On The Vision Thing

Posted by

A few years ago I was asked to give a talk about ‘visioning’ in higher ed. Although I dislike that term, as a recovering administrator this was fun for me to talk about, and more than a little therapeutic. Even though the pandemic wasn’t part of the context when I wrote these notes, and the examples are drawn from higher ed reform efforts, the basic themes are more broadly relevant because some aspects of navigating times of great change are universal. We are living through an age of disruption and reinvention, obviously, and we have been for many decades, but with COVID-19 the urgency has redoubled. So, I offer up these thoughts in hopes readers might find them useful. It’s a more concrete essay, compared to my more theoretical earlier post “We need new stories of the 21st-century university“. Comments and feedback are welcome, as always.

* * *

Let me first talk about that word ‘vision’, as I know there is skepticism or even downright cynicism on the part of some folks about it. A quick search online shows that there are books and workshops and courses, a minor industry, all about the vision thing. I know colleagues who are proud to say they ‘don’t do the vision thing’. But I’ve never understood that claim, certainly not coming from someone who is in a position of academic leadership, like a department chair or a dean. I mean if the person driving the car you were riding in announced ‘I don’t do the vision thing,’ you’d panic, right?

The sense of vision is how those of us who are sighted guide ourselves through a complex and changing physical space. ‘Vision’ in the context of academic leadership is simply a metaphor for that internal sense of judgement we use to navigate a complex and changing decision space.

The word vision here means partly clarity of purpose, but with an additional creative cherry on top, an additional dollop of imagination. It involves aspiration. To aspire after all means to direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving something. But the word aspire has an even deeper root, in the Latin word spirare meaning to breathe. Without vision, being a chair, or holding any other position of academic leadership, can become a life of drudgery. Allowing an opening for vision brings in creativity and imagination, and it can potentially be fun. Vision allows your creative mind to breathe. So ‘the vision thing’ not only has to do with seeing your way through a thicket of decisions that need to be made, but also a way to open up some breathing space for your creative self.

Seeing and breathing. Two very important functions that, with regular practice, keep us forever young.

Let’s see how this vision stuff might work in practice. What does that look like? A lot of the cynicism around the vision thing has to do with the large number of people who talk the talk, but then stumble when it comes to walking the walk. So, what does it mean day-to-day to be guided by a vision? It means being strategic in the way you approach your daily decision-making. It means getting into the habit of asking yourself whether if you do something, does that support your vision, or undermine it? Most decisions will be pretty straightforward, but not all, and you earn your keep with the decisions that are not straightforward.

If you’re going to be ‘fact checking’ your decisions with your vision all day long, that means your vision has to be pretty crisp and sharp, and right up front in your mind, otherwise you’ll go into a vapor lock at the simplest of things. Some of the most effective folks I worked with in the dean’s office were people who, during a discussion about an issue, if I asked them ‘Why is this important?’, or ‘What’s the goal here?’ could answer it immediately. Given that level of clarity, you don’t waste time fretting about things that aren’t important to the mission, instead you immediately focus on the important stuff, and how to support that work. That’s hard enough.

Suppose you really ‘don’t do the vision thing’. Suppose you are a tough-minded coot of a chair, hard-headed and practical. No poetry in your soul. You don’t hold with that type of soft stuff. You’re a just the facts ma’am kind of chair. (You get the picture.)

So, you’re sitting in your rather dour and humorless chair’s office one bright and shining day, caught up with aligning your pencil drawer, and in comes Professor X, a junior faculty member in a field that is a new and exciting venture for your department, perhaps one that required significant startup support. The most startup that your department has ever awarded. Professor X’s expensive gadget, let’s call it The Turbo Encabulator, has just broken down and she needs a replacement part, let’s call it a Sprangley Sprocket. She needs it right now. Without that sprocket she won’t get her data in time for the Big Conference, or perhaps she’ll fail to make the NSF proposal deadline. But the end of the fiscal year is approaching, and you are close to bottoming out your department budget. You can just barely cover the cost. Well, do you give her the cash? Do you spring for the sprocket? Of course you do. You need to support your junior faculty and help them to succeed. (Strategic goal: attract and retain the best possible faculty.)

But, just as you are writing the check (that is, just as you are telling your admin or budget person to cut the purchase order for the sprocket), Professor Y comes in. Professor Y is a senior faculty member, long dormant, a fragile flower, someone who saw his small startup package eroded by the high inflation years during the Carter Administration, back when startup meant a desk, a pad of paper, and a pencil sharpener. But now Professor Y, the fragile desert flower that blossoms forth only when it rains, is about to bloom once more because of your care and feeding, and a slight drizzle of support you’ve provided via some stipend money for his most brilliant graduate student ever. Professor Y has come to ask for another semester’s worth of support so his student can finish their research and write it up. Of course you would do this. (Strategic goal: Provide a supportive work environment that rewards productive effort, and continues to develop your faculty throughout their entire career.) Keeping senior faculty productive is a very important matter from a dean’s office perspective for a variety of strategic reasons, starting from the fact that the senior faculty are typically the highest paid due to years in service.

But here’s the thing: you can’t do both. You are tapped out. And the dean has no money. No way. Not in this story. (I am writing this so as to build the maximum in dramatic tension. You can write your own story if you don’t like mine.)

What do you do?

If you do something other than flip a coin, or just give money to the last person that pestered you, you are guided by some vision that helps you decide which of these important and worthy requests is more important. If you don’t like the word vision here, then use the words ‘clarity about priorities’. They aren’t quite the same thing, vision has that aspirational forward-looking aspect to it that mere clarity about priorities is lacking, but without that clarity vision is always blurred and therefore of less real value. You will be less likely to achieve those glorious aspirations. And we must always remember that the goal is not to balance the budget, but to use the budget most effectively to forward the mission.

So vision partly concerns clarity about what is important. But the question should always be: important to whom?

This is where leadership comes in. If you only concern yourself with what’s important to you alone, you will make enemies, or at least piss off a lot of people. But, on the other extreme, if you make decisions in a way that is not in accord with your personal values, not in alignment with what you believe is of greatest value, this will ultimately become corrosive to your inner self. If you are at an institution that constantly drives you to make such decisions, perhaps you should work somewhere else. After all, it is integrity and clarity of judgment that is most valuable in a chair or dean. If you keep devaluing those inner lights that guide you home, eventually it’s like letting your little lantern blow out on a dark and blustery Scottish moor while the Hound of the Baskervilles is abroad on the hunt. (You can see the kind of fiction I enjoy.)

What sources should you draw upon to develop your vision? Well, your core values are a good place to start. If you believe in high quality research and teaching, fairness and transparency, providing opportunities to your students, the importance of not wasting talent, the need for open and respectful treatment of colleagues, etc. Those are good places to start. Whatever vision you develop should be consistent with these core values.

A decade ago we overhauled our general education curriculum at William & Mary, and like all such projects the initial burst of enthusiasm eventually entered that silent but deadly phase where faculty committees were putting final touches on detailed course criteria. This was several years after the initial creative work on the curriculum design, but we were not yet offering any of the brand new spiffy courses. The early period of bright excitement of the curriculum review was then inevitably followed by several years of kulturkampf, letters to the editor of the local newspaper, charges in said newspaper of subterfuge on the part of the administration (unfounded charges, by the way), dueling alliances with various national organizations who hold opinions on liberal arts curricula, open frustration on the part of some Board members who believed that the faculty were ‘holding us back’ by taking so long to do what seemed straightforward to them. (But, did THEY ever overhaul a curriculum involving several thousand courses, and over a hundred of majors and minors? I have been involved in two now, and curriculum overhauls take about a decade to play out from beginning to end.) Other BOV members were getting letters from alarmed alums about those subversive W&M faculty who were out to destroy America by doing something – something I tell you! But whatever that something was, it was never made clear. ‘Dumbing down’ is the usual stock phrase of critics, but that criticism is somehow applied to any reform. Critics of reform are always sure that they were the last generation educated in the twilight years of a golden age, and it’s all been a toboggan ride downhill for civilization ever since.

In addition to all this kerfuffle, this particular curriculum overhaul was carried out during a ferocious budget reallocation that had everyone in the doldrums. Faculty were discouraged, or enraged, about the drumbeat from the administration calling for ‘increased productivity’ and for ‘doing more with less’. All the while, the administration was exhorting the faculty to create something new and distinctive and exciting. I know. I did some of the exhorting. So, that’s the setting. The multiyear curriculum reform juggernaut was well underway. How were we going to make it work? More than one faculty committee has gone into vapor lock trying to think this through.

Around this time, I had a dinner conversation with the husband of a Board member who asked me, as a conversation starter over appetizers: How can the university possibly create a new curriculum with tenured faculty? He elaborated: “People will only do what you tell them to do if they are afraid of getting fired.”

His first mistake was in thinking that you tell faculty what to teach, rather than hiring experts in their field and letting them loose in the classrooms and laboratories. I gulped my wine, and then tried to explain to him that I was tenured, and that I regularly teach new courses, and launch into new research directions every few years, but that I only do so because I have the security of tenure, a base from which I can launch risky commando operations. A tenure system can promote a risk-tolerant culture that fosters ongoing innovation. If you do it right, a university can foster that risk-tolerant culture. And that brings us back to the vision thing.

As one concrete example, one way we encouraged curricular innovation was to create something called the Center for the Liberal Arts. The sole mission of the CLA was to support faculty collaboration and innovation around the new curriculum. I was lucky enough to be part of the CLA during the early years, to work with a superb group of talented colleagues, and together we ran curriculum development workshops for other faculty. At our workshops we often used a tried and true formula for domesticating a wild herd of free-range faculty: offer free lunch and coffee. In one, we started by laying out the critical need for more ‘great ideas’ general education courses, and we talked about why they would be exciting to teach. And then, we asked people to brainstorm together about new course ideas, just the kernel of the ideas, not the syllabi or details, not the assignments or assessments: early on we just focused on the vision, that bright and shining guiding light, for new courses.

Immanuel Kant said there are only three great questions in philosophy: What can I know? What should I do? And, what may I hope? Note that Kant thinks you need permission to hope. So, we gave faculty at our workshops permission to hope that they would be able to create a new course they would love to teach, a course that could inspire their students to love learning. This is vital work.

We asked our colleagues to discuss the following questions in small groups: 1] What course do you remember most from your undergraduate days, and why? 2] If you could teach a course about something you love, what would it be? And then finally, 3] What three things do you want your students to remember from that course five years from now? This led to a lot of buzz in the room, a lot of chatter, a lot of energy. This was a visioning exercise done in collaboration to forward an important strategic goal for the university. And it was fun.

These small groups then shared their ideas with everyone else. What was great about this part of the workshop was that we had physicists and historians, a geologist, Medieval-Renaissance scholars, and cultural studies people all in one room, all talking about their respective courses, and they loved each other’s ideas. Faculty love talking about this stuff with one another, but we rarely get a chance to do it. We need to find more ways to open up those creative spaces for joint work. It’s how we can navigate our way through the coming changes together, and get excited about one another’s work while doing it. It’s how we can do the ‘vision thing’ together.

So tread carefully, be of good cheer, and keep your lantern lit.

Image: DARPA Robotics Challenge, Summer 2015, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by author.

Copyright © Eugene R. Tracy. All rights reserved. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it, while respecting the Terms of Use.