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It's All Situational

By Ellen Peters

At some point in my career, I was introduced to the Situational Leadership Model, a theory developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. It’s meant to guide supervisors in leading staff through new – and perhaps daunting – work. Stage 1 is excitement about the new work. Stage 2 is where the reality of the challenge of the work sets in, and sometimes stops us. Stage 3 is overcoming that challenge, and stage 4 is mastery. I think we are in stage 2 of our work. Let me explain.

The topics that the Forward50 are tackling are some of the most critical in higher education today: access, affordability, transparency and accountability. These are issues that higher education has been trying to address for decades – how can we increase access? How can we make college more affordable? How can we be more transparent, and how can we demonstrate that we are accountable?

In our initial meeting in Washington, D.C., we were able to identify many of the issues that swirl around these topics, and there is no shortage of reasons why they are each a challenge. It was exciting to discuss these issues with colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds, and to anticipate working with these wise people to develop some proposals. Stage 1, for sure.

As David mentioned in his blog post, each of us was assigned to one of the topics, and I was assigned to the accountability subgroup. We too brainstormed – more Stage 1 work – and zeroed in on a few things:

  • Institutional mission matters; all institutions cannot be accountable for the same things.
  • Current measures of accountability, such as graduation rates and cohort default rates, are inadequate.
  • Addressing the issue of public trust in higher education is essential.
  • Accountability should ultimately measure student success.
  • Progress and good faith effort should matter.

As we dove into the work, we began to identify some significant challenges – how do we reconcile the most obvious public measure of success (higher salaries) with the fact that some schools produce teachers, and others produce engineers? How do we address the very different accountability for institutions that primarily provide certifications and credentials for specific careers with liberal arts institutions that educate for any career? Is there any way to be accountable for thriving as an alumna/alumnus?  How do we account for student learning and pathways that are divergent from the degree but fulfilling, successful and valuable? We now sit squarely in Stage 2, where we have more conundrums than solutions.

We’ve decided to break ourselves up into even smaller workgroups so that we can move to Stage 3. We’ve identified three areas of accountability: student loans, student experience/progression, and outcomes/alumni. For each, the workgroup will address measures, mission impact, progress and good faith effort, and public trust.

Our smaller group, assigned to outcomes/alumni met, and we identified several possibilities: salaries, working in non-profits, employability, investment fulfillment, and of course, graduation rates. We definitely have more work to do; but we feel like we are making some progress, and look forward to making it to Stage 4!