Thursday, February 16, 2017

Women in Academic Leadership: Learning from each other

Celebrating women in academic leadership
Image courtesy of SWAAC 2016. Photo credit: Roger Aziz
Some of us respond to a tap on the shoulder, and others plan and learn explicitly to become leaders at some point in their careers. Sometimes it is difficult to see where your choices are leading, although (as a committed narrativist) I know it is illuminating to understand your choices backwards – “oh, yes, this led to this, and then that led to that…and so now here I am.”  Part of this journey depends on opportunity and timing, but I think more depends on curiosity, openness to change, and acceptance of personal agency. This is where I find myself now.

Mentors have been key to my own journey from director to associate dean to interim dean to dean. That sentence may make it seem like a seamless transition, but it certainly wasn’t.  Advice and guidance from others has shaped me as a leader. I close my eyes and I can hear one or another say:

“Never pick an unnecessary fight; you don’t need to win.”

“Let it marinate a bit.”

“Listen.”

From one mentor, I learned that the only test you need to ask yourself about a decision is: “Is it right? Is it just? Is it fair?” From this, I liberated the idea to always be transparent, whether those involved like the decision or not. And I’ve shared this promise with my faculty. “Dig where the ground is soft” is another piece of advice that guides me in design thinking and leading every day as dean.

I know very few colleagues for whom academic leadership is a route to power and control. But I know dozens for whom a leadership role either starts with, or evolves into, their becoming an exemplar of citizenship in our beloved post-secondary communities.

When I began my career, my leadership cohort was not straining with an over-supply of women.  Nor, in 2017, are we any closer to equitable participation. Yet, over my academic career, I have benefitted in particular from female role models who resist “the norm,” reflect on leadership, share their courage, inspire me, and make me laugh.

From my mother, a teacher when I started teaching in 1977: “It is your job to make the principal look good. Try to keep your file thin.” From my grandmother, a scary headmistress in Sussex: “Keep your own counsel”—a piece of advice I confess to rarely following. Sometimes I ignore; sometimes I exhort.

My own advice is to “Never sweat the small stuff” and “Make everything work (at least) twice.”

Well into my own academic career, I found a community of women mentors and friends at the Senior Women’s Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) annual conference.  Since my first conference in 2005 – through a decade of learning, practising, doubting, celebrating and, sometimes, trying to keep my hair from spontaneously combusting – I have listened to stories of passion, outrage, agency, strategy, resourcefulness, and creativity. I have learned from others’ experiences of inclusion and exclusion, moral clarity, social action, relational work, political manoeuvring, and—never forget—fundraising. Sharing narratives of failure, resilience, and collaboration, we’ve found our voices.

I have treasured the opportunity to support, and be supported by, amazing women leaders, graduate students doing astonishing research, aspiring administrators, and other women who are engaged in academic citizenship. I have learned that leadership is a community project, one in which you find allies and nurture them in return. With mentorship and advice on everything from strategic planning to shoe shopping and charity. Or wine tastings. Or letters of reference. Or collective activism.

So, my dear colleagues, what better time than now to share your own stories with women from across Canada, facing similar challenges and developing creative responses? The Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada are meeting here in Edmonton at the end of April, with this year’s conference being hosted by the University of Alberta and our partners at MacEwan University and The King’s University.

You don’t have to present a paper. (You definitely don’t need to be “senior.”) You just need to join us and engage. We’ll be talking about reconciliation, equity, leadership development, reputation, and more. To see the program and register visit the SWAAC 2017 conference website.

See you there!

Katy Campbell - Dean, Faculty of Extension


Katy Campbell was born, raised and educated in Edmonton, and received her PhD (1994) in Instructional Studies from the University of Alberta. Her doctoral research involved a narrative study of a collaborative instructional design process as a socially transformative practice.

Dean of the Faculty of Extension (2009-), she has worked as an instructional designer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta (1983-93), as Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the State University of New York College at Geneseo (1993-95), and as a designer of distance programs at Keewatin Community College in Manitoba, Canada (1995-96). She is currently a Professor in the Faculty of Extension.

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