It would come as no surprise to anyone who works in a university that academic culture can often create sites of resistance to change. However, there are moments when change happens, either as a progressive part of institutional evolutions or as disruptive events which force revolutions. The challenge for those in leadership positions is to create a convergence of interests on important priorities to facilitate creative, progressive change.
We share this particular perspective after having both led the vice-provost, teaching and learning portfolio at Queen’s University in alternate years. This position encompasses a range of university-wide matters connected to teaching and learning including curriculum, pedagogy, and the oversight of quality assurance practices across the campus. As leaders in these areas, we were struck by the differences at the faculty, school, departmental, and individual instructor level. However, we also discovered there were moments of convergence, moments where individual interests, the directions of curriculum development and university priorities began to overlap. We saw this convergence in the university community response to equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives inside and outside the university. Like many postsecondary institutions, the Indigenization-Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Anti-Racism (I-EDIAA) imperatives at Queen’s have been a powerful and necessary driver to re-imagine the nature and role of education. Yet, integrating I-EDIAA in all teaching and learning matters of an institution can be complex. This work ranges from changes to individual courses and curricula, policy revisions, architectural considerations of teaching and learning spaces and overall adoption of an equity lens to all practices in the educational environment. While these initiatives can be challenging to implement, we started to notice that a distinct interest in them emerged across the campus, in discussions at senate, faculty boards, departments and among individual instructors. We developed an approach to leadership through convergence as a way of seizing the moment, identifying patterns and trends in the conversation and activities of people and aligning these interests with emerging powerful institutional priorities and processes.
Mobilizing people, priorities and processes
Individual instructors have become intensely engaged with I-EDIAA initiatives in terms of their impact on hiring, course development and implementation and the shifting of institutional culture. Calls for changes and institution-wide responses were many and varied. The challenge for those in leadership roles was to consolidate those calls for action and offer some form of direction. We were regularly asked: how do the changes or the need for change inside my department make sense in relation to larger institutional priorities?
In addition to instructors’ concerns, calls for action on I-EDIAA emerged from the principal’s office, the senate, and our own truth and reconciliation review of indigenization at Queen’s. These documents, among others, all set out a strategic vision that would see an embedding of I-EDIAA objectives, pedagogical practices and learning experiences in the academic curriculum. Some local work had been done by individual instructors, by departments, and schools and faculties, but again, the question regularly arose about how these changes would link to any coherent university direction.
At the same time as these movements were emerging, the Ontario Quality Council, which oversees quality assurance protocols across the province, revised the basic protocols for new program proposals as well as the revision and review process of existing programs. In turn, all Ontario universities were required to modify their quality assurance policies and practices. This was a clear opportunity for Queen’s to reflect the interests of students and instructors, and to integrate university recommendations about incorporating I-EDIAA in the curriculum.
So what did we do?
Leadership through convergence
One of the key areas of responsibility for the vice-provost, teaching and learning is quality assurance. The provincially based Quality Assurance Framework is driven by the degree level expectations, which are connected to the identity of individual programs but also reflect key priorities of the institution. Degree level expectations are central to the system of curriculum development, continuous improvement, review, credit transfer, graduate study preparation and professional qualification. After a lengthy, complex and iterative process including numerous consultations, working group meetings and retreats, the Degree Level Expectations were revised with the goal of equipping students to understand and critically engage with diverse forms of knowledge, reflect on their own identities and commit to anti-racism, reconciliation, Indigenization and decolonization.
This opportunity through convergence came about in large part because of a widespread institutional dialogue and public commitment to I-EDIAA and our response to the moment through mobilizing people, processes and priorities.
As leaders, we must simultaneously be agile, cast a vision, leverage institutional knowledge and nurture relationships – all while pacing out our own energy. As we think of what a leadership of convergence looks like and the approach that helped us achieve this convergence was one that enhanced the interplay of these three elements: adopting an agile mindset to be able to recognize the moment, leveraging our institutional awareness and creating ever-widening circles of engagement.
Learning to lead from an agile mindset is a process, and one that we have found critical to our development of new habits and ways of practicing and thinking. We often had to act quickly and decisively and find creative ways to convert obstacles into opportunities. We remained committed to our deep purpose and were determined to achieve the goals. At the same time, we recognized the multiple paths to lead us there, and the importance of staying flexible in our approach. We seized our window of opportunity by staying committed to incorporating I-EDIAA in the curriculum while adopting diverse paths to achieve this outcome.
An agile approach necessitates activating institutional knowledge. Institutional knowledge can both hinder and facilitate change. It can hinder change when it’s inaccurate, insufficient, or implemented in silos. It can facilitate change when it’s accurate, sufficient, and implemented in collaboration. Both of us have been at this institution for a long time and have worked in different capacities embedded in the faculties, and also in central services. In our case, our institutional awareness served us well in transforming existing systems, navigating hidden paths and relying on other’s strengths and talents. As we think about the implications of institutional knowledge, we are left wondering if perhaps this is unique to our institution and in other environments it could have more pitfalls than advantages?
We also had to create ever-widening circles of engagement to be able to transform existing systems or build new ones. Such circles of engagement, when nurtured gradually over time and across all levels, enabled us to build collective ownership. At the core our leadership was indeed appreciating collective wisdom, communicating candidly, and being unapologetically authentic in our rapport with others.
Of course, the idea of seizing the moment is not new. It is after all coming to the same conclusion that Hamlet did 400 years earlier that as leaders we need to be ready, seizing the moment and being prepared for change by bringing about the convergence of people, priorities and processes. Because even in academia “The readiness is all”.
Klodiana Kolomitro, is the special adviser of undergraduate research at Queen’s University. John Pierce is a professor in the department of English at Queen’s University.