More than once I have started a sentence with my colleagues and students, “When I run my own college…” I have all these great plans I swear would work, but I know would never be implemented in our current system.
One of these plans, in fact the most important one, centers around a single philosophy. Students should be not only the driving force behind each decision we make, they should be the ones in the front seat doing the driving. Every committee we sit on, every planning group, every project team, every single place where decisions are made or resources allocated, should be populated, in part or in whole, by students. This, in my view, is the best way to ensure students understand and buy into the process. It also ensures that our focus remains their best interest.
The two main arguments I have heard against this organizational triangle flipping is 1) students are not at a developmental level to deal with that kind of responsibility and 2) if you were to go to this model, there would be no need for professionals.
My answer to the first argument is that students will, as Jaime Escalante said, “rise to a level of expectation.” As long as we see our students as consumers of a product, they will treat us like providers. As long as we see them as people to be administered to, they will treat us as authority figures to mistrust, keep information from and rebel against. Only by handing over the processes of our campus to them, will they truly understand how and why we make the decisions we do.
My response to the second criticism is that our job does not diminish by handing over decision making to students, it increases. Our roles go from knowing better than students, to helping students know and see things for themselves. We cease to be the decision makers and become the people who teach decision-making skills. And, if there is one skill our students desperately need to learn, it is decision making. This model gives us a chance to lead from below, to do training and guidance instead of handholding. Our job becomes being the one in the room who says, “hey, have you thought about this.” You are there, as someone who can predict where this is going, to give the bigger longer vision. You become the greater voice of history.
So, I am not going to be running my own college anytime soon. Unless of course, I win the lottery, in which case, watch out. But I still work this philosophy into my daily life. I am currently a hall director. This is a strange job I have still not been able to explain to my Mom, after 6 years. Basically, you spend your time guiding the lives of some 200 people, some of who love you for the help and some of who resent you for the “power” you hold. There is no clear guideline or rulebook for being a hall director. You pretty much need to rely on mentors, some theory and your ability to persevere through the initial painful years.
I want to state one thing first; I do not think you can hand the keys to the halls over to the residents, or student staff (as is my personal focus), on the first day of September. It needs to be a gradual process happening in a supportive, structured environment. Ken Blanchard developed the model I learned best from. In a teleconference I went to about five years ago, he talked about empowering people in four steps.
1. Set clear expectations and boundaries up front. Be the dominant leader. Set the tone.
2. When people begin to resent this style, it means they are ready to grow. Now, you can begin to feed them as much information as you are allowed. More statistics and numbers and feedback and decision justification is better than less. Tell them everything.
3. As people get disillusioned because things are not working as they should, become a cheerleader. Let them know how well they are doing. Show them you know they can achieve.
4. Be a mentor and fountain of wisdom. Step back and let people fly or fall based on his or her own skills and abilities. But be there to show them how they got here and what they can do to move on.
This is extremely simplified and I would suggest “Empowerment takes more than a Minute” by Ken Blanchard, for a deeper understanding. It is a short, quick, impressive read.
When my staff comes back in August, the first thing I do is give them a sheet of expectations. Because I have added to this list each year, it is typically a long and detailed sheet. It is also a list of very lofty goals. I ask my staff to give me an adjective describing how well they would like to do this year; mediocre, good, outstanding, etc. They always pick outstanding (or some other fun adjective). I then tell them my word and explain how we can work together, because we have the same goals.
I base these goals on my previous years of experience, colleagues and mentors suggestions and my own vision. I try to avoid things like, “Focus on your studies,” replacing it with something more definable, “You will improve on your current GPA while on staff.” I don’t ask for miracles. I know a junior with a 2.5 cüm is never going to have a 3.8 cüm, but I do expect people to improve on wherever they are. Improvement is key.
After we have gone over the entire sheet, each of them reading a part of it for the group, we all sign it. Copies are then made and hung in prominent staff places. Very rarely do I ever have a staff member say, “I didn’t know we were supposed to do that.” And when I do, I generally need to just point to the nearest wall with our signed list.
In about late October or early November, we dust off the old list, look at it and throw it out. The time has come for the staff to walk alone. I bring out the list of adjectives and ask them again the same question. Describe how well you would like to do this year? Usually, their expectations have become more realistic, but still quite high. For this activity I say nothing. They come up with a list on their own. I do, however, set the guidelines before they arrive by listing categories on the sheet, Grades, Programming, Staff Morale, etc. This list usually surprises and impresses me.
This is one of the great parts of the model. You think you know better. You think you can come up with a more effective list than your staff, but they shock you. The sense of pride at seeing a group of people lead themselves is precious. It is one of the few times I feel like a mama bird when her babies have just flown, or a parent when they let go of the seat on the bike and their children don’t fall.
Again we sign and hang this list. It stays up until about February. We then bring it out and I give them the option to tear it up, or re-endorse it or add or subtract. Each year, each staff has done something different. But, they always make me proud.
This is just an example and a brief glimpse of how to use this philosophy. You can carry it through to programming, community building, floor environment, budget. This year, I gave my staff the option of how to manage floor money; per floor, per resident, or one lump sum for the building. They had a great discussion and ended up splitting it up by resident, but one staff member could go to another if they had a more extensive program and “get” money. It built a great camaraderie.
The fun thing about giving up control is watching your staff do it for the people they work with. One of my RA’s this year was frustrated because his floor wasn’t getting involved. So, he went to a floor meeting and offered to hand over all programming to a “floor government”. He said he would get money for any activity students wanted to plan if the floor would choose a group of people to coordinate it. The floor didn’t want this responsibility, but some leaders emerged and planned events. Attendance is up and everyone is happy. His leading programmer has just been hired to be an RA for next year.
I think, too often, we believe we have been in the halls longer, seen more and know how things are going to go. And we use this sense as a justification for being a top down leader who demands things from their staff and students and can’t understand why people don’t do what they are told. The best way to end this is to get yourself out of the way.
Hire good people, train them well and remind them of their goals. Stay focused on their involvement in any process where decisions are made or resources allocated. Demand constant improvement, no matter how little or how slow. And remember, you do not need to define the path; you just need to keep the end in sight. They will get there. I promise.
Blanchard, Ken with Carlos, John and Randolph, Alan (1998). Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute. Berrett Koehler Publishers.
Submitted by Thom Ingram, Poet-Guru, Hall Director, Rochester Institute of Technology