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Academic leadership skills 101

by Rigoberto Hernandez, District IV Director
March 7, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 10

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Photo of Rigoberto Hernandez.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

In universities across the country, we often expect that starting assistant professors who have been properly trained and vetted for their research potential are naturally great teachers. The reality is that being a great teacher takes mentoring and training.

Similarly, we also expect that midcareer faculty, after successfully proving their research prowess, will be great academic leaders. They might take on administrative positions within their universities as department heads or deans, or take on research management positions as directors of college-wide or multi-institutional centers. Like teaching, leading requires training.

ACS recognized this need of their volunteers through the development of the ACS Leadership Institute 50 years ago. Attendees are primarily volunteers that are about to assume leadership positions in local sections, divisions, or national committees. This yearly conference, most recently held in Dallas-Fort Worth in January, provides a crash course on what ACS does and can do through its volunteers. It provides volunteers with an opportunity to take leadership courses developed by the ACS Leadership Advisory Board. These courses are also offered at ACS meetings, and I encourage you to consider adding one to your calendar the next time you attend a national meeting. The skills that you will acquire will likely prove useful for your nonvolunteer tasks as well.

Outstanding academic leaders should value and promote education. The question is, how do we codify this value?

Moving beyond the needs of our volunteer leaders, a group of us recently explored the possibility of addressing the practical skills required of academic leaders that are not fully addressed by the Leadership Institute or commercial leadership courses. The Academic Leadership Team (ALT)—part of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, which aims to improve undergraduate and graduate science education at colleges and universities across the country—was seeded by a grant from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to construct such a course for physical scientists in the fields of astronomy, chemistry, and physics. Partnering with ACS, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Astronomical Society, we conducted the first ALT workshop Jan. 28–Feb. 2 of this year (

The workshop included panels and presentations on vision, conflict resolution, engaging and motivating colleagues and staff, outreach, diversity, legal concerns, development and stewardship, effective management practices, and time management. We partnered with ACS and leadership consultant Zenger Folkman to deliver a version of the 360-degree leadership assessment for outstanding leaders. We also included mock panels, through which participants experienced how airport interviews and reverse-site panels are conducted. All of the components were interwoven with active-learning techniques and exercises that have been proven to be effective through discipline-based educational research.

It is notable that 24 professors from primarily undergraduate institutions and R1 research universities attended the first ALT workshop. We had more than 12 experienced academic leaders (EALs) facilitating the sessions, serving as panelists and acting as interviewers on the mock panels. Some participants remarked that the networking ties with EALs and each other offered a significant value to the workshop. Nearly all the participants and EALs felt that they had gained several practical skills and tools that they expect to be useful in academic leadership roles.

The comparison I mentioned earlier between effective leadership and education is not just an amusing happenstance. It also drives our efforts. Many ALT members believe that outstanding academic leaders should value and promote education. The question is, how do we codify this value in the face of an academic system that can readily quantify research productivity (through papers, citations, grant money, etc.) but stumbles in quantifying teaching productivity? Some answers may be found in a recent article titled “University Learning: Improve Undergraduate Science Education” by my Cottrell Scholar colleagues in Nature (2015, DOI: 10.1038/523282a). So we selected the participants for the ALT workshop according to their demonstrated interest in the teacher-scholar model based on their past selection as a Cottrell Scholar or a recommendation by a Cottrell Scholar. Through this criterion, we strive to accelerate the success of future academic leaders who have a demonstrated interest in advancing education and research in modern academic colleges and universities.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the members of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative that worked together to design and stage the ALT workshop: Karen Bjorkman, Gail Burd, Peter Dorhout, Andrew Feig, Philip Hammer, Teri Odom, Vincent Rotello, Jennifer Ross, Marilyne Stains, and Jodi Wesemann.

During my upcoming oral presentation on Sunday, March 13, at the ACS national meeting in San Diego, I will be summarizing the components of the ALT workshop, its evaluation by participants, and our expected outcomes. I’ll be speaking at 8:35 AM at the Division of Chemical Education session “Cottrell Scholars Collaborative: Innovating the Integration of Research & Teaching.” We expect to run the next ALT workshop in January or February 2017. So stay tuned if you are an emerging academic leader who believes in the teacher-scholar model.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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