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A new proposal for training higher ed administrators

October 8, 2011, 11:49 am

Okay, so I am going to do something I never do: share a dream. I am sharing the dream I had last night because it offers a strange, yet compelling idea for continuing education for administrators in higher education. And yes, I will admit that it is clearly proof of my being an academic management nerd of the highest order to dream about continuing education. Or, according to the dream dictionary online, I could be dreaming of training because I lack confidence, have anxieties about my abilities, or want to change my status in life… Nah, my dreams are usually more literal than that. I just came up with a good training idea.

Most everyone in higher education administration knows about the big training venues for continuing education. Harvard offers their Institutes for Higher Education (HIHE) for new managers, upper administration officials, and new Presidents and Chancellors, along with topical sessions on assessment, crisis management, and leadership models. The Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) training specifically targets women in higher education administration at their trainings at Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and the University of Denver. The ACE Fellowship Program has a mix of training sessions and experiential exercises, including one or two semesters working at another campus. Each program has it supporters and detractors, which makes sense, as one model can’t work for everyone.

I have attended only one of the programs listed above, and I found it very useful, both personally and professionally. I liked having interactions with administrators from other kinds of universities and colleges, other disciplines, and other units in higher education (e.g., admissions, advancement, sponsored programs, athletics, student services, etc.). Taking time to think about issues I had basically blundered through as an administrator was both humbling and helpful; I found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s why that initiative didn’t get off the ground!” and “Yes, yes, that is how I should think about this problem.” I also got support for my career, with several peers naming my strengths and encouraging me in my plans to move into central administration someday. Therefore, I would support developing new programs for those of us in higher ed administration.

The challenges of offering these trainings are many: You have to figure out lodging, transportation, food, and recreation activities for everyone attending. You have to entice (and compensate) strong speakers to take part in the training. You have to put together the latest literature and facilitate discussions among strong-minded (and occasionally arrogant) leaders. You have to manage crises (medical, personal, practical, interpersonal, etc.) as they arise. You have to manage this with a budget that attendees (or their academic institutions, if they are paying) find reasonable. You have to make the administrators pay attention, which can be especially difficult when they whip out Ipads, cell phones, and computers on a whim to respond to email, take phone calls, and otherwise try to manage their work while they are away. None of these challenges is unmanageable, but each must be negotiated while planning a training.

Being away from our families and loved ones for so long (2-3 weeks for most trainings, though ACE Fellows can spend a semester or a year at another campus) can be difficult for those us of attending these trainings, both emotionally and practically. One participant in the training I attended left his spouse at home with a new baby. And while I certainly spend time away from my partner every so often, using up several weeks that would normally be our (joint) vacation time to be separated so I could attend training was not greeted with cheers in my house. (Okay, this is a bit of a White Whine, but it is an issue for those of us who get limited vacation time.) Also, the cost of the trainings can be prohibitive, with Harvard MLE and MDP trainings running a little over $7K, HERS running around $6.6K, and the home and sponsor institutions paying a total of $25K for the ACE Fellows.

So, all of this must have led to my dream last night, where I was attending a continuing education training for higher education administrators… wait for it… on a cruise.

Yes, my dream cruise was a total academic management nerd-fest, with nationally renown speakers, assigned readings, breakout groups, and one-on-one mentoring meetings with longtime administrators and leaders. Better yet, spouses and partners were also in attendance, offered optional workshops especially for them along with typical cruise stuff, like excursions, evening entertainment, pools, and other activities. The academic participants were also able to avail ourselves of some of the fun, and we shared most meals with our families and our new colleagues. It was like a combination vacation/training, with meals, transportation, entertainment, and support services provided by the cruise line.

Better yet, access to email and the internet was severely curtailed, due to the limited numbers of computers on board, WiFi limited to internet cafes, and the very high cost of accessing one’s phone or email while on the boat. (I know, I know, some cruise ships have bow-to-stern WiFi, but not very many, according to CruiseCritic.com. Plus, it is my dream, alright?)

Think about how much better it would be for those folks who are organizing the trainings. Cruises have perfected the model of bringing in speakers and performers, and academic speakers would likely enjoy a free vacation to come and participate in the training. Food and other resources would be provided by people who are used to providing them in this venue, and recreational opportunities would be abundant for off-times. Plus I wouldn’t have to miss my vacation with my family just to attend a multi-week training.

Now I know some of you are saying, “But what of the public perception of academic waste? Wouldn’t legislators, the media, underpaid faculty, and the public be scandalized by the idea of university administrators sailing the high seas with their families using state funding for continuing education?” And I certainly see the objection–and the opportunity for a bad photo op. That said, I don’t think the cruises would need to be all that much more expensive than the land-based trainings, and we would certainly not use public funds to pay for family members who are accompanying us.  Furthermore, there are many cruises these days that focus on education and training, including some led by the Smithsonian. And there is a tradition at some schools like the University of Virginia of the “Semester at sea,” where the ship serves as the campus for students interested in learning about other cultures, so the idea of a training cruise wouldn’t be completely bizarre. If it is good for our students, why couldn’t it work for us? We could even build in some opportunities to learn more about global education issues in the countries we visit on the cruise.

I honestly don’t know why I had this dream. I have never gone on a cruise, though I have many friends and family members who love them. I do admit to looking at the (lesbian) Olivia Cruise website from time to time. That said, it makes good sense to me to think about using a cruise ship as a way to bring together higher education administrators for continuing education in a time and place that would include family and be fun. And in this time of tighter budgets, increasing assessment requirements, and 60-hour or more work weeks, I think an option that links training and fun sounds like just the ticket.

So, feel free to share my idea with the folks at Harvard, HERS, and ACE. I would be glad to let you claim them as theirs, as long as I can get a free ticket for the first training! I will be working and waiting, daydreaming about sitting in a deck chair and watching the Caribbean sunset.

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