When it comes to how we interact with our students, most of us have made the transition from teaching to learning. We understand that, in order for students to master a subject, they can’t be spectators; they have to engage actively and consistently in the learning process. Even when we struggle to live up to our expectations because our classes are too large or are taught online, we find ways to get away from the old “teaching by telling” model and move closer to our “learning by doing” ideal.

Why, then, don’t we follow this same principle when it comes to preparing academic leaders? A quick website search reveals that most institutions provide chairs, deans, and faculty leaders either no training at all, or a series of independent workshops on such topics as budgeting, time management, and conducting faculty searches. Make no mistake: Workshops of this kind play an important role in providing academic leaders with the information and skills they need, but they’re hardly enough by themselves. They need to be integrated into a program that’s continuous, structured, and interactive. We learn by doing no less than do our students. One way of making leadership training more effective is to incorporate simulation and role play.

For example, in a workshop on how to conduct difficult conversations, participants can be given the task of trying techniques introduced in the presentation. Partner A might be assigned to engage in a role play by telling Partner B that his or her contract wasn’t being renewed, while Partner B might then be assigned to tell Partner A that his or her application for promotion was denied. It’s one thing to sit passively and hear possible ways of handling these situations; it’s another thing entirely to practice what you would actually say and how you might respond to the inevitable pushback that occurs.

Several institutions have taken this practice a step further by incorporating improvisational acting companies into their training process. Simulating a challenging situation with another academic leader is valuable, but academic leaders may be limited by their own communication skills or may find it difficult to put themselves into the mind-set of a character who is very different. Improvisational actors are used to responding to unexpected situations. They can be very convincing in the emotions they display and make the experience far more real to participants.

As early as 1992, Cornell University began using actors in its human resources training programs. The Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble (CITE) works closely with that institution’s Leadership Development Academy to help make leadership training more experiential. CITE members participate in workshops that allow academic leaders to gain a more realistic sense of what various difficult scenarios are like. As a highly diverse acting company, CITE can deal with diversity issues head-on rather than by having participants pretend to be a member of a minority group for the purposes of a simulation. If an academic leader has challenges in communicating effectively with women, or visiting professors from other cultures, CITE can create a nonthreatening scenario in which that leader can practice more effective interactions. Similarly, if an academic leader has certain “buttons” that other faculty members like to “push,” the company can work to desensitize that person to those triggers. This type of exercise may seem awkward and artificial at first, but participants find that interacting with trained actors, rather than with peers, soon becomes such an immersive experience that they almost forget it’s a role play. (See www.hr.cornell.edu/life/career/cite.html)
At the University of Michigan, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) Players is an acting company that seeks to “spark dialogue among faculty, graduate students, and academic administrators, with particular emphasis on issues affecting institutional climate.” (See www.crlt.umich.edu/crltplayers/about-players) Interacting with the players helps academic leaders (and other stakeholders) develop a more nuanced approach to diversity issues and allows them to apply the critical thinking skills they develop in their disciplines to real-world situations. The CRLT Players’ series Navigating Departmental Politics is included in the university’s seminar series for junior faculty members. In cooperation with the university’s ADVANCE program, the company provides experiential training to groups of faculty members who are trying to implement change. (www.crlt.umich.edu/crltplayers)

Similar types of training are possible at other institutions that have theater programs. In most cases, these programs need to be at the graduate level since undergraduates may not be effective in representing faculty members or administrators. Not every person in charge of an acting company will be immediately receptive to the creation of a leadership development training program that involves actors. Faculty members in theater departments have their own stringent obligations for teaching and scholarship and may want to be assured that this activity will be recognized or rewarded by the institution in some way. Theater students have other productions to engage in as part of their graduation requirements. So a good initial step in creating this type of training is to discuss the possibility with the upper administration and find out whether there is financial support for such an initiative, and whether the faculty members who contribute their time to it will have that activity recognized during personnel reviews.

One factor that may encourage graduate students in theater to participate in this kind of role-play opportunity is that many of them will, at some point in their careers, return to academia as faculty members. By engaging in these scenarios while still a student, they will gain insight into many issues that will someday concern them when they themselves are on the faculty or administration of a university. It may even induce some of them to pursue a career opportunity in higher education that they had previously not considered. At the same time, of course, they will have performed a valuable service to the institution by making its leadership training program far more experiential, effective, and meaningful to its participants.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, the second edition of The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 32.2 (2016): 2, 5, 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.