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Shaping Leadership for the Future of Higher Ed

Shaping Leadership for the Future of Higher Ed
Strong leadership can guide programming, the learning experience, on-campus resources and equity to meet student needs using flexibility, insightful data and a strong network.  

Leadership is critical for the future of higher education, especially considering today’s ever-changing environment. It’s important to focus on what’s at the center of higher ed: the students. In this interview, Britt Rios-Elis discusses how his institution became a part of the Millennium Leadership Initiative, how leadership shapes higher ed and what’s on the horizon for higher ed.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Can you describe the Millennium Leadership Initiative and explain how you became a part of the cohort?

Britt Rios-Ellis (BRE): The Millennium Leadership Institute is a game-changer in terms of leadership training. Something that makes it stand out is that it is very equity-focused, which results in a transformative experience. It’s focused on equity and inclusivity, not only from a demographic standpoint but from one that calls on the capacity for intentional leadership. It’s important to improve our practices to ensure every student can achieve their dream of a degree, and we need scaffolded resources to make sure that happens.

There’s a lot of skepticism around higher education right now, but we have the data that show its value. We need leaders who can cut through the noise and challenges (both social and political) to create that transformative experience. One thing we learned was how to stay focused on the mission despite everything going on in the background. The focus is on serving your students well, supporting your faculty and staff and maintaining a safe space on campus that provides a sense of belonging for everyone.

Evo: How has your career been reshaped by being a part of MLI? 

BRE: I began consulting various leadership books that have taught me how to scaffold my leadership training and recognize the stages of leadership, not only for myself but for the faculty and staff I work with daily. What you want to do as a leader is to glean insights from leaders who connect themselves at the macro level where trends and transformation occur. We must respond reflectively, which will have a greater impact than simply reacting to a given situation.
It’s important for leaders to think about their evolution and challenge themselves to continuously evolve and transition into a more integrated and outward-facing leader as they face each challenge.

Evo: What are some obstacles or opportunities you see on the horizon for higher education?

BRE: We have some interesting challenges ahead. In many ways, we think of our higher education system as a meritocracy, but it isn’t. Those who’ve had access to privileged activities and supports such as tutoring and mentorship are often those able to get what they need to succeed. People without that access typically don’t do as well. By recognizing and focusing strategies on data-informed equity gaps, we can then target our resources and efforts to make a positive impact in mitigating these differences.

We see the equity gaps among different racial and ethnic groups and the socioeconomic barriers that exacerbate these gaps. At Oakland University, we have adapted a dashboard the California State System developed that helps us focus our energy on existing equity gaps by underrepresented minority status, Pell eligibility, first generation-educated status and gender. These data facilitate our ability to target key areas much more intentionally.

Evo: What advice would you share with higher ed professionals looking to be a part of MLI or transform the future of higher ed?

BRE: Readiness is crucial. If you’re hungry to be a leader and ready for that evolution, professional development is a great choice. People aren’t often born good leaders. They go through experiences that challenge them to manage difficult situations. Training such as MLI can help leaders develop problem-solving lenses and tools to do just that. MLI is also highly interactive, so we all have the chance to learn from each other, which is always helpful, while simultaneously developing a strong network and support system.

In terms of trends, it’ll be interesting to see what we do with the processes of shared governance. From an industry standpoint, sometimes we don’t move fast enough. It might be a slow slog up the hill instead of a steep incline. Given rapid changes in artificial intelligence, we will need to develop faster curricular change in order to keep pace.

We’ll also need to take intentional action as we continue to address equity gaps. If we’re not addressing our institution’s equity gaps, we’re leaving out a huge portion of the population. Our nation’s values obligate us to make sure students have equitable access and opportunities, which translates into institutions of higher education needing to provide tailored resources laden with high-impact practices.