Faculty member or administrator? Rob Deemer, member of the ACE Fellows Class of 2016-17, says maybe both: Leadership development programs can add to your career options rather than make you abandon the academic discipline you love.
Transformational change is a concept that both institutions and individuals think about constantly, plan for ubiquitously, and, every once in a while, take the opportunity to execute. Institutions often find themselves thrust into the maelstrom of change either unintentionally by external forces or intentionally by internal decisions; it is usually not difficult to determine what is causing the change and how an institution intends to respond to it. Transformational change for an individual—in this case, me—can be and has been much less obvious.
When I was nominated to participate in the ACE Fellows Program, I had very little substantive administrative experience to speak of. Other than overseeing the music composition program at the State University of New York at Fredonia, my primary experience with higher education leadership came from four years as the chair of the University Senate. While I enjoyed my work with my students and had made a positive impact on my institution as governance leader, I had been interested in exploring opportunities for leadership in music and the arts within higher education for quite some time.
It was on a trip to Syracuse, NY where we were giving a joint presentation on shared governance that SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath (ACE Fellows Class of 2002-03) first described the Fellows program to me. I listened with equal parts excitement and trepidation—I loved the idea of spending a year exploring leadership in higher education, but I had never considered leadership paths outside of my own discipline to that point [insert your own joke about the “Dark Side” here].
As I was mulling over applying for the Fellows program, I realized that I was approaching a nexus point—the latest in a series of life-changing decisions that I had made throughout my career. Over the span of the last 30 years, I had navigated the discovery of an aptitude and love for composing while studying music education, a life-wrenching adventure in film scoring in Los Angeles and a subsequent re-adjustment back to academia, where I had to decide whether to pursue doctoral work in composing or conducting. I made several other decisions over the subsequent years as to where to study, what job offer and position to ultimately settle upon, and what my professional priorities were regarding my own creative work, my pedagogy, and my extra-musical work as a writer and advocate. Ultimately, I felt that the Fellows program provided me with what turned out to be an opportunity that I could not pass up: a full year to try on several different hats as well as observe and participate in a great number of important projects with the eventual goal of preparing myself for an arts leadership position in higher education (or so I thought).
None of the aforementioned turning points occurred without intense forethought or gnashing of the proverbial teeth. They all seem to have the following aspect in common: I would suddenly realize that I had slowly been moving in the direction of that momentous decision for months or years without realizing it, and that made the decision-making process almost scarily easy to make. Often these decisions do not give you months or years to make up your mind, but rather days or minutes, and it is at that point that you have to transcend whatever data or information you may have pored over and creatively imagine where each path will take you (the aforementioned data will of course subliminally inform your imagination).
Once I made the decision to jump down the ACE Fellows rabbit-hole, I was immediately confronted with an equally pivotal decision: What institutions should I ask to be my host institution, and ultimately, which one should I choose? In addition to the traditional questions all ACE Fellows face when they begin to search for potential host institutions (distance from their home, public vs. private, big vs. small, overall fit, etc.), I was also interested in finding an institution that would allow for me to explore arts leadership in academia in addition to campus-wide leadership. After several months of sending out inquiries and making phone calls to a number of colleges and universities, I visited the campus of Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio twice—once for an in-depth interview with their president, Robert Helmer, and once for an extensive interview session with their entire cabinet—and we mutually agreed that it was a good fit.
Baldwin Wallace has turned out to be a great incubator to mull over the two primary questions I find myself facing: whether or not I truly want to pursue a career in higher education leadership, and if the answer to that is yes, whether or not I focus on the arts or allow myself to set my sights higher and broader. It is close in size to my home institution at Fredonia and both universities are well known nationally for their music programs, so I have had many opportunities for interaction with the music faculty and the Conservatory administration. That being said, I have had an immense amount of access and ability to participate with the president, provost and entire cabinet on a great number of projects and initiatives. These opportunities have allowed me to grow and learn in overt ways as well as acclimate myself to the subtle day-to-day interactions at the administrative level.
Having access to such an incubator is a rich resource for my personal learning goals, but it would only have a fraction of its value if I did not have a close-knit cohort of fellow Fellows with whom I can freely consider, question and evaluate my own experiences as well as compare them to those of my 28 other colleagues from across the country. Throughout this year, we have been in constant contact with each other, continually spurring each other on with questions, rants, boisterous exclamations, and quiet admissions … all of which are protected by the “Cone of Silence” that follows each ACE Fellow throughout their fellowship year.
Ultimately, this year will come to a close and I will return to my home institution. The big questions that lay in front of me will not be immediately answered or addressed, and I am sure to have a number of projects that will further augment my learning experience. The timeframe within which I will choose to stay on or divert from my current career path is unknown to me at this point, but the fact that those options are there for me to consider cannot be ignored or forgotten. Whenever that transformational decision happens, however, I feel confident that my experiences this year as an ACE Fellow will serve me well.