I discuss leadership, an ecosystem model for a University, and an ecosystem test for making resource allocation decisions with Dean Matt Waller of the Walton College of Business at U. Arkansas
Thoughts about thinking of a university as a simple ecosystem
I like to think about the university as an ecosystem composed of overlapping and integrated academic, student life and administrative/operational functions. There are three inputs into this metaphorical ecosystem — students, funding and faculty/staff — and three simple but extraordinarily important outputs — propelling graduates into meaningful and successful lives; research, scholarship and creative outputs that matter to fields of study and/or to people; and improving the quality of life locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
Like any ecosystems, there are positive and negative feedback loops. For example, if a university is successful at propelling students on to great lives; producing research that changes people's lives; or strengthens communities, then more students will want to come to the university, more faculty and staff will want to join, and people (donors, legislators, etc) will be more interested in investing resources. Additionally, the flow of students and faculty/staff that leave the university should decrease. Alternatively, if we don't produce good outcomes, fewer students will want to come, fewer faculty and staff will want to work at the university, and fewer people will want to invest money into the institution. Furthermore, more students will drop out or transfer and more faculty/staff will seek employment elsewhere-- and generally, only the best faculty and staff are able to move.
To extend the ecosystem and ecological metaphor, when I think of the changing higher education landscape, I think about how organisms and systems adjust, acclimate and adapt to change. As we think together as a campus about the forces that will shape the next 150 years (or even the next five) of a university, I hope we can collectively think about what forces we can simply adjust to; what forces we can acclimate to by making some fundamental changes in our current structure and processes; and what forces we will have to truly adapt to as a university. In a biological metaphor, adapting means fundamentally changing our DNA.
One way to ensure that we can adjust, acclimate and adapt to change is to create a culture that unites the complex units of this university in ways where every decision on resource allocation — in every unit — is examined in the context of the ecosystem model. In other words, we all should ask ourselves the question: "Is the decision I am about to make about allocating resources (e.g., money, space, time, etc.) the best decision to propel university graduates on to meaningful and successful lives, and/or to produce research, scholarship and creative works that matter to people; and/or to improve the quality of life?" If the answer is "no," then a different decision should be made.
Candidly, we make lots of decisions that are distantly related to these outcomes. Many of them involve making an internal or external constituent of the university "happy", rather than focusing on the mission and its outcomes. As provost, I figured if I could change even 5% of the decisions being made in academic affairs by using the ecosystem test, that it would have a profound effect on the quality and success of the institution. I was not able to play that hypothesis out, but I was able to influence a few deans and chairs to use the "ecosystem test" and those that used it, found it easy for their faculty and staff to accept, and felt they made better decisions.