Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

Advancing By Retreating

A faculty retreat can be an effective yet daring way to address difficult issues that arise in academic departments. Whether the issues deal with developing a hiring plan, restructuring curricula, or coping with budget cutbacks, a retreat can flesh-out ideas, resolve conflicts, build consensus, develop solutions, and foster collegiality. A retreat focuses faculty energy on specific goals, which can shorten the problem-solving process. An effective retreat requires a well-defined purpose, detailed planning, mechanisms to provoke and facilitate discussion, and camaraderie.

This presentation was given by Dr. E. Scott Bair of The Ohio State University at the 2004 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting (more info) . The comic illustrations in the presentation were done by Matt Williams. The original presentation (PowerPoint 54.5MB Feb7 05) can also be downloaded.

Attending retreats usually evokes a bi-modal response among academics. You either tolerate them or you hate them. Nearly every academic has been on a retreat, but typically fewer than half will say they've been on a successful one. This presentation aims to present some strategies that can be used to lead or participate in a retreat that is productive, fun, and not the equivalent of a group root canal.
Holding a retreat requires a specific purpose (porpoise). Common reasons are
  • Restructuring curricula
  • Addressing budget cutbacks
  • Developing a hiring plan
  • Hurdling the current administrative edict, such as leaping forward in national ranking... which is like asking your faculty to jump over the moon.

Retreating enables you to flesh-out ideas, build consensus, develop solutions to nagging problems, foster collegiality, and resolve or head-off conflicts.

A retreat focuses faculty energy and effort on a specific goal, which can shorten and soften the problem-solving process.

As a department, we had a long history of moving forward, slowly. As department chair for six years, I led us on three retreats. We now have a history of moving backwards, rapidly. When I announced that we were going on our first overnight retreat, there was some concern and some outright apprehension. If your group has never gone on a retreat, you will need to develop a culture of retreating and to guide them along with respect to what is expected and what to expect.

The idea is to harness the collective creativity of your faculty to address problems. A retreat is simply a mechanism to solve your problems together as a group and take advantage of the diverse experiences and knowledge of your group and to focus everyone's attention on the issue for a short period of time. Unfortunately, this is anathema in many academic cultures where suspicions of hidden agendas and backroom deals sometimes abound.

I've heard of a department at a large university that refused to go on a retreat. To me this indicates that the department did not have a history of group involvement in problem solving or even soliciting group opinions on addressing the common types of issues that arise year after academic year.

I suspect many of my colleagues thought that being sequestered, together, for two days and an entire night with no viable means of escape and no interruptions would be hell on earth...
... and that I would be leading them in all sorts of useless 'touchy-feely' 'warm and fuzzy' exercises.

I like to draw the analogy between the faculty in a department and a highly-trained crew team. The Chair is the coxswain and the faculty are the crew. The coxswain is the only person on the team that can see the goal and must provide the strategy and direction to attain it. The crew has it's back to the goal, is basically directionless, but provides all the energy to reach the goal.

But few departments can actually be characterized as a highly-trained, efficient, and effectively functioning team.

To carry the analogy further, the requirements of the coxswain are having a loud mouth, leadership ability and not much mass. Crew members can either rock the boat, do nothing and enjoy the ride or they can choose to row and move the boat towards the goal. To be competitive, everyone has to be involved - the coxswain must provide direction and strategy and the crew must row in unison.

Holding a retreat is a means of getting the faculty prepared to row in unison to attain a common goal.

Selection of a venue is important. Remaining at home or "on-site" has the advantages of convenience, accessibility, and low cost, but the disadvantage of easy interruptions. Going away or "off-site" has the advantage of remoteness and the luxury of continuous focus, but the cost may be high. You will have to consider whether you allow your colleagues to bring their cell phones and check their email. Isolation from external communications is a good thing.

If your school is located somewhere in the city or the suburbs, go to a place that is in the middle of nowhere, perhaps a lodge at a state park. If your school is located nowhere, go somewhere, to a hotel in a nearby city. Hotel rates in cities are often cheaper on weekends and a trip to a nearby museum can provide a pleasant distraction.

Don't be afraid of taking a car or bus trip that is a reasonable distance away from home. The time spent in the vehicle will be used discussing department issues, each others' families, foreign travel, hobbies, and other things that most academics don't have time to share on a day-to-day basis but which will lower anxiety levels and get the faculty used to sharing thoughts and ideas.

The idea is to be comfortably uncomfortable in new surroundings, ready to take on and complete the tasks at hand, because the comfort level is not so high that people want to stay indefinitely.

Don't do the same old, same old. Being on a retreat is not normal. Don't make it like a typical faculty meeting where information is conveyed by a few faculty and little discussion is facilitated, attempted or perhaps even desired. The purpose of a retreat is to tap the collective insight, creativity, and energy of your colleagues. Don't stifle or shunt their participation by lecturing to them or structuring the retreat so their participation is minimal. It is best that the faculty are stakeholders in the solution because they are likely shareholders in the problem. If they are not intimately involved in the process, they will likely nod off or, worse, be contemptuous of your not valuing their opinions and undervaluing their free time.
Prepare and distribute (a week before the retreat) an Overview Document that contains:
  • a statement of purpose
  • the agenda
  • logistics and location maps if needed
  • any preliminary assignments
  • graphs of data to be presented at the retreat
  • other materials as necessary
The document has three important purposes:
  • It serves as your strategic game plan.
  • It presents the framework for the retreat.
  • It documents your level of commitment for the faculty to see.

Every department has one or two faculty who will bring pent up peeves with them on the retreat. It's a niche in the academic community that rarely goes unfilled. If left unvented, the peeves may prevent these faculty from participating fully, which in turn could prevent others from participating.

Facilitate early venting by holding a preliminary discussion that enables the release of their pent up issues. Consider putting a recent pedagogical article and a recent trade journal article about the state of your discipline in the Overview Document. Have faculty read them before the retreat and make the very first agenda item a discussion of what they and their roommate or partner see as the salient points.

Usually this permits all the venting that is needed and the remainder of the retreat can proceed unimpeded by excessive accumulation of gas. So vent early, NOT often.

The idea here is to use a game to disperse the usual coteries, cartels, and cliques that some faculty form which can dominate discussions and overpower or suppress the opinions of other. Dispersing these faculty among the entire group forces them to join the discussion and facilitates enlightening their views while letting them discuss their views without appearing as a power block. If it is appropriate to the tasks at hand, you can play the random seating game again after breaks or after lunch to re-randomize the discussion groups to promote more cross-over of ideas.

You will need a Facilitator and a Scribe to take down all the comments and suggestions of the group. Then post the notes around the room for everyone to view during breaks. If you bring in a Facilitator, you can then serve as Scribe, which is a visible means to remove yourself from expressing or injecting your opinions into the discussion. Having a single Scribe for each sub-group is also a good practice.

Designate a senior faculty member as Elder spokesperson for each sub-group. This enables the Innocent to speak their minds within the relative security of the sub-group while enabling their comments to be broached safely to the entire group through the Elder.

Another suggestion is to NOT hand out paper and pencils to everyone. Without a means to doodle, faculty will be forced to pay attention to the discussion and perhaps be more willing to present their ideas orally rather than write them down on a notepad without presenting them aloud.

All work and no play is a bad premise for anyone, especially coerced academics on a shared mission. Providing comfort food and a zany distraction will balance and enhance required periods of productivity.

Purchase some 'old-time' candies at one of the many websites, some unusual fruits, and gourmet coffee and tea (make it decaffeinated and don't tell them). In the late afternoon, discussions likely need a pickup, surprise your group with fudgecicles, creamsicles, and root beer. Have bowls of various candies on the tables. Throw a nerf ball at anyone with a truly goofy idea. After you introduce this 'sport,' give everyone a ball to use for this purpose. The idea is to get the faculty comfortable enough so they are willing to entertain ideas contrary to their own views and begin to compromise.

One strategy to promote compromise and build consensus is to divide the path to your goal into tasks. With the completion of each task, combine two sub-groups so that each successive task is addressed by a larger group. This will facilitate compromise within each group as it becomes larger and build consensus as you move toward your goal.

Be sure to allow enough time for discussion and participation in each task, but not so much time to allow boredom to set in or paralysis by analysis to occur. Keep your groups on task and within your planned time limits.

As an example of some of these concepts, at one retreat I combined our two-person groups into teams of 4 or 5 to play a department budget game that I constructed in Excel. The goal of the game was to hire all the faculty, staff and technicians needed for a brand new geology department at the new University of California Merced campus but to keep the budget under a specified limit.

Each group had to decide what types of faculty to hire to cover a large service-course teaching load, what types of technicians to hire to support faculty research, whether or not to hire lecturers, and how many staff to hire. Each position was associated with a cost for salary plus benefits and enough money had to be left in the budget to cover travel, equipment, and student recruiting.

The idea was to force the faculty to consider the BIG PICTURE, not just their own individual interests and to learn how and why other teams prioritized their hiring plans.

I also arranged the teams by age so that all the faculty hired in the 1970s were in one team and all the faculty hired since 1990 were in another. Those faculty in between the young and old were split into two teams. I did this to see if there was any correlation between years-since-Ph.D. and the type of department that each group would concoct. Not surprisingly, there were some significant differences between the groups' ideas.

If you are on an overnight retreat, the time after dinner can be used to have some fun and impart some knowledge. Prior to the retreat, I compiled some facts about our department to use in a trivia quiz. The questions on the quiz were divided into several categories. The faculty took the quiz in two-person teams with their roommate. Upon completion, the quizzes were exchanged and graded. The previous Chair of the department served as judge to award the "partial credit" demanded for some answers - faculty and students are not so different.

The winning team received two magnum bottles of wine. The second place team received two cases of beer. The third place team received a case of soda. Other winning teams received cheese, crackers, potato chips, and cashews. The losing teams received a round of hisses and boos along with toothpicks, paper plates and napkins. Then we threw ourselves a party. If you can get your faculty loose enough to sing karaoke songs, you are on your way.

During the course of planned events, random ideas unrelated to the goal of a retreat will be broached and discussed. Often these ideas can be implemented easily and can make an impact on a department. During one of our retreats, a faculty member educated in the UK suggested that we really needed a 'Tea Lady' to prepare and serve tea and coffee in the late afternoon as a means of getting faculty to talk informally with one another. While the era of Tea Ladies has come and gone, the concept of having a time and place for faculty, students, and staff to talk among themselves and discuss things large and small is never bygone. It can make a big difference in relationships. So we created the 'Old Faithful Lounge' in a portion of our conference room. The lounge has several large chairs, two love seats, a magnificent coffee table, a gourmet coffee machine, and a refrigerator.

If you take the time to plan your retreat, design it around a specific goal, provide a comfortable atmosphere that promotes sharing ideas and compromise, throw in a little levity among the angst, and hand out the words to Kum-Bye Ya, you all can sing happily ever after about the fun and productive retreat you took... Okay, you can at least try to harmonize together until the next major issue arises.