Tackling Tough Problems: Student Leadership Lessons

09/27/2016 01:24 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016
Jorge Salcedo

Colleges and universities have incredible problem-solving potential. Where else can you find such diversified expertise, passionate leadership, and genuine interest in making the world a better place? Unfortunately, potential does not always match current action. Campuses frequently find themselves unable to leverage their resources to address significant institutional challenges.

Like many in the Harvard community, I was deeply troubled by the results of the Association of American Universities survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct. The problem of sexual assault clearly threatens the educational mission of our schools and the integrity and inclusiveness of our pluralistic society. Consequently, it wasn’t difficult to find other students who felt similarly compelled to explore how we could take action to address the problem at Harvard. However, as I talked with others about what we could do, I soon came to recognize the challenges ahead. Similar to other entrenched problems facing campuses and society, there was no simple or universally agreed upon pathway forward.

In an effort to respond to the problem of sexual assault on campus, a committed team of student leaders spent several months learning, planning, and coordinating with Harvard faculty and staff members to facilitate a campus-wide convening for student leaders. Two dozen graduate students, all of whom were already leading significant sexual assault prevention efforts across Harvard’s graduate and professional schools, connected with one another for the first time ever. Our mission was to create and sustain an ongoing platform for student leaders to share ideas, help scale best practices, accelerate learning, and make significant progress toward the elimination of sexual assault at Harvard.

Harvard’s potential as a problem-solving organization certainly proved true. The energy, commitment, expertise, and will of our community members was truly remarkable. Something else proved true, as well: without significant learning, strategizing, and organizing, the remarkable resources of our community will not realize their potential. The resources of our community, both human and otherwise, do not naturally organize themselves.

Our experience venturing into campus leadership on a particularly challenging problem was full of challenges and successes. I elaborate below on five lessons I learned through this experience. Whether facing racism, homophobia, threats to intellectual freedom, or any number of complex and charged issues, I believe that these lessons can help guide leaders on other campuses as they work to build an organization capable of addressing significant problems facing their communities.

Be clear on your purpose

The first critical step is to clearly define the problem you are trying to solve. Your problem definition will likely evolve and change as you learn more about the challenge.

While our team originally intended to directly tackle the problem of sexual assault itself, we quickly learned that countless other efforts were already in place across the university. Gaining a better understanding of the current landscape helped us redefine the problem our team could address. Eventually, we defined the problem as a lack of coordination and collaboration among the student leaders working on sexual assault prevention across the university.

Engage key individuals early

Making progress on solving a charged and complex problem will likely require the commitment and support of many different members of the community. Engaging key stakeholders early increases the likelihood of success.

Before we formalized any plans, we met with numerous staff members from the Title IX Office, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response, and the Office of the Provost. These early meetings helped us form strategic alliances with key individuals as well as receive crucial feedback that helped improve our change strategy.

Develop a theory of action

A theory of action, often formed as an “If...then…” statement, articulates the logic that underpins an effort. A theory of action makes a claim that if specific actions are taken, then specific outcomes are expected. The process of articulating and constantly refining a theory of action has many strategic advantages. A theory of action can help people quickly understand the “what” and the “how” of an idea. A theory of action can also help people identify and critique key assumptions upon which a strategy relies.

Our theory of action became the “elevator pitch” our team used when we spoke about our work: “Student leaders across Harvard University are currently engaged in significant efforts to help prevent sexual assault and other forms of sexual harassment. We believe that if these student leaders are given a platform to share ideas, learn from each other, and create collaborative networks, then learning will accelerate, best practices will be more consistently implemented across schools, and significant progress will be made on preventing sexual assault and other forms of harassment at Harvard University.”

Be obsessive about feedback and learning

Leaders willing to take on a charged and complex problem must also be willing to take on a learner’s stance. Inevitably, there are facts, opinions, and perspectives that any one leader will simply not know. The earlier blind spots are identified, the earlier strategic adjustments can be made to better address the reality of the problem.

I created a Google Doc early in the planning process that articulated our understanding of the context, problem definition, theory of action, and a high-level description of our proposed student leader convening. We shared the document widely, always asking for feedback. While an open and inclusive planning process seemed philosophically important for an effort such as ours, our open approach also proved to have a significant strategic benefit. By constantly soliciting feedback and suggestions we were able to spot several potential problems and identify new opportunities our team had not previously considered.

Leverage campus resources

If the ambition of your effort matches the complexity of your problem, it is unlikely that you alone have the expertise, insight, or resources to achieve your objectives. Campus resources must be identified and leveraged in service of the effort.

We utilized the Title IX Office, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response, the Office of the Provost, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and other university-wide student organizations to help us identify and recruit student leaders. A Harvard Law School student reported that she received five separate invitations to our convening before she registered, illustrating the extensive outreach that was made possible through leveraging our relationships with several key supporters. These allies helped us achieve an impressive and rare feat: student representation from ten of Harvard’s graduate and professional schools.

We also took advantage of the expertise of professors. One professor from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, an expert on negotiation theory and practice, helped us design our convening to increase the likelihood that our student leader participants would develop collaborative relationships. A professor from the Harvard Business School, an expert on change leadership, presented to our student leader participants about the skills required to be effective agents of change.

Student leaders reported feeling that the convening was an important step in the right direction. Overwhelmingly, they indicated a strong desire for future convenings. The positive participant feedback was invaluable as we sought university support to institutionalize our efforts so that future generations of student leaders would have the opportunity to convene, learn, and accelerate progress toward eliminating sexual assault at Harvard.

While many campuses face complex and challenging problems, student leaders have a tremendous opportunity to exercise leadership to improve their communities. Strategic, thoughtful, open, and inclusive processes have the power to transform the rich resources of a campus into a formidable organization capable of taking on even the most complex and challenging problems.

As one of our student leader participants reflected, “This kind of collaborative effort needs to happen with a number of different issues at Harvard. The care taken in preparation and process... maximized the talents and strengths of the resources - tangible and intangible - at Harvard. If this same process was applied to other issues, we have the potential to really pioneer substantial changes in society at large.”

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