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Breaking Away From Individualism in Higher Education Leadership

While departments, schools and administration are used to working individually, they can all benefit greatly from working together. Collaboration ensures all perspectives are accounted for and therefore all needs are met.

In a society full of individuals, there’s a natural importance put on freedom and self-reliance—also known as individualism. But in the context of higher ed, it has been putting restraining the innovation and change required to meet learner needs. In this interview, Amy Gaimaro discusses what individualism is in higher ed, the challenges it creates and how to embrace a more collaborative and innovative culture.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Can you describe what individualism is in the context of higher ed and why it’s important for higher ed leaders to break away from it?

Amy Gaimaro (AG): In higher ed administration, as with other industries, there can certainly be a focus on individual leadership and decision-making, along with accountability. We often value what you have accomplished or what your individual department has accomplished. There’s not necessarily a real focus on collaboration and interdisciplinary accomplishments. There are these silos of accountability—and they are not exclusive to higher ed.

When we look at what’s important, it goes back to shared governance. That’s how we run our institutions. It’s important to continue that theme throughout our work in shared governance, where faculty, staff and students are involved in decision-making. Continuing to keep that theme and those thoughts with us throughout the decision-making processes will be key to overcoming individualism.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that arise when you’re working within that culture, and what is its impact?

AG: There are so many benefits to shared decision-making in higher education because there are so many different perspectives from different groups. To give some context, my team from the Office of Blended and Online Learning is collaborative by nature. We don’t often make decisions in silos; we must engage with members of our team and outside our department. So, I see it more often in other departments than mine.

It’s important to set up a committee, advisory group, a task force—things like that. This structure provides opportunities to address issues and make decisions while bringing in voices from various areas. When I started in this position, I created an advisory group. We were a task force, and now we are an advisory group to the provost because we’ve been doing it for so long. We rotate faculty from all our schools. They’re all represented, so everyone has a voice.

We use the LMS system to conduct asynchronous discussions, so everyone can contribute if they don’t attend the meeting. We want to ensure all voices are heard, as we tackle issues surrounding blended and online learning at my institution. Often I ask to the group, “From your perspective, what do you think about this?” Since I am not a program director or a chairperson, I can’t identify issues from that perspective. Having different perspectives allows us to innovate and solve problems on a much deeper level than if we worked in siloed groups.

Evo: Do you have any examples of the challenges that arise when people aren’t collaborative?

AG: Communication is critical. People, by nature, are accountable for their decisions and departments. It takes a unique individual and department to be collaborative and say, “Listen, we’re going to explore all these different aspects of this issue or this problem we need to solve, and we need your assistance.” It takes people who are collaborators to not give up, be open to new ideas and communicate their ideas as part of a group.

When people are part of a group making decisions, there is a sense of ownership that takes place. When working in a group setting, it is important to explain the process and have a committee that allows every voice to be heard.

Evo: How do you begin to break away from the individualistic culture?

AG: Reaching out to others and arranging those meetings and discussions is key. We need to invite people to sit on a committee and allow them to actively participate. Often when others are around and see the different perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches, they appreciate it.

Recently, I was one of the vice chairs of an assessment committee, and it was truly amazing how I was able to meet people I normally would not meet and interact with across campus.

Distributed leadership at all levels can take place from the individual entry-level position to vice presidents to deans. When tackling an issue, it is important to describe the collaborative approach; it’s not top-down. That’s when communication helps for this to be successful.

Evo: What impact does that more collaborative, inclusive environment have on the institution and its learners?

AG: It comes back to shared governance, which we live by. For most projects, policies, processes or decisions I work on, I must interact with others from across the campus.

I also learned early on that you cannot get defensive. You must be open-minded to look at issues from different perspectives. The last thing you want to do is roll out an initiative policy or process and have someone say it will not work or doesn’t make sense. You will need to go back and redo it, so there are some efficiencies there. It’s smart to involve others from the beginning to get those voices heard—individuals, committees, subcommittees and task forces—so you end up with a higher probability that you will get it right.

It’s important that they’re made aware of the issues coming down the road and know who made these decisions, why they made them and what their input is. People who work in higher education want to have a voice, and inviting them to the table is very important.

Evo: What are some trends you expect to see when it comes to collaboration?

AG: I’ve seen so many changes in the collaborative tools we have today that we didn’t have many years ago. Since the pandemic, we had to communicate remotely and in groups. I currently manage a team in a hybrid environment, and I feel like I don’t miss a beat.

Our project management software is transparent. With things like Teams chats and Zoom meetings, we’ve been able to communicate effectively, and it’s made a huge difference. Written and oral communication skills are so important. Technology-enabled collaboration tools are fantastic. It’s not the same as it was ten years ago.

I am observing more opportunities for collaboration to take place. So, I’m really happy to see how far we’ve come, and I’m sure there will be more tools in the future that will continue to help us collaborate with others. The growth is incredible.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

AG: It’s important to lead by example. Many team members aren’t accustomed to this degree of collaboration, since it’s not something they have experienced. We’re all individuals who want to be accountable, but we can strike a balance with increased collaboration.