What Leaders Can Learn From Teaching Undergraduates

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 24, 2016

When Dan Lee, a senior member of my college’s religion department, asked me to team teach his undergraduate seminar, "Individual Rights and the Common Good," I was hesitant. I had been out of classroom teaching since I joined Augustana College as president 11 years ago. I don’t have a Ph.D. in religion — or any Ph.D., for that matter. My only teaching had been at law schools. I was already overcommitted. But Professor Lee was persistent, so I agreed to teach again, and in doing so, I also became a student.

During the hectic time that led up to the first class, I wondered why I had agreed to teach. Just a week later, I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner. It was one of the most important experiences of my time here, changing the way I view both my presidency and the faculty.

After the first class I realized that I had forgotten how difficult and time-consuming teaching is. My knowledge of what I taught — mainly Supreme Court cases — was sometimes a mile wide and an inch deep, and other times an inch wide and a mile deep. Experienced teachers need both depth and breadth, and that takes time, as does meeting with students outside the classroom, writing letters of recommendation, and so forth. That’s why we administrators must respect reasonable teaching loads, sabbaticals, and professional-development time. But experienced teachers also know that just because you teach it, doesn’t mean students will learn it. The hard part is cultivating learning.

Undergraduates bring different levels of motivation and interest. In our religion class, the subject captivated a few of the students, and others came in seeking to fulfill a requirement. Professor Lee had mastered the art of engaging both types, drawing out responses from each. And at the end of each class, he left time for a discussion to check the level of learning and set the stage for the next class. He is an expert listener, infinitely patient and convinced that even the least engaged can contribute to the whole, particularly if he could tease their contributions out.

I’m accustomed to teaching with the Socratic method. I used to grill students to determine if they were prepared. Students thought I was the smartest guy in the room, and that made me feel good. I knew they couldn’t win: If they got close to mastering the legal case, I’d change the facts! Too many ended up frustrated, and I sometimes ended up missing my intended goal of helping them think like a lawyer.

But my colleague listened deeply to our students, coaxing engagement from the more reticent, and seeking to genuinely learn from his students. His style was much more effective, and I learned from him the art of fostering deep conversations.

Engaging students is even more rewarding in a diverse classroom. Our students included Christians of all denominations, students with no religion, and even our local imam, who has taken several classes with us. I saw in class how students challenge their classmates to examine their beliefs and assumptions. The respectful dialogue between our Roman Catholic students and the imam, seeking common ground on papal encyclicals concerning economic justice, helped us all learn in ways we are not likely to forget. By listening and affirming, I moved my role from teaching to learning.

But my greatest lesson directly relates to my role as president of the college. Just as I learned to encourage deep engagement and thought-provoking conversations with our students, I realized that I also needed to foster deeper and more profound discussion among our faculty, staff, trustees, and administration about how to achieve our goals. It has changed how I approach virtually every group at Augustana.

Today’s challenges call for shared governance, which can only be accomplished with an engaged faculty and administration, and such governance cannot be effective without meaningful faculty control of academic programs. Presidents need to be effective teachers when it comes to helping the faculty understand financial realities, as well as the realities of changing demographics and increasing calls for accountability. But at times presidents need to be students, listening to the faculty concerning the academic programs.

Members of governing boards sometimes express concerns that faculty members don’t understand the changing realities of higher education. If that is true — and it is less true than most board members think — who is at fault? It is probably the senior administration of the institution coming up short as good teachers. When discussing difficult issues, they too often arrive late to class, fail to provide good and timely background information, and do too much talking without checking the understanding of faculty and staff. And most important, they often seek sign-off instead of encouraging thoughtful, continuing conversations.

A college president does not need to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, I aim to be the best listener in the room and a good teacher. And, just as most often the best teachers are humble, the best presidents should be also. They should be committed to helping the institution’s entire work force develop the habits of mind, heart, and soul to provide the best outcomes to our students.

So this year I recast my remarks at our opening faculty-and-employee retreat. It was not my traditional laundry list of what went well and not so well over the summer. Instead, it was a two-way discussion of how we all can meet our changing student body where we find them. I learned more than I shared, but that’s what leaders need to do.

Meetings of my executive team are now less like Socratic discussions and more like round-table discussions, where we listen, learn, and challenge each other. Both methods produce critical thinking, but the latter method also produces buy-in and support.

Most important, I hope to duplicate my classroom experience among our employees. Meetings concerning progress on our strategic plan involve not only those who are charged with carrying out the plan, but also those who have a good, neutral vantage point to observe whether the plan is making its intended difference. Our round-table discussions give me more insight than a sheaf of detailed reports.

I would urge all presidents to find an opportunity to teach or guest lecture, and to see, firsthand, the fruits of our long hours devoted to budgets, personnel, and fund raising; to remember that our function is to teach and facilitate, not to manage and command.

Steven C. Bahls is president of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.