Gold College is Changing the University of Alberta

Gold College is Changing the University of Alberta

By Victor Shewchuk (University of Alberta Senior Advisor for Organizational Learning and Effectiveness) and Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons (President, CCS Consulting Inc.)


Gold College, a leadership program at the University of Alberta, was launched in 2011 as a means of helping empower academic staff at the school. Unique for its length and breadth, the Gold College program is transforming the university by providing academics with the tools they need to navigate the reality of budget cuts, decreased staffing, and demographic and technological change. Over the next several weeks, we’ll explore Gold College in a four-part series beginning with this introduction and overview of the program. Next time: a look at how values-based leadership sets the program’s tone and reach.

The University of Alberta improved its leadership culture in the early 2000s by creating training classes for faculty and administrators. The program has grown considerably over the years. Today it’s a 10-month effort known as Gold College, one of the most interesting leadership development plans in North American higher education.

“In my opinion, and in the opinion of many people here, Gold College has significantly improved our leadership capacity,” says Dr. Chris Cheeseman, a professor at U of A who serves as Gold’s principal. “We’ve enhanced our ability to build effective teams, manage conflict, and get things done.”

The U of A is a public institution founded in 1908 in Edmonton, Alberta. Also known as UAlberta, it has five campuses, 39,000 students, and 15,000 employees. Gold College is a school-without-walls inside the university. Its student body consists of U of A faculty members, deans, associate deans, department chairs, physical plant managers, and members of the provost’s office. Gold’s goal is generating and sustaining major cultural change. Sixty-eight students have graduated so far; another 72 enrolled in the 2015-2016 academic year. The school takes its colorful name from the desire of the founders to create a distinctive and memorable presence.

U of A senior administrators strongly supported creation of Gold College in 2011. They also acknowledged the college would be expensive and time-consuming. The program involves thousands of hours of employee time—90 hours per student of classroom instruction spread over a full academic year, plus outside reading, discussion, and meetings for coffee.

The full-year curriculum of Gold College contrasts sharply with “the typical one-to-three-day miracle program” that many institutions use for leadership training, to borrow a phrase from management authors Bruce J. Avolio and Fred Luthans. The long duration, says Cheeseman, is “the key” to Gold College, because it’s enough time to “change people’s attitudes from ‘Oh, I can’t really accomplish anything in this new job I’ve been given’ to ‘Hey—I can make a positive difference using these new skills!’”

" order to be a part of the new world, we need many strong leaders throughout our institution.”

Cheeseman offers a scenario to illustrate the school’s impact. An associate dean of the medical school is instructed to work with the faculty to create a new curriculum for the pre-clinical years (the first two years of medical school). Questions arise from the faculty: “Why do we need to do this?” “This is going to take a massive amount of work—what kind of budget do we have?” “What impact will this have on accreditation?” The associate dean has limited budget. And he has limited power—firing people is not an option, given the fact of tenure. But he has an ace in the hole—his Gold College education. He has mastered the best current thinking about leadership. He is skilled at encouraging everyone on his team to offer their best ideas. He can call upon his network of fellow Gold College graduates for advice, counsel, shoulders to cry on. He sets to work. He ushers a superlative new curriculum into the world and avoids creating festering resentments of the type that have damaged many a university over the years.

For most of the first century of its existence, U of A, in common with many schools, did not have a formal leadership development strategy, says Victor Shewchuk, a Gold College organizer/instructor/facilitator (and co-author of this article). One large reason for this lack of leadership education is the simple fact that, before the 1990s, researchers didn’t know all that much about developing effective leaders.

Also, says Shewchuk, “Academics didn’t see any particular need to become leaders. They basically said, ‘Why should I worry about that? I’ve got more important things to do—I’ve got my research and my students.” But, says Shewchuk, “the world changed, and is continuing to change, and in order to be a part of the new world, we need many strong leaders throughout our institution.”

Among the elements of the changing world: budget cuts; reduced staffing; new thinking about how humans tick (for example, studies of emotional intelligence and unconscious bias); greater diversity among students and employees; younger generations that don’t cotton to taking orders; ever-expanding use of computers and social media, which translates to wide distribution of information; and exciting new research into the hows and whys of leadership.

Against that backdrop, administrators saw the university’s original foray into leadership development in the early 2000s as a positive but incomplete step—providing the support and momentum for development of Gold College.

Next: Values-based leadership provides Gold College’s foundation.

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