Leadership
The previous sections provide some insights that might be useful to leaders working to affect change to advance the ideas and goals outlined in this book. In doing so, it is important for leaders to know that they are not in it alone. To achieve significant change, many leaders must be involved. My colleagues and I have begun to talk about a system of leadership, even an ecosystem of leadership, with many leaders taking different actions and exerting influence at different levels of the university to pull levers and exert influence on the system to shift the output and outcomes of the system. There are leaders with titles, such as president, provost, dean or department chair who we can refer to as formal leaders. There are also leaders without titles, but who can and do provide leadership in departmental or university-level projects. We can refer to these leaders as informal leaders. Each of these different kinds of leaders have different responsibilities as well as opportunities to lead. For example, the president is responsible for setting the strategic vision and direction for the university. A dean, in turn, is responsible for ensuring that their school or college contributes to that vision and direction in ways that correspond to their programmatic and research areas of expertise. The same is true for department chairs, who are on the forefront of ensuring academic programs in their departments meet the quality and educational outcomes defined by the institution. Formal leaders also have opportunities within their scope of responsibilities to make certain leader moves, such as allocating resources to enable a particular aspect of the strategic direction. The responsibilities and opportunities of informal leaders may be less obvious or more difficult to ascertain, but they are still important. For example, informal leaders may function as influencers to get their colleagues on board with a new initiative by setting an example of their own work that meets specified STEM change project goals. They can also play important roles in communicating with others about the project, writing grants, or helping gain buy-in from their colleagues to support the project. Both types of leaders, formal and informal, are important, as well as leaders at different levels of the university to advance the Liberal Art of Science.

I would like to thank the Building Leadership Capacity (BLC) team for their contributions to the project, Adrianna Kezar, Cynthia Bauerle, Muriel Poston, Judith Ramaley and Gordon Uno, as well as the 24 campus leaders who participated in the original July 2019 BLC workshop.

Elrod, S.L. and Kezar, A. (2016) Increasing Student Success in STEM: A Guide to Systemic Institutional Change. Washington, DC: AAC&U. Available at: https://secure.aacu.org/store/detail.aspx?id=PKALSTSS

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Yeager, T., et al. (2019) A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573, 364-369. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1466-y

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