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Augustana’s new out-of-touch leadership style

Augustana’s new out-of-touch leadership style

Infrastructure, 3-11 and the striking disconnect between students and admin at Augustana

As a senior student at Augustana, it’s hard not to wonder just how low we’ve fallen on campus leadership’s priorities this past year. Be it the pedway grand opening, roll-out of the 3-11 calendar, move to co-ed residences or announcement of the new “student learning commons”, there has been a failure on behalf of campus leaders to connect with students.

This disconnect shouldn’t be surprising and is symptomatic of larger underlying problems that aren’t new to campus. Augustana simply doesn’t have the communication channels, supportive culture or student representation needed to effectively engage and include students in decision making. The result is a growing sense of uncertainty among students and fear that their concerns and priorities are going unnoticed.

The change we’ve seen at Augustana over the past few years has been ambitious and fast paced. In my short time on campus, we’ve seen the Lougheed Performing Arts Centre built, Founders’ Hall renovated, the pedway built and the 3-11 Augustana calendar developed. While these are accomplishments for Augustana, it’s hard to ignore that these developments look a lot better on the part of administrators and have yet to be little more than an inconvenience to students.

While students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate the opening of the pedway, the mood among students felt like more of a sigh of relief than excitement about the future of the campus. Tellingly, as the pedway officially ‘opened’, students still couldn’t walk under it to classes and residences—something far more important to students than being able to walk between two administrative areas.

It’s hard to feel that our campus leadership is on our side when students aren’t part of the conversation. The 3-11 implementation has left students confused, uncertain and afraid. It’s clear that despite what administrators are saying and the best of intentions, many students don’t feel secure in their prospects next year or that they’re being cared for by the leaders of our campus.

This misplacement of priorities parallels what Simon Sinek describes in his bestselling book Leaders Eat Last. “Great leaders,” writes Sinek, “truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.” He points to a 2013 Gallup poll that found “when our bosses completely ignore us, 40 percent of us actively disengage from our work.”

Sinek argues that great leaders work to make sure their people feel safe so that they can focus on what they need to get done. “Without the protection of our leaders,” he writes, “everyone outside the inner circle is forced to work alone or in small tribes to protect and advance their own interests. And in so doing, silos form, politics entrench, mistakes are covered up instead of exposed, the spread of information slows and unease soon replaces any sense of cooperation and security.”

This separation and lack of cooperation is showcased in how student consultation at Augustana often falls short. The pedway project was exemplary of this:

Many students continued to see the pedway as a waste of resources or a result of misguided priorities. Administration never gathered widespread support of students behind the project, likely in large part because the reasons for the pedway and funding model were never openly and effectively communicated to the entire community.

This sort of top-down leadership has become outdated. “When change is imposed from above, with both ends and means prescribed, it’s rarely embraced,” write Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini in their McKinsey & Company article. “Traditional change programs fail to harness the discretionary creativity and energy of employees and often generate cynicism and resistance.”

Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from the lack of effective ways for administration or faculty to engage with students in any meaningful way. The campus newsletter is poorly read and students are inundated with “student digests’ and other email newsletters to the point that it’s futile to try to cut through the noise.

Further, there is a lack of any staff or faculty that have the consistent, long-term interaction with students needed to get to know them and bridge the gap. Interactions with professors are intended to be constrained to individual courses and other staff such as academic advisors and mental health service providers and only sought when there’s a pressing need—effectively once or twice a year for many students.

Even the Augustana Students’ Association doesn’t have any established systems to reliably reach students as evident in that communication is a recurring subject in every ASA election. Despite the best efforts of the VP Academic, it is a constant challenge for them to get a good grasp of students’ concerns without a reliable feedback system.

As it stands, Chillabit is probably the most reliable form of inter-campus communication, and administrators are justifiably absent.

Recent student outreach efforts have centered around creating new information webpages or handouts that give students more information to process. But this only places another burden on students generating added stress and decision fatigue.

Students don’t need more information, they need the right information effectively communicated. Augustana could learn from brands like Trader Joe’s and Apple, which, as Drake Baer writes in Fast Company “offer fewer choices, and customers reward their minimalistic, high-quality retail experiences with loyalty.”

The idea for a new learning commons on the second floor of the library was not something students asked for, but something that another university had that caught the imagination of the Dean Suite. In this respect, it’s not off to a good start. It remains to be seen whether students will ever see the space as their own.

All of this suggests Augustana’s small campus tight knit community may not be the result of any particularly good design or culture and merely a by-product of its small size—a concerning prospect as Augustana aims to increase enrollment over the coming years.

The developments coming over the next few months offer a chance for administration to really define what effective on-campus engagement can look like. As Sinek puts it, “When the leaders of an organization listen to the people who work there without coercion, pressure or force, the people naturally work together to help each other and advance the company. Working with a sense of obligation is replaced by working with a sense of pride.”

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