What Is Your Philosophy of Higher Education?

At colleges and universities, we commonly ask candidates who are seeking faculty positions to provide a statement of their teaching philosophy. But when people apply for administrative posts in the academy, do we ask them to give a statement of their philosophy of higher education?

We ask about “leadership styles” and why they want the job. But I don’t think those questions are the same as asking about someone’s philosophy of higher education. Leadership styles matter — immensely — but they are more about communication and management. And presumably, an individual wants the job because they want to accomplish particular things, are drawn to particular challenges and so on.

I doubt that many administrators — myself included — have been asked or have asked ourselves the question about our philosophy of higher education. Yet, arguably, that philosophy should be the driving force behind our decisions, our projects, our strategic plans and, yes, our leadership styles. And I suspect that many of us have an implicit higher education philosophy. We could track our individual decisions and projects, view them collectively, and deduce an underlying ethos that unites those choices and endeavors.

But that’s not enough. We should engage in the explicit, deliberate and self-conscious work of identifying that philosophy. If left unarticulated, we might happily stumble into one and implicitly and somewhat accidentally live into it. But by deliberately working on crafting one, we can give voice to our intentions and guiding principles.

In fact, if we were smart, this is where every annoying, poor-use-of-my-time presemester retreat, orientation or workshop for new administrators would begin. Because without such a philosophy, we lack that grounding. Without it, we risk careening from one project to another with nothing to focus our decisions and our work.

In contrast, with one, we have a measure against which to make choices about what our next project ought to be, what direction we ought to take, what our answer to certain questions should be. In other words, we need something along the lines of “I should pursue this project/say yes to this request/move my unit in this direction because it is consistent with my broader philosophy.” Or the reverse: “Even though this is an interesting and perhaps even worthwhile program, I have finite amounts of time and energy, and this doesn’t further my core philosophy. I’m going to focus my efforts on the things that do.”

A philosophy of higher ed can also be a powerful tool for grounding us in the midst of tense situations or upheaval. When I find myself mired in faculty politics, managing a student complaint or handling a crisis in the workplace, I try to remind myself of what animates my work and why I do this. As you’ll see below, mine is always and ever about the students. It’s easier to transcend the problems described above when I remember this.

Make no mistake, though. A philosophy is not the same thing as a goal. Student retention is a goal. But what is the philosophy that undergirds that goal? Better mental health services for students is a goal. But what is the philosophy from which that goal flows?

All well and good, you say, but how do I come up with one? Here are a few prompts to move you in the direction of drafting your philosophy of higher ed.

  • What drew you to higher education to begin with?
  • What makes you want to do your job well?
  • Who among your colleagues inspires you and why?
  • If you could wave your magic wand and improve one thing about higher education, what would it be?
  • What are higher education’s greatest strengths?
  • What are higher education’s greatest challenges?
  • What does it look and feel like when you are doing your most satisfying work?

Once you’ve answered those questions, see what jumps out at you. Do certain themes or words seem to repeat themselves? Do you get a sense of where your enthusiasm lies? Does a purpose or direction emerge from your responses?

Now try to capture those observations in a statement that embodies your vision of higher education and why you’ve chosen to be part of this enterprise. Ideally, your philosophy should be fairly succinct. It should be that point of clarity amid the quotidian demands of the job. And if you find it hard to craft one, that’s revealing, too. Why can’t you? Is your current position not a good fit for your aspirations? Are there obstacles in your current role that make it difficult to honor the philosophy that guides you?

At the end of the day, a philosophy of higher education should be that thing that centers you and gives you purpose. When you’re being crushed by an avalanche of emails, you’re trying to meet too many deadlines all at once or your spirits are flagging, it should be the reminder of why you do what you do.

Here’s a first draft of mine: “Higher education is a transformative social good. As a college-level administrator, I strive to approach students with empathy and transparency and to serve them in ways that foster their intellectual growth, support their personal development and challenge them to expand their horizons.”

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