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Four Ways Higher Ed Leaders Stay Inspired During COVID

Four Ways Higher Ed Leaders Stay Inspired During COVID

Note: The interviews cited in this blog were drawn from the Weekly Wisdom Series and originally aired between April 13 and October 19, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, created in partnership with Inside Higher Ed.

As the UIA's Executive Director, I've been honored to be a part of many conversations with higher education leaders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. During these interviews, my co-hosts and I would always ask a few questions that I thought would be valuable to surface key trends and commonalities. In this post, we explore what is inspiring to so many of our college presidents and chancellors during this difficult year.

The Power of Books and Video
Not surprisingly, many of these highly educated people spoke about the books they were reading. Some were examining the nature of leadership itself, such as Wendy Wintersteen (Iowa State University), who focused on the principles and practices of leadership with James Autry's The Servant Leader and Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive. Michael Sorrell (Paul Quinn College) was reading about foundational moral issues in Cicero's classic On Duties as well as the more contemporary Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and the Minerva Project's Building the Intentional University. And Alexander Cartwright (University of Central Florida) handily quoted Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis when discussing the relationship of performance and potential.

Michael Crow (Arizona State University) looked to inspiring stories from previous crises, such as Rick Atkinson's The British Are Coming for the day-to-day disruptions and heroism of the American Revolution, and a biography of Jonas Salk to appreciate the front-line efforts of scientists in meeting the challenges of their times. Ed Ray (Oregon State University) found inspiration in both nonfiction and fiction: Tobias Wolff's Vietnam War memoir In Pharaoh’s Army and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, James Hilton's novella about a beloved educator. Shirley Collado (Ithaca College) also turned to fiction with Afterlife by Julia Alvarez, the redemptive story of an immigrant writer, and Ruth Watkins (University of Utah) described how she was captivated by Richard Powers' The Overstory, a novel about humanity's relationship with the world's forests.

Not everyone turned to reading for inspiration, although Daria J. Willis (Everett Community College) cited the wonderfully uplifting power of Michelle Obama's Becoming, which she experienced as an audiobook. Mark P. Becker (Georgia State University) spoke of how he sought refuge in videos related to his hobbies and interests, escaping onto YouTube to check out the Global Cycling Network, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert. Michael Crow admitted to watching Jack Black movies with his family when they all needed to laugh together. And Ed Ray said, "This is kind of corny" before defending one of his favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, as a vivid illustration of how we can all make a difference in the world.

Taking Time for Self-Care
Many of these higher ed leaders mentioned that, even in a socially distanced year when everything was happening remotely, they are still public figures and need to set firm boundaries for their private time in order to keep from burning out. A few of them even shared their favorite personal care practices. Mark Becker said that when he's off the clock, he ignores his phone. He also begins his day with a workout, whether it's bike riding or some other outdoor activity. "I’ve got this block of time that is mine," he said, "because once you do start to engage with the day, it holds onto you." Daria Willis described her Peloton sessions with great enthusiasm, particularly how she's able to participate in a supportive virtual fitness community while working out in the privacy of her home. Shirley Collado told us how music, dance, and poetry lift her spirits, adding, "A dance break on a daily basis doesn’t hurt anybody."

"We're Going to Do Better"
Many of us understand the appeal of retreating into books and fitness workouts, but our higher ed leaders also drew inspiration from looking at the big picture during a year when it would have been easy to hide their heads in the sand.

Michael Crow talked about the "moral inspiration" he found in the responses to the pandemic. "That indicates where we have got as a society, both within the U.S. and globally," he said. "It means that we've really evolved immensely." Looking at employment and industry trends, Marcia Ballinger (Lorain County Community College) noted, "The amount of change that happened in the first four months of the pandemic is equivalent to a ten-year change over that time. We’ve got to feel comfortable in this new space of uncertainty and acceleration." Harold L. Martin, Sr. (North Carolina A&T University) translated his own life experience of striving to exceed expectations into what he has done and continues to do for his institution, explaining, "I’ve never ever compromised on building an environment wherever I’ve been that suggests that competing and being the best you can be always serves as a framework for success in life." In that same spirit, Michael Sorrell created the National HBCU Commencement Celebration, telling us, "Focusing on other people’s joy and other people’s moment, I’ve always found to be incredibly helpful for me."

Merging the inspirational with the aspirational, Freeman Hrabowski (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) stated, "This is a time when the light is shining on the human condition." Referring to both the pandemic and the national discussion on racial inequity, he added, "I have confidence that we as human beings and we as Americans will say, 'Enough is enough. We’re better than this.' That’s what gives me hope." Mark Becker also voiced his unshaking faith in the human spirit, stating, "Not only will we get through this pandemic, but I think, as a country, we’ll make tremendous progress in eliminating the issues of structural racism. We’re going to get better. We’re going to do better. We will overcome." And Daria Willis, as a person of faith, framed her optimism in her leadership strategy: "You know that the sun is going to come up again on another day, but doggone it, if it's going to be dark and we have to work in the dark, that's what we'll do until the light comes."

Making the Campus a Bright Spot for the World
True leadership includes a feedback loop, as leaders draw inspiration from the people they lead and let it shape how they continue to lead. The higher ed leaders that we interviewed in the past year certainly illustrated that when speaking about their teams, students, and institutions.

Ángel Cabrera (Georgia Tech) had nothing but praise for his team. "In the early days of the pandemic," he recalled, "we'd see our faculty members go back to their labs, to remake their spaces with students, designing products, and everybody asking themselves, 'How does my expertise matter in this moment? What is it that I can offer?'" Michael Crow said that he draws inspiration from his faculty, students, and staff as he described the PPE Response Network, a distributed COVID PPE manufacturing system created by ASU students.

Wendy Wintersteen eagerly tracks the positive examples of other college leaders, while also taking inspiration from the determined spirit of her own university community (whose new brand, by the way, is Innovate at Iowa State.) Kim Wilcox (University of California, Riverside) described the positivity he experienced at the start of fall quarter: "As residents all move in, I'm on my bicycle meeting parents and students and custodial workers, and everybody is doing all they can to make sure that things are as good as they can be for our university, for the broader community, for their families." Marcia Ballinger spoke of the relief and, more important, the validation she felt when a pandemic-delayed ballot initiative for school funding won with 60%. "Our community, and I believe other communities across the country, see their community colleges as part of the solution going forward," she stated.

Michael Drake, despite his pending retirement from Ohio State University, applied his energy to creating the best possible experience for incoming students at the start of the next school year. Alexander Cartwright talked about the sense of opportunity he feels on his campus: "This place can be that bright spot for the world where you’re not only welcome, but you are celebrated because of what you bring to this institution." And after Ana Mari Cauce (University of Washington) described the dizzying ride on the weekly "corona-coaster," she added, "I think that what keeps me going is the young people. The kind of idealism they have, and their determination to meet a whole range of challenges head on – they are unafraid. And that to me is just so incredibly refreshing, and it’s so energizing, and it keeps me young."

Seeking Your Own Inspiration
We hope you found some things here that may have affirmed your actions during this past year. We also hope that you found some new things to inspire you. Inspiration is hard to define and highly personal, but if whatever you're doing keeps you positive, energized, and moving forward, then clearly you're doing something right!

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