Avoiding the Land Mines: Dealing Effectively with Emerging Higher Education Issues

by George R. Boggs, Ph.D. and Christine Johnson McPhail, Ph.D.

Student-led protests are just one of the issues that colleges and universities face. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue/CC BY-SA 2.0)

When issues or disputes arise in an institution, it’s often easy, but ill-advised, to avoid conflict or to simply look the other way. In our book “Practical Leadership in Community Colleges,” we discuss ways to manage issues to promote healthy institutions. In this discussion, our conversation focuses on understanding how successful management of issues can help educators navigate today’s challenges. Throughout our conversation we raise questions and provide advice on how to manage issues to obtain productive results in today’s colleges and universities.

George Boggs, Ph.D.: The list of challenges facing higher education today is extensive: student unrest, racial and ethnic tensions, campus emergencies, guns on campus, safety and security, increased calls for accountability, college completion rates, developmental education outcomes, achievement gaps, athletic injuries, sexual assault, academic integrity, and many others. While many of these issues can be dealt with by referring to existing policies and procedures, others are more intricate and require careful thought and preparation. Colleges and universities are multifaceted, diverse organizations, and the issues faced by students, faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees are often both difficult and sensitive.

Christine McPhail, Ed.D.: I agree, and it is important to recognize that the health of any organization depends upon how effectively, efficiently, and consistently these kinds of issues are managed. We have both witnessed situations in which issues are allowed to linger and, as a result, have a detrimental effect on the organization and its ability to function. As we discussed in our book, issues that are dealt with inconsistently or without explanation can adversely affect the morale of the organization’s people. A good way to manage issues is to have clear institutional policies and procedures (and clear employee contract language in collective bargaining environments) to ensure that they are handled fairly and consistently. However, there are times when issues are not covered by a policy or procedure, or when they can be interpreted in more than one way.

Boggs: Yes, Christine, and leadership is critical to dealing with today’s challenges. Leadership in academia is dispersed throughout the organization and is not only the responsibility of the president or chancellor. Institutions need effective leadership at all levels — from the faculty, administration, and staff — and responsible governance from a Board of Trustees. Although institutions sometimes have to respond quickly to an issue, usually there is time to obtain valuable advice before deciding on a course of action. Decision makers often seek the guidance of advisory committees, cabinets, colleagues, personal coaches, or mentors.

McPhail: So, committee members play an important role in addressing institutional issues. In all cases, it is important for everyone to be open-minded and respectful of all points of view, to have thought seriously about the legalities and ethics involved in issue management, and to know what line not to cross when recommending a course of action. . When issues are particularly complex and sensitive, a more systematic way of studying them, such as the model we describe in our book on practical leadership, can be valuable. Leaders and leadership teams can make use of the steps to think about how issues should be managed.

Boggs: I agree, Christine. We make the point in the book that in most cases there is no quick fix to resolving issues. We outline a multi-step model for issue management. The first steps are to identify and clarify the issue. How important is the issue? How urgent is it? Are there secondary or unspoken issues that might be important? Is the issue the real one, or is it a symptom of an underlying issue? What is the context in which the issue is being presented? Why is the issue emerging now? Are there more than two sides to the issue? How does the issue relate to the core values ​​of the college? What effect does the issue have on student learning? Why is managing the issue now important?

McPhail: Yes, defining and clarifying the issue should not be overlooked. The next step is to analyze the issue. What are the positive and negative implications of each viewpoint? In our book we recommend asking a series of questions. What assumptions are being made by advocates? What level of training, experience, and background do the advocates for each viewpoint have? How do their positions and responsibilities affect their views? How did the issue emerge? Who received the arguments for the viewpoints (eg, college leadership, board of trustees, general public)? How do the assumptions identified help support or hinder acceptance of each viewpoint? How might your own assumptions impact your understanding or acceptance of the positions being presented? Do others support the positions? Answering these questions can save a lot of stress in the long run.

Boggs: Good points, Christine; a great deal can be learned by analyzing the viewpoints on issues. Are recommended solutions consistent with the logic of the arguments presented? Are the suggested actions reasonable given the context of the issue presented? How aligned are they with the mission of the college and with student access, learning, and success? How will the course of action affect college resources? Are there any ethical or moral implications involved in the issue? Is there time to involve appropriate college governance or administrative committees? Who should be informed that the issue is being addressed? What is the timeline for resolving the issue? Do you have the authority and responsibility to make the decision? After listening, reviewing, and analyzing the various viewpoints presented on the issue, decide on a recommendation or course of action.

McPhail: Communication regarding the issue is very important. Once a course of action is decided, it is important to communicate the position you have taken and why. Leaders need to respect individuals who have a different point of view. Is your decision final, or will you need endorsement of a higher-level administrator or a board of trustees? Determine the best method of communication. Should it be face-to-face or in writing? We have seen too many examples of institutional governance that did not work because leaders were reluctant to make a decision or did not communicate the decision and the rationale for it. Ensure that all appropriate and interested parties are notified.

Boggs: Our next columns will deal with some of the most important issues that are emerging in higher education. We thought it was important to first provide our thinking about how issues can be handled and how decisions can support the institutional mission; affect employee morale; and support student access, learning, and success. Even if a decision is not one that you agree with, you should think about how you can support it and help make it work.

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