Visiting ACE fellow learns from Cornell's 'complexities'

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John Carberry
Laura Spitz and Kristen Eichhorn
Robert Barker/University Photography
Laura Spitz, vice provost for international affairs, left, speaks with ACE fellow Kristen Eichhorn.

In a short time, Kristen Eichhorn has learned a lot about Cornell from the inside.

“I chose Cornell because of its complexities,” said Eichhorn, an American Council on Education (ACE) fellow on campus this year and a professor of communication studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. “Outside of the university you read about Cornell and it’s known for its academic excellence, its global impact and, on the state side, the land-grant mission. I was interested in how these things play out internally.”

SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley nominated Eichhorn for the ACE leadership development program. She is one of 29 ACE fellows nationwide, developing projects based on their exploration of the cultures, policies and decision-making processes of host institutions ranging from community colleges to large universities.

The fellows engage in case studies as teams, visit other campuses and attend national meetings and seminars, although most of their time is spent embedded at host institutions.

Under the mentorship of vice provosts Judith Appleton and Laura Spitz, Eichhorn has been interacting with the faculty, provost, deans and other administrators, closely observing the workings of the university.

“What Kristen brings is really terrific,” Appleton said. “She is an experienced academic with a strong administrative background. Sometimes when she’s listening to us during a provost’s staff meeting or a dean’s meeting, discussing some issue or other, she’s nodding her head as if she’s heard about this before.”

Spitz, vice provost for international affairs, said: “She’s been attending as many senior leader meetings as possible to get a sense of the landscape and potential roles and opportunities.”

Eichhorn has participated in Cornell working groups on issues including strategic planning, internationalization, public engagement, faculty development and diversity. She also attended a SUNY presidents’ meeting, and met one-on-one with Cornell faculty and academic leaders to gather different perspectives.

“I got to pick the brains of faculty members a little on trends in higher education,” she said. “Everyone’s talking about diversity and inclusion. As leaders, how can you lead with a sense of openness and humbleness? That’s probably my most surprising finding. The leaders have been generous and are extraordinarily humble, and these are qualities that are particularly needed in higher education today.”

Eichhorn has a strong interest in “a holistic approach” to leadership and policy that considers “the entire life cycle of a student.”

“If we have expectations for university citizenship and developing compassionate campuses, there are great ways to feel super connected,” she said. “I went to one of the Bethe House dinners, and I was thinking, ‘Right now, it feels like this is a campus of 100 people.’ It just brought a large complex university into a really small, intimate situation. It was an amazing experience. I think everything about that program [the West Campus living-learning initiative] was intentional and really well done.”

Eichhorn also is looking at relationships within a decentralized institution where the colleges, professional schools and other academic units have shared goals as well as their own cultures.

“As I move from faculty to department chairs to deans to the president’s office, my presence there enhances my overall administrative perspective, [and helps] me to have a global understanding of where a lot of pressure points are, to understand how all these things are working together.”

Some other questions and challenges she is pondering include infrastructure, better ways to leverage technology for the entire campus and “the faculty life span – how are we recruiting faculty, assimilating them, including them beyond their role in the classroom? At what point are we introducing them to things like student affairs?”

Eichhorn and other ACE fellows share their experiences as a dedicated study group. “We’re in close contact so we’re learning from each other,” she said. “We meet in person three or four times throughout the year, and we have a Blackboard site and are in touch daily.”

One of ACE’s goals is to foster a network of higher education leaders. From their host sites, the fellows are able to observe, analyze and share ideas and successful approaches.

“At SUNY Oswego, we are working on issues of diversity and inclusion, work-life balance, promotion and tenure, and shared governance,” she said. “Even though Cornell has its own unique norms, there are aspects of the leadership that are transferable to other institutions.”

Eichhorn’s scholarly interests include interpersonal and organizational communication. She is the co-author of “Interpersonal Communication: Building Rewarding Relationships.”

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