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In my opinion

Getting to know your institution’s deep culture

This “collective unconscious” of a department, faculty or university is what makes it unique.

BY JEFFREY HENNESSY | JAN 06 2020

Last summer I completed a five-year term as dean of the faculty of arts at Acadia University. This followed a six-year appointment as director of the university’s school of music. Looking back, I am struck by how different those two leadership experiences were for me.

By any measure, the school of music position should have been the more difficult. At the time I had never held a tenure-track position at a university. I had spent most of my adult years studying or playing gigs. Moreover, the scale of what needed to be accomplished in the school of music was vast. Within three years, though, my colleagues and I had revitalized our programming, increased enrolments, secured new spaces on campus to accommodate this growth, made new important connections with community partners and alumni, and elevated our reputation both regionally and nationally.

Despite that success, and the leadership and administrative experience I gained, my time as dean of arts was much more challenging. I realize now that this was due to the differences in the “deep culture” of the two organizations. As an academic unit within the faculty of arts, the school of music shared many surface cultural attributes with the larger faculty, but at the deep-culture level there were stark differences.

Since I had graduated from the music program and had been blessed with some sessional appointments teaching undergraduate music at Acadia, I had an insider’s understanding of the deep culture of the music school. When I became dean, I was not yet well-versed in the deep culture of the faculty of arts, and this created more challenges initially.

Most universities in Canada and most academic units within universities share common surface cultural attributes. These are the immediately observable aspects of the organization: academic programming, degree structures, pedagogy, research methods, governance structures, budgeting, committee work, student services, athletics, and so on. To be sure, the details differ among universities, but faculty, staff and students can move from one institution to another and adapt quite easily because these surface-culture elements are predictable across the spectrum of institutions.

Where institutions are truly unique is in their deep culture: the collective unconscious of the organization that has been transmitted throughout its history – essentially its operating system. How are decisions made? Whose voices have dominated the conversations and whose have been left out? What anxieties have developed over time because of past events? What is the level of trust in leadership? What is the labour-relations history? Which initiatives have succeeded and which have failed, and why? These are just some of the deep questions that leaders must contend with, and no amount of management training or experience will suffice if there is a lack of understanding of the deep culture.

This is not to say that these cultures are or should be static or stagnant. I believe that for most institutions, though, there is some aspect of their deep culture that is holding them back. Small shifts towards a healthier culture can pay enormous dividends, but this is very difficult to achieve and requires building trust and empowering a diversity of voices to express both their desires and their fears in order to develop a collective understanding of what needs to change.

As dean, I began by having discussions that were less focused on goals and more on the shared values of the faculty as well as their collective anxieties. This group was no less progressive, creative or innovative than my music colleagues were; there were simply different deep-cultural roadblocks that needed to be discussed as a collective. I am proud to say that when I finished my term as dean of arts five years later, we had achieved a small shift in culture that has started to pay dividends in new programming, a new willingness to trust leadership and a renewed investment in a shared future.

Institutional reform in the modern academy can be challenging, but by recognizing and respecting the deep-cultural underpinnings of our institutions, we increase our ability to create meaningful and lasting change. Whether you are a department head, dean, provost or president, there is incredible value in investing the time and energy to understand the unique deep culture of your institutions. As academic leaders charged with the onerous responsibility of advancing our institutional missions, we can perhaps draw inspiration from the jazz great Oscar Peterson: “It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times.”

Jeffrey Hennessy is a professor of music at Acadia University.

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  1. Nitin Deckha / January 12, 2020 at 09:18

    I was very happy to read this article.

    Importantly, Hennessy highlights how discussions about culture and questions about decision-making, leadership, past events and circumstances, etc., can lead to new insights, synergies, and engagement. This seems pertinent at a time of accelerating and intensifying change in higher education.

    Such attention to examining questions of institutional or organizational culture has long been a part of private, corporate endeavours to map strategic change and map out new futures; however, I rarely read about this approach in the (Canadian) university sector.

    I hope more of our educational institutions will follow Hennessy’s initiative.