2004 - 2007 Phase IV PKAL Leadership Initiative (LI) Final Report


Vision: a direction or framework to guide people in their work. It is usually oriented towards the future, departs from current realities, and anticipates the creation of something new.

Shared vision: the degree to which the vision becomes incorporated into the institutional culture, and is embraced by the broad campus community.

The PKAL Leadership Initiative (LI) was based on the premise that general leadership theories could be translated in practice as leaders in undergraduate STEM tackled the challenging and urgent work of strengthening student learning in STEM fields. It was designed as a new approach to STEM faculty development, focusing on leaders developing leaders as fundamental to achieving meaningful and systemic institutional transformation. The definition of leaders/leadership driving the initiative was from the work of Alexander Astin and Helen Astin (Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change. W.M. Kellogg Foundation, 2000.):

    leadership is a process ultimately concerned with intentionally fostering change that is directed toward some future and or condition which is desired or valued.
    ... all people are potential leaders and... leadership is a group process.

That definition describes the work of leaders in many different settings, but it was particularly helpful in the LI context by emphasizing that leadership is a group process— not an individual act. It was also helpful in defining leadership from the perspective of the scientific/engineering community— focusing on the future, on building, enhancing, sustaining a valued condition as a collaborative enterprise. Our focus on vision was specifically on visions for student learning, in the context of institutional circumstances, mission and identity.

The recent Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) publication (Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management. 2006.) connects leadership explicitly to the time-honored work of the scientist within a lab:

    leadership is getting a group of people to enact a vision of what needs to be accomplished.... thus, leadership starts with a vision, and requires relationships with others to accomplish tasks.

Lessons Learned— Finding I:

    The difficulty of clarifying and articulating a compelling vision.

In applying to participate, institutions were asked to draft a vision of what they hoped to achieve in strengthening student learning through their LI involvement, “what success would look like.” These drafts were all over the map: some more strategic than visionary (how to get there rather than where they wanted to go); others with no mention of “students or student learning.” Some were purely rhetorical, catalogue copy, non-institution specific; but happily others clearly revealed an existing collective commitment of the community, what Northouse calls a conceptual map for where the organization is headed.

    The vision is a focal point for transformational leadership...it gives meaning and clarifies the organization's identity. Furthermore, the vision gives followers a sense of identity within the organization and also a sense of self-efficacy.

Attention to shaping a compelling, collective vision became a regular part of the LI agenda, at seminars and other meetings and through electronic publications, including:

  • The development of a PKAL planning template that illustrates the relationship of vision, goals, strategies, and actions.
  • Discussions at all LI events facilitated by academic planners and STEM leaders about the process of linking visioning to strategic actions and to the world beyond the campus.
  • Discussions about how attention to students and to student learning drive the visioning process.
  • Discussions about how the changing context— student demographics, societal pressures and needs, scientific and technological advances— affect what the campus might anticipate as a desired future.
  • Exercises designed to give participants experience with collective visioning— the “Fanciful Horizon” exercise; opportunities to present a collective vision with lines, shapes and colors rather than words; opportunities to illustrate what the “ideal” graduate of an “ideal” undergraduate learning environment would be.
  • Stories from campuses beyond the LI community making significant progress toward institutional transformation, where a driving vision was evident.
  • Reports from LI campuses about their work in developing, evolving, sustaining a driving vision, particularly in regard to barriers addressed and overcome.
  • Regular postings on the PKAL website that highlighted the central role vision plays in systemic and sustainable institutional transformation.

Did the LI experience advance and inform visioning efforts on participating campuses? Yes and no. Through a review of institutional portfolios, of the outcome of the LI evaluation site visits, and of the project-end survey, it is clear the outcome is varied.

Here are some LI reflections from the final survey to the question, is there now a clear vision of student learning goals on your campus?

  • We are making progress at the divisional level in agreeing within programs as to what we are looking for from our students. Undergraduate research is highlighted in the newest institutional strategic plan, but we do not yet have clarity as to what that means at the program level.
  • The college has had a whole series of discussions on student learning goals, but some members of the STEM division are still resistant to applying them directly to us.
  • At the departmental level, there is a clear sense of student learning goals, but during a period of presidential transition, there is no mechanism in place to communicate those upstream.
  • Our faculty, students and administration now have several years of experience with the new curriculum that emerged during our LI experience. Our LI goal was to create a research-rich learning environment for all students and such learning goals are strongly integrated into our institutional strategic plan.

The evaluation team for the program explored the several dimensions of institutional transformation, including those relating to setting a vision, implementing goals and strategies relevant to that vision, and taking informed action. The questions they posed included:

  • What is your vision of success in building a robust STEM learning environment and what evidence is there that you are progressing toward that vision?
  • Who has been/is involved in this work? What, if any, has been the role of senior administrators? Has shared learning emerged?
  • What is the evidence that structural change is underway that will lead to the cultural change that becomes systemic and sustainable?
  • What strategies and tactics are working? Why are they working?

Prior to visiting a select group of campuses, the evaluation team reviewed institutional portfolios (individual and team reports). The positive collective indications were summarized as follows. What works seems to be when there is:

  • openness to change signaled by presidential vision and action which is evident in many ways, including appointments to senior administrative positions, and philosophical and financial support for those taking a leadership role in institutional change.
  • a sense of long-term stability with decisions made collectively and thoughtfully about each next step and new direction in the context of the institutional culture and mission, and where that approach to decision-making has contributed to a culture of trust.
  • intentional weaving by leaders of a "tapestry of change," in some instances taking small steps (low-hanging fruit) and in others pursuing breath-taking and timely new initiatives.
  • persistent attention to what students are learning and to the process of learning and teaching, an outcome evident even in how students talk about their learning experiences (active and engaged) and seem to be in sync with the larger institutional vision.
  • visible evidence that "everyone is on board" in thinking about student learning— from facilities managers to library directors to assessment officers to faculty in all disciplines. This seems to reduce the potential of individuals (faculty or departments) going it on their own. What works is when the quality of learning in STEM is the concern of the whole campus.
  • visible evidence that the campus is intentional and sophisticated in identifying and adapting relevant work of peers, in order to be most efficient in regard to time and funds in the work of reform.

In their final report, the evaluation team noted:

Vision was a very complex aspect of the project to evaluate, even though having a clear vision is one of the main assumptions of the LI project. But at the campus level it was not clear that "vision" was uniformly central to success in achieving institutional transformation and/or for creating more campus leaders who were agents of change.

Upon reviewing portfolios, it seems that the more clear, succinct and simple the vision, the more it served to drive the process of transformation. So, one of our recommendations is that helping campuses develop such a vision (an “elevator speech”) is more important in the process than moving them toward developing a complex vision statement.

This is because campuses become mired in the visioning process. As noted by one LI member:

    Given our institutional culture, in which the machinery of strategic planning seems to impede strategic thinking (visioning), we have instead focused on organizing groups to talk about specific things they might do in the future, about what we/they could do with new people, new spaces, new money, etc.? It seems to be forcing the discussion away from current problems and how we do it now toward discussions about how they can do something different in the future and how that individual action can contribute to the whole. Indeed, many are finding out that they do contribute to the whole, and their attitude is changing and their creativity unleashed.

LI teams on several campuses that were visited got stuck trying to develop a vision that they thought would make sense to the larger community, and then began to back-track to think about specific goals and strategies for student learning— as prelude to developing a vision. On one or two campuses, the LI team reported that non-STEM faculty became confused when they started discussing visions for student learning— the idea of vision seemed too nebulous. On these and other campus visited, what seemed to work was when the conversation started from the point of specific projects or programs. Interestingly, on many of these campuses, when non-STEM faculty were asked about their thoughts for the future, there was significant mention of increased numbers of students studying STEM fields, greater interdisciplinary work that cut across all disciplines and contributed to new faculty collaborations, more connections to high schools, etc.

Yet on other campuses, it was not the solo work of the LI team that was instrumental but the support by campus leaders to create a shared vision on campus around teaching and learning that made the difference. Clearly, one of the most important roles of senior leaders on PKAL LI campuses was to help create shared vision around being student-centered. Those in positional leadership roles were successful in creating and nurturing a culture in which non-positional leaders could take responsibility for translating the shared vision around student learning in new policies, programs and practices.

The role of vision in institutional change (transformation of the undergraduate STEM learning environment) is an area that needs further study and refinement.