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The Enduring Impact of IEM

For 50 years, the Institute for Educational Management has provided higher education leaders with guidance and strategies to face challenges and lead their institutions toward success.
Jim Honan

Senior Lecturer James Honan leads a session at the Institute for Educational Management in 2015

Photo: Kent Dayton

The Institute for Educational Management (IEM) — one of the longest-running professional education programs for leaders in higher education — is celebrating 50 years of supporting senior-level administrators to develop strategies for long-term institutional success.

“We are very fortunate that IEM is 50 years old. It is our great hope it will thrive for another 50 years,” says Faculty Co-Chair and Senior Lecturer James Honan, who credits IEM’s success and stability to an incredible faculty and the program’s ability to shift with the times.

Over the course of IEM’s 50 years, some of the most distinguished and skilled leaders in higher education have attended the program, bringing back to their home campuses strategic direction with buy-in from key stakeholders, ideas on competing successfully in a dynamic marketplace, guidance on embracing the right emerging technologies, and inspiration for how to leverage diversity and create an inclusive community on campus.

We talked with Honan about how IEM remains relevant, especially considering the increasing pressures on colleges and universities in technological and financial areas, and ongoing questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion at institutions.

How has IEM remained relevant over 50 years, even as the higher ed landscape has shifted dramatically?
Executive education audiences have a high expectation that programs will be relevant, current, and applicable to the leadership challenges they face in their roles. It has been our good fortune over the years to stay close to the ground learning about the key challenges in higher education.

Many of our faculty colleagues are also trustees of colleges and universities, myself included, and that keeps us close to the ground on evolving and current challenges in the field. Another component of our program that ensures we stay current is each IEM participant prepares a brief leadership challenge that they bring to the Institute. We utilize these statements in both small group discussions and in driving some of the larger group conversations. We share summaries of the issues with the participants and we also brief our faculty on the key leadership challenges participants face. We adjust curriculum accordingly if we're getting a whole bunch of challenges that we're not addressing.

"A key characteristic of IEM is the in-person, intensive capturing of the time and mindshare of very busy leaders. Focusing on their own learning is a rare privilege and opportunity for them."

IEM touts a “total immersion experience” as a unique part of its learning. What does that entail?
Over 50 years, the program has evolved from six weeks to nine days! Time is of the essence for senior leaders. I think one of the key characteristics of IEM is the in-person, intensive capturing of the time and mindshare of very busy leaders. One of the things we have learned over the years in developing and leading the program is we have to do a little reprogramming of participants’ time and attention from the busyness of day-to-day work, which is challenging for them. We try to get people to do that refocusing of their time and attention to their own learning and that of their colleagues.

How?
IEM has an intentional culture and structure. The first issue I mentioned was to not just encourage but almost force participants to use this time to focus on their own learning, which is a rare privilege and opportunity for them. Our IEM team takes care of all the logistical details so participants can concentrate on the program content and their learning. Secondly, we create the conditions in which they can then share information, engage fully with our faculty in supportive ways, and also enjoy time with each other from these stressful jobs. We remind people to make sure they bring their sense of humor and share with one another to depressurize some of the things that are challenging.

Many people comment about how powerful the learning experience was because it was so rare and intensive. At the end of a program, participants gather their thoughts and reflections but also identify action plans moving forward.

How have the challenges for higher education leaders changed over time?
The challenges and issues that participants and their institutions faced 50 years ago are much different than the ones that they face today — and much different than the ones they'll face in the next 50 years. There are certainly perennial leadership challenges at the senior level. These are complex and important roles and have been for some time for anyone working at the vice presidential or provost or dean level in a complex higher ed institution. What it takes to do that work has been a perennial challenge. But the expectations for higher education have risen over the past 50 years along with increased tuition, increased pressure for financial aid, student borrowing, and external criticism of colleges and universities. Leaders are in a position that they're needing to respond to new pressures. We see the vectors of technology that have changed over time for both the teaching and learning environment, but also in society writ large, and then changes in who attends colleges and universities and who's teaching at them and who's working in them. These changes put a lot of pressure on leaders and pressure on programs like IEM to make sure we spend time helping leaders talk about those challenges and identify action plans for making progress.

"Each day we ask participants if there’s an emerging issue on their campuses that they want to talk with colleagues about — whether it’s student mental health issues or changes in global policies that affect international students or any emerging issue. There's no limit to the types of issues that can be raised."

It’s a nine-day program and you cannot do everything. We try to personalize issues for participants. Each day we ask participants if there’s an emerging issue that they’re facing on their campuses that they want to talk with colleagues about — whether it’s student mental health issues or changes in global policies that affect international students or any emerging issues. There's no limit to the types of issues that can be raised and discussed.

How do you think IEM might change in the future?
Bridget Long, Matt Miller, and I received a two-year grant from the Gates Foundation to study student success in higher education. We traveled all over the country, visiting campuses, to ask questions of colleges and universities about student success. That research resulted in a new HGSE professional education program called “Leading for Student Success” this year. It was a team-based program that brings people across different roles in colleges and universities to Harvard to focus on developing plans and strategies for improving student success at their institution. We’ll be discussing this at the upcoming Askwith Forum celebrating IEM’s 50 years. But the reason I mention this is perhaps it’s a glimpse at the future. Maybe it’s an example of the next 50 years of HGSE professional development programs for higher education.