PKAL Volume IV: What Works, What Matters, What Lasts

Words of Wisdom and Practical Advice from the Field: Personal and Political Dimensions of STEM Leadership

What advice do you have for developing the leadership capacity of those responsible for the quality of the undergraduate STEM learning environment?

What are the leadership challenges for STEM faculty members?

How is an institutional culture of leadership nurtured?

These are some of the explicit and implicit questions explored in recent conversations with members of the PKAL community who have thought deeply about leadership in general, as well as in the context of undergraduate STEM.

Kenneth Ruscio, President— Washington and Lee University, in an interview with PKAL F21 member Gary Radice, Associate Professor of Biology— University of Richmond, suggests that leadership is too broad a concept to hope for a theory of how individuals evolve as leaders, but that leadership should be seen as a composite: looking to improve your capacity for judgment or understanding of the organizations in which you reside, or of your strengths and weaknesses.

    We usually don’t think of athletes evolving as an athlete, but we do watch basketball players, for example, improve their passing game or their defensive or shooting skills, and we accept it matter of faculty that some basketball players would be better served concentrating on the development of certain skills more than others.

James Gentile, President— Research Corporation in comments from the inaugural PKAL Café Scientifique (as distilled by PKAL F21 member Bridget Gourley, Professor of Chemistry— DePauw University) challenged PKAL colleagues around the country to deal head-on in tackling leadership challenges–in particular the inertia and conservatism which mitigate against reform.

    Seasoned faculty members have to understand what change is all about and how to measure success, and- in particular– to embrace failure as well as success. Consider what you are trying to change as a super tanker that turns very slowly and try to figure out what it will take to get it into port safely. You have to realize when you nudge a super tanker to reposition it, much energy, a lot of effort, and more than one tug boat will possibly be needed. But it can be done with persistence and when there is a broad realization of the goal.

In a follow-up interview after his presentation at the 2007 PKAL F21 National Assembly, PKAL F21 member Daniel Wubah, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs at the University of Florida, talked about leadership as a journey that requires the capacity to take risks.

    There are too many people who basically go through life as if there is a single track he or she must follow, no matter what. But doesn’t this mean one has to wait for the one in front of you to move before you get to where you want to go. On the other hand, leaders tend to get off the track, or walk in between the tracks, instead of follow the tracks.

These words of wisdom from senior members of the PKAL community are reflected in statements from four members of the PKAL F21 (Faculty for the 21st Century) Class of 2007— who were challenged to articulate their thoughts about leaders and leadership while at an earlier stage in their career.

    I have learned a lot by being allowed to share some responsibilities with the department chair and the dean. I believe that doing these things and receiving constructive feedback on what I have done was the best leadership training I have ever received.
    — Tikhon Bykov, Assistant Professor of Physics— McMurry University

    Find ways to stay involved in projects at different levels. Inexperienced colleagues benefit from your experience while providing a different perspective on new and established projects. In addition, solving problems keeps your mind young and nimble.
    — Steve Lindaas, Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy— Minnesota State University Moorhead

    Talk to as many people as possible to find out what the general opinions are on important issues. Don’t presume to know what people think without talking to them. ...listening is the key.
    — Karen L. Shuman, Assistant Professor of Mathematics— Grinnell College (from an interview with her father, a recently retired university research chemist).

    Leadership is reaching out to the people who are least comfortable with change, and working to bring those people along instead of ignoring them or being in conflict with them.
    — Valory Thatcher, Instructor of Anatomy & Physiology— Mt. Hood Community College

Please note the March 20 PKAL Café Scientifique, A conversation with Susan Sciame-Giesecke, Dean, School of Arts and Sciences–Indiana University Kokomo.