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From the admin chair

Making the transition to a new university

To get to know an institution, you need to understand its people, place and culture.


As I mentioned in my previous column in the October issue, I recently made a move to Toronto to take up a new role at York University. The role itself will extend my skills, in that it expands and builds on my knowledge and experience in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion, Indigenous education, as well as faculty relations. What’s more, the role itself is a new one for the university. I found the change exhilarating and exciting – and, occasionally, very challenging, leaving me at times feeling somewhat frazzled. I’d like to focus on some of the strategies I utilized to make the transition.

After you have accepted a new position, there is usually a pre-entry phase that you can take advantage of. Building on my research of the institution during the interview phase, the pre-entry phase provided me with the opportunity to have early meetings with my supervisor and colleagues to discuss in more detail the strategic priorities of the university and the expectations for my new role. These early meetings eased the transition for me and helped me to digest the cascading information I would need to begin the new job. This also began the process of building important working relationships with my supervisor and colleagues.

Visits to the campus were also important. I first visited on my own, which allowed me to explore the campus and get a lay of the land. Maybe this strategy is related to my own sense of Indigeneity and the importance of getting a feel for the land. I am always reminded of my grandfather when I go to someplace new. He taught me the importance of exploring and getting to know a new place. In another visit to the university, a colleague took me on a short tour of some key areas on campus. Again, these opportunities to familiarize myself with the campus assisted me in having some sense of direction when I arrived on my official start date.

I also have a love of reading and learning, which always leads me to read short op-eds, articles and books, and listen to podcasts, most of which are educational. During my pre-entry, I read anything that might give me clues to making the transition as smooth as possible. Some of my reading involved reviewing best practices in leadership and higher education, and other pieces were about 90-day entry plans. For the latter, I found particularly helpful the book, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, by Michael Watkins.

Upon starting, I felt equipped with a flexible 90-day entry plan. For the first month I concentrated on meeting with as many people as possible to get a better understanding of the university, how it operates, its processes and culture. This required a lot of listening and learning, as any 90-day plan needs to be deliberate and intentional in terms of what you hope to achieve. Given my new portfolio on equity, people and culture, it was important for me to build relationships across the university both vertically and horizontally. In any senior academic position, the luxury of taking the time to listen and learn can be somewhat challenging as expectations to respond to emerging issues are often more urgent and time-sensitive. Here I relied on the wisdom of colleagues and reached out to those who were visionary and experienced for their guidance and direction.

Reflecting back on these early months, I think the following are essential considerations in transitioning to a new role: people, place and culture. Understanding the importance of connecting to the land, the culture of the university and its people are critical. Getting off to a good start with people means spending time understanding their roles, how they view the institution, what they assess as being the strengths and challenges of the organization and, importantly, how they view the future. Place includes understanding the general physical layout of the institution. In a large institution it’s not always easy but getting out there is important.

And, finally, every organization has a different way of being in the world. Universities are no exception. Take time to understand the nuances about what makes an institution unique. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about what makes York a unique place and I am enjoying looking forward to collaborating with colleagues on how this new division of equity, people and culture will move forward.

I am thankful that those early transitional activities and pre-entry strategies have provided a good foundation for me to start off in a good way. I am also grateful for the extremely warm welcome from supportive staff, students, senior leadership and faculty.

Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is vice-president, equity, people and culture, at York University. Her column appears in every second issue.
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