Edgar Virgüez is a Ph.D. candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He will be joining Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University.
Graduate school has given me technical competencies, in-depth exposure to my discipline and a close look at the inner workings of U.S. higher education. That final element has proven to be one of the most transformative pieces of my doctoral education but remains one of the least common across the country.
I'm a graduating doctoral student in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. I have had the unusual experience of serving for the last three years on committees for our university's board of trustees, as well as being invited to be part of an 11-member search committee for Duke's executive vice president. It was a truly profound experience.
I learned myriad lessons while reviewing candidates with different visions about overseeing the university's operational and financial processes. I now understand more deeply the importance of administering the university's resources to fulfill its core academic mission. And in talking with candidates about the most pressing challenges facing higher education and academic medical centers, I reaffirmed my commitment to work at a mission-oriented organization where I could use knowledge in service to society.
I wish all graduate students had these experiences.
As future leaders of mission-oriented organizations, early career scholars need programs that prepare us to be agents of change. Associations like the American Council on Education or the Association of American Colleges and Universities should expand the scope of formative programs to reach more graduate students and postdocs. Programs like ACE Fellows should consider developing parallel fellowships for advanced doctoral students. The networking connections derived from participating in such initiatives would generate new mentoring relationships promoting the development of young talented leaders. Existing leadership recognitions, like AAC&U's K. Patricia Cross Future Leader Awards (of which I am a 2020 recipient) and the recently launched AAC&U Future Leaders Society, could be a springboard to an early career fellowship akin to the standard ACE fellowship.
I call on senior leaders in higher education to enable these opportunities to support the potential of early career scholars. We are grateful that we learn how to ask essential disciplinary questions and conduct critical research in our fields during our graduate studies. We also need parallel support on our quest to become the 21st-century leaders that the world is desperately asking for, ready to tackle complex challenges and craft thoughtful, inclusive solutions.
The growing concern over the value of college education, aligned with the structural problems in the higher education sector revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, should push us forward. A recent survey found that 85% of university trustees express concern about the future of higher education in the short term.
One of the only national surveys of chief academic officers, the CAO Census, found that the traditional career path to being appointed a CAO is serving as a dean of an academic college, a campus executive in academic affairs or a similar position. But a study examining the visions of CAOs at independent colleges found CAOs believe a fundamental difference in perspective exists between faculty and administrators. How can we prepare early career scholars to serve in leadership positions in this environment?
Successful models already exist. The Presidential Management Fellowship, launched at Johns Hopkins University in 2020, recently recruited its third cohort of fellows. Fellows in this program work on a wide range of projects related to financial strategy, management strategy and other high-priority tasks at the university. In the same year, Duke University launched the Re-imagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) fellowships, which provide stipends for Ph.D. students to undertake research projects relevant for reform processes in their programs. This program has already generated results like an interactive tool for reporting harassment, discrimination and other concerns. The university in April announced the inaugural Presidential Fellow, a part-time fellowship designed to prepare midcareer faculty for leadership positions.
I am fortunate to have been privy to some of the early career experiential opportunities described above. Engaging in formative and experiential opportunities makes me feel better prepared to launch my career, starting as a university-based scientist with an active research portfolio.
Promoting innovation in teaching, mentoring and interdisciplinary research through deep engagement with administration and governance allowed me to be a better communicator, a more confident scholar, an active listener, a more effective researcher and educator, and a more constructive university citizen. I have learned how to work with a diverse set of constituents and integrate their perspectives. I have seen how to link problem identification, fact-finding and consultation as part of an actual change process, among many other specific skills.
During the last year, we have seen youth movements around the globe demanding wide-ranging structural reforms. Shouldn't early career scholars follow this example and take an active role in transforming academia?
My invitation for university presidents, provosts and senior leaders in the higher education sector is to launch similar programs at their institutions and professional organizations to provide increased support for early career scholars. You would be contributing to a much-needed diversification of voices at the table, now and in the future.