Dr. Cristi Ford (00:00):
Welcome to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators brought to you by D2L. I’m your host, Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L. Every two weeks, I get candid with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 space. We break down trending educational topics, discuss teaching strategies, and have frank conversations about the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today. Whether it’s ed tech, personalized learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity and inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils, class is about to begin.
Listeners, welcome back for another episode of Teach and Learn. We are coming up to the last few episodes of season one. As I reflect on the experts we’ve had on our show and the topics we’ve discussed, one theme ties everything together. Innovation. Hear me out, whether it’s new technology or transforming how learning is delivered to change student demographics, higher education and the people in it are resilient and forever innovating. My guest today certainly fits this theme well. A true educational disruptor, she became known for creating radical shifts in higher education industry in Canada over the course of her career.
Listeners, I’m pleased to introduce my guest today, Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes, or President Hughes. Dr. Christensen Hughes is the President and Vice Chancellor of Yorkville University, and one of Canada’s leading voices on academic integrity, business ethics, and corporate social responsibility. As the Founding Dean of a top tier purpose-driven Canadian business school, Dr. Christensen Hughes brings 25 years of progressive academic leadership to Yorkville University. President Christensen Hughes is a university professor, a researcher, and published author on topics which include employee and student engagement, and the importance of strengthening purpose within organizations.
She’s also an acclaimed keynote speaker, having addressed numerous global audiences, including the United Nations, General Assembly regarding the UN’s Principles of Responsible Management Education Initiative, or PRME. I’m really excited to have this conversation with you today, and I want to talk with you about your time at the University of Guelph, really. I think it’s really a really paramount opportunity for us to start here. This is where you did your undergraduate, but then you came back to teach and you eventually became the director of the university’s Teaching and Learning Center.
I think it’s really apropos that as an aside, what our listeners may not know is that UFG was D2L’s first client. We were the first LMS to incorporate University of Guelph’s pedagogical approaches that helped foster interactive learning environments. And so, it seems to me that as I’ve heard a little bit about your story and your time as a director of the University of Guelph, it was a turning point for you in terms of really becoming an educational disruptor. I don’t know if you would agree with that and what your thoughts are in terms of what you witnessed that made you want to effect change in that way. I’ll start with you there.
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (03:15):
Thank you, Cristi. First of all, let me just say how delighted I am to have been invited to join you today, to have this conversation. I love talking about teaching and learning, and in particular, innovation. So, wonderful to meet you. Thanks again for the invitation.
I joined the University of Guelph in 1987. I was 28 years old, and absolutely thrilled to get my first job as an assistant professor. One of the things I had to navigate was the fact that I was joining a department that I’d been in as an undergraduate student. I was now a colleague to many of the faculty who had taught me. I knew the ones who had strengths, and I knew the ones who didn’t in terms of their approach to teaching and learning, and assessment. In truth, I think, like many people, I’d actually been really disappointed by so many aspects of my undergraduate education.
I found myself in large classes being lectured to, where the assessments were really requiring me to memorize rather than asking me what I thought, or how to critically analyze something and generate some suggestions for how something could be made better. I finally encountered a faculty who used that approach, the case method, in a senior class. I actually thrived in that learning environment and became a research assistant. So finally, towards the end of my time as an undergraduate I finally thought “I’ve arrived.” This is what I had been hoping for all along.
I began to characterize that approach to teaching as, “Trust us, this will get interesting.” I think so much time is spent in these large classes where not a lot of learning happens. Then for students like me who finally get it, then you have to go on to graduate school to really get more of that. That had been my experience. So, here I am now a colleague to many of the faculty who had taught in ways that hadn’t served me well. And so, I think it’s just my personality, I sought to try to change that. I suggested we have conversations about students and their learning, and how we might change up how we do things.
But a real turning point was when I was asked to chair a new Teaching Award Committee. There had been one in the past. People weren’t particularly happy with how things were going. Largely, the people on the committee took turns giving the award to each other.
And there weren’t a lot of student voices in the process of deciding who we should bestow this award on. When I was asked to chair it, I said… This was my first experience with leadership at the university. I said I’d be happy to take it on as long as I had a blank slate, that I could change up the rules, the whole nomination process, what we were trying to achieve, understanding that what we reward had the opportunity to begin to make a cultural change.
So, we did that. I had all kinds of student voices. I invited to the table faculty who I knew were passionate about their students and learning. Honestly, we created something so wonderful that on the night that these teaching awards were being bestowed, and the students who had worked in teams to nominate their faculty, and saying in such a powerful way what those faculty had done that had inspired them, had transformed their understanding of their subject matter and themselves, there wasn’t a dry in the house. I think with that experience, I thought “Oh my goodness. Change is possible.”
As an untenured assistant professor, I can help create change. I can help us as a department, as a university do better.” I was busy doing those kinds of things when the Central Teaching Center, that I didn’t even know existed, but they heard about me and that I was being a bit of a troublemaker, a disruptor. They found out about my work, reached out to me and then I started to participate with them with some of their workshops.
When that director stepped down, I was invited to become director. At that time, I hadn’t read a single pedagogical journal article. I was going based on instinct. I didn’t even know it was a discipline. When I found myself in that leadership role, and this is something that served me really well, I think okay, know what you don’t know and figure out who knows it. So, I looked around and I discovered that in Canada there was a group of people, wonderful people, who belonged to something called STLHE, or S-T-L-H-E, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
I know D2L is a proud sponsor of STLE conferences. This group brought together faculty and educational developers from across the country who were really committed to students and their learning. I got involved with that organization, learned so much from peers, became a member of what was then called the Steering Committee. Then I became president of that society.
I’ve always been inclined to put my hand up, and I think again, that that has served me well. It really brought me into the core of a team of people who were so committed to transforming higher education in this country. In that role, we worked on a number of initiatives, including overseeing SOTLE, SOTLE being brought to Canada, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. We held all kinds of of events around that supporting research, really trying to understand what best facilitates student learning, and how we can promote that.
I ended up in an advocacy role there, working with universities across the country. At the same time at Guelph, working with folks to realize a vision, it was a really bold vision, to embrace student-centered learning and so many things that we championed from a systems point of view. I think that’s another realization I’ve had. You really have to understand the system in which you operate.
Dr. Cristi Ford (10:13):
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (10:14):
I could tell you a little bit more about that, but I think I’ll pause there. I’m sure there’s something in that you want to ask me about.
Dr. Cristi Ford (10:22):
Yeah, so a lot of good nuggets. One of the things that as I’m listening to you, what an opportunity to be able to go back, to grow where you were planted. You started as a student, and then to go back and have all these reflection opportunities to be able to think about disruption. I loved when you talked about the awards. I think this is a tweetable quote, “What we reward makes room for the cultural changes to happen.”
And so, really being able to see that full circle I think is really critical. In this show, it’s really curious educators I find that those who listen to us are looking to contribute in big and small disruptions, find our episodes really inspiring. As you talked about your experiences, can you share as a self-proclaimed educational disruptor whose interested in renegade systems and approaches to change higher ed, what does that mean and how can you unpack that for our listeners here?
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (11:23):
Thank you. That’s a big question. What I have found is that some of the best innovations happen outside the formal system, happen despite the system, not because of it. That’s something that I think we need to correct. I can say a little bit more about that. I have had the pleasure of working with so many faculty and staff who are really committed to students. They innovate, as I’ve said, despite the system. They innovate often at personal cost because they take on more work to do it right. They’ll teach additional courses to have fewer students in their class, for example, to provide an enriched learning experience.
They will above and beyond, engaging their students in community-focused projects, for example. Absolutely, there are wonderful people. There are pockets of innovation happening on every university campus because there are people who are called. They really see it as a calling, and they want to make a significant impact. Unfortunately, the system is so against them.
What do I mean by that? One of the things that I championed changing were how classrooms were designed. If you think about the traditional classroom, it’s typically large to begin with, rather than small. The chairs are rooted. There’s the goofy little tablet arms. So really, all there’s room for is a pad of paper and your pen. It’s not even been innovated to accommodate laptops, maybe your cellphone is fine. All the chairs rooted, looking forward, that’s one example. We have to change how classrooms are designed so they become collaborative learning environments. That’s one system.
Another system is the tenure and promotion process. That has a powerful impact on how-
Dr. Cristi Ford (13:41):
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (13:42):
… faculty understand their role and how they choose to spend their time. That’s why I’m saying a lot of the innovators operate outside of that system. Universities proclaim all kinds of things about their commitments to students, to their learning, to having positive impact on society. But if you want to know again what really counts, look at the details of the tenure and promotion document. That’s where faculty take their cues about how they should best spend their time.
Unfortunately, far too many of those documents are still way too invested in simple counts of the numbers of articles published, the number of citations received in peer review journals. As far as I’m concerned, every educational institution should find itself sitting on a three-legged stool. The first, a commitment to transformational learning, not going through the motion of assigning students to large lecture classes and checking administrative boxes with multiple choice exams, but really transforming, help providing an engaging, enriching learning environment where students are motivated to bring the best of themselves, where they learn all kinds of things beyond factual knowledge.
With the advent of the cellphone, everyone has information at their fingertips. It’s a whole different set of skills that students need to learn today, and to develop skills you need to do. You don’t want to be sitting in that rooted chair. So, transformational learning. The other is research with impact. The call has to be for faculty to do work of relevance to society and disseminate that work beyond the echo chamber of a small group of people contributing to peer review journals.
The third is authentic community engagement, not pretending to engage with stakeholders, inviting them to a nice dinner once a year, but really working with them. Who are the stakeholders? It could be a particular profession. It could be the local community. There’s so many opportunities to engage with people that will enrich our students’ learning, giving them the opportunity to hone their skills, to apply their knowledge, for the faculty to do the relevant research.
Those are the three stools that we need to-
Dr. Cristi Ford (16:15):
I love that.
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (16:16):
… work on, the three-legged stool.
Dr. Cristi Ford (16:18):
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (16:18):
But unfortunately, the system, including how universities are ranked and rated, including how they’re funded, including powerful promotion and tenure systems, and to some extent the disciplines, all of this pressure is to do otherwise. That’s why I say it takes renegade change-makers to work in opposition to the formal system and do things differently.
Dr. Cristi Ford (16:46):
I love all three of those points. Right on, because I think what you said about even the awards, it’s what we recognize, what we reward, what we draw attention to. Right, P and T, the ways in which we structure. All of those pieces are just so inspirational. I move want to move us on, because you have had such a long history and legacy and career. I want to talk about after leaving that role as Director of the Teaching Center, you became the Founding Dean of the Lang School of Business and Economics back in 2009.
During that time, you built a top five globally-ranked MBA program with a focus on sustainability. I think this is just so ingenious because this was a decade before people were really talking about sustainability. I’d love to hear from you how that focus evolved. How were you a trailblazer in developing the school?
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (17:44):
Thanks, Cristi. I guess I should share that all of my education is in the area of business, in management in particular. What I’ve studied is organizational change in leadership. I think that’s why my brain always goes to the system and the culture. It’s part of my disciplinary training. Before I did my academic work, after I had graduated with my undergraduate degree from Guelph, I was a manager within a restaurant chain. There, I got to… I so appreciate the experience I had. I was 21, just graduated, and now here I am in this assistant manager of a restaurant chain.
I got to see all aspects of business. This chain that I worked for was very successful in every sort of conventional measure of success. But what I actually saw was it’s culture having a very negative impact on people’s lives. I saw all kinds of young people get addicted to drugs and alcohol, for example. It was just part of the ethos of that restaurant at the time that was making a lot of money selling alcohol. The staff kind of got caught up in that culture. That is actually one of the reasons I went back to school to do my MBA, and then my PhD. I wanted to understand corporate values and culture, and how that can impact employees for better or worse.
That was my background that I brought to my role as dean. But in truth. It was another big impact on me, and that’s that we were an hour’s drive from at least have a dozen of globally-ranked well-respected business schools. I knew we needed to differentiate ourselves. Also, the university slogan was “Improve Life.” Those three things. I knew we had to differentiate. We were sitting on a foundation of a commitment to helping make the world a better place. I personally had big, big concerns about business and it’s integrity.
We had just stepped out of the financial crisis of 2007/2008, which had been really fueled by a Wolf of Wall Street, kind of “Greed is good” orientation that a lot of the big business schools had fueled. It’s all about how much money you can make. In fact, that’s how a lot of business schools are ranked, it’s the return on investment that a student gets from having completed their MBA. We engaged in a process of consultation with our students, with our faculty, with our alumni. What came out over and over again is that people were pursuing a business degree at Guelph because they wanted it to be different.
They talked about being rooted, aspiring as much to go back to Main Street and helping farmers, or business owners in rural communities succeed, understanding that was going to be at the heart of that healthy community. I really thought long and hard about this notion of “Business is a force for good,” or social enterprise, or responsible entrepreneurship as a mechanism for helping families and communities to be self-determining. We really embraced that as a vision, which became to be and develop leaders for a sustainable world.
Then just like I had done when I was Director of the Teaching Center, I looked around the world to say, “Who’s already got this figured out?” Then of course, I came across a number of organizations, including the United Nations Global Compact, and the Principles for Responsible Management Education Initiative. There’s another called the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative. Both of those, a number of other business schools, belonged to. Again, I joined… Learned became part of the Steering Committee. Through that, I was able to provide phenomenal learning opportunities for our students, lots of inspiration as we move forward, reconsidering our curriculum, launching our MBA in sustainable commerce, and was absolutely delighted when our MBA ranked in the top 10 in the world the first time we entered the Corporate Knights rating.
As a business school Dean, part of your job is to get yourself named, ranked, and accredited. I knew I didn’t want… As committed as I was to achieving those goals, I wasn’t going to do it if it took us down a path of the Wolf of Wall Street sentiment. I was really, really fortunate to find Corporate Knights. It’s a ranking for business schools that focus on sustainability, found a donor, Stu and Kim Lang whose father really represented this ethos of integrity as he built his business. So, found the right donor where we had a values alignment. Then that also put us on the path of accreditation. Very, very proud of what we were able to do there.
Dr. Cristi Ford (23:00):
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (23:00):
Including a first course where all of our students participate in the great ethical dilemma. That’s how we onboarded all of our students to the values there.
Dr. Cristi Ford (23:10):
You make it sound so easy, like you just snapped your fingers and it happened overnight. I know that that is not the case, but it is so great to even hear your passion now about all the great work you did there. We’ve spoken to several guests this season around a skills-forward approach, and thinking about how institutions and organizations are fostering that. I just wonder, can you share with our listeners the approach to transferrable foundational skills? And now, you have this unique history and lineage with the UN’s sustainability development goals. I’d love to hear a little bit more, maybe how you’re doing that currently?
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (23:50):
Yeah, thank you. I think I just came to this realization through a number of research projects, and just really reflecting on what students need. Of course, with my work with the UN and UNESCO has been very forward-thinking on this point. Also, if you look at the sustainable development goals themselves. Here we are, a world in crisis. There is so much need wherever you look, for people to be able to assess the credibility of information. We are all being bombarded constantly with information. How do we know what to believe? How do we know what is true?
But then, information in and of itself is useless if you don’t know how to apply it. You have to be able to do something with it. So, skills of critical thinking, skills of analysis, of problem solving, of ideation, to recognize and define a problem, and to put that problem together with something you know, and then to have the skills to connect with a team, to figure a plan forward, and to execute, and then to realize and celebrate results. That is all skills, combined with values. Traditionally, university education hasn’t been so much about skills and values. It’s been about knowledge.
And so, for me it’s really important we realize that the calling for higher education right now is so profound that we move forward with a skills and values-based commitment. What we’ve done at Yorkville University, my new home, is we’ve embraced what we call our “10 Signature Learning Outcomes.” They do talk about a global orientation and sustainability, and ethics, but also critical thinking and problem solving, those kinds of things, the ability to communicate effectively. But also, to be competent in the technology of your field.
These signature learning outcomes are written very generically because they apply equally to a variety of our programs, undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral. It’s saying that, “If you come to Yorkville, our commitment is to provide you with a curriculum that if you engage with you will have the opportunity to develop these skills and these values so that you will be able to go on and have this kind of of an impact in your chosen profession or path.” I’m very proud of those.
What I want to emphasize is that to really achieve them, everything has to change. The curriculum has to change. How we teach has to change. How we assess has to change. That has huge implications for who we hire. We need faculty who have those skills themselves. We need faculty who are competent at facilitating their development of others. This has huge implications for how we define the faculty role, how we select faculty, and how we assess their performance.
Those are all steps that we’re working on now, but I guess if there’s message, I’d really love your listeners to understand that I believe this is our moral commitment to our students. It is a question of integrity that we provide them with a learning environment they need to develop these skills so that they can go on and make a positive impact in their own lives, their families’ lives, their community.
Dr. Cristi Ford (27:53):
I love that, the way that you said that. You couldn’t have said it better in terms of a moral commitment to the students that we serve. I appreciate it. You’ve talked all through this episode, you’ve talked about disruption, but you’ve also led with contextualization of how institutions need to serve learners today. It’s really great to hear about this work that you’re doing at Yorkville. I guess I’m just a little curious, as we’ve talked about your journey today you talked about all the great research and being the Founding Dean. You talked about the University of Guelph. You left all of those projects and research only to step back into the fray with Yorkville. I’d love to understand from the Canadian context for you, what was the appeal of a private university versus a public one?
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (28:42):
Thanks, Cristi. It’s true, I was exhausted when I finished my 10 years, my two five-year terms as Dean. Honestly, I was so exhausted. I just thought that that was sort of the biggest leadership challenge of my life. I was so proud of what we’d accomplished, but completely spent. I had spent a bit of time just in recovery, and then of course as we academics do, I was working on a couple of books, passion projects, on transforming the academy and on academic integrity.
I was working on those and a number of headhunters had reached out. I said, “Nope, you couldn’t possibly offer me anything that would take me away from this work that I now have the joy of being singularly focused on.” But then, the Yorkville opportunity came along. I know a lot of your listeners are from the US and are used to a very robust private university system. That is not the case in Canada. In Canada, higher education is primarily public. There’s a few private institutions. They typically operate in very niche areas, where Yorkville is broad-based.
We operate as a university in British Columbia, Ontario, and New Brunswick. What I saw in Yorkville was an opportunity… I think because, again I’ll go back to say my background being organizational behavior and development, I’m so curious to see what I can do to help organizations transform and their role in society. I thought, Yorkville has the opportunity to show how it can really be done differently and not going to head-to-head with the public’s, because they do play a really, really essential role in society.
Yorkville is very different. Our graduate programs, for example, are all online, fully asynchronous so students can learn from anywhere. Last year at Convocation, we had hundreds upon hundreds of students graduating with master’s in education, master’s in counseling psychology, for example, that had never had to leave their families or communities to earn their degree, and with their full commitment to practice in their community.
Dr. Cristi Ford (31:17):
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (31:17):
You can imagine, we attract a lot of single moms. We attract a lot of Indigenous students. People who have complex lives, cannot uproot their lives, move to the Big City to pursue their graduate education. To me, the whole notion of accessibility, to providing people with the opportunity to develop those skills and earn those professional certifications so that they can fulfill their purpose in their communities, to me that is so, so exciting.
At the undergraduate level, our bachelor of business administration is our largest program. Our commitment there is, very few of our classes are larger than 25 or 30 students. You don’t find any classes larger than 40 within Yorkville University. We’re really committed to the concept of accessibility, small class learning, really personalizing that experience and supporting our students on their journey. I just thought, okay so there is… I am going to say yes to this one, to show.
I haven’t quite thought through all of the changes I want to see. I’m just two years in, and I keep reminding myself everything significant I’ve worked on before. It has been a 10 year journey. I am very, very excited to show that there is room in the Canadian higher education landscape for a different kind of university that is very much focused on the student and helping them achieve their path.
Dr. Cristi Ford (33:03):
I appreciate how you’ve made that really tangible for me. When you talk about the graduate programs and contextualizing within community, it also sounds like as the president, you are thinking about students that may have been on the fringes, that higher education has historically not been scheduled or planned for, and curriculum has not been designed around individuals with really full lives who can’t take the opportunity to move to a large city. Hearing that is so keen in terms of understanding, at least in the Canadian context, the difference between private and public.
And so, it sounds like even with two years in, that you are off to a great start, for sure. There’s so much to talk about with you, Julia. I think that we may have to come back to you in another episode to keep talking. I just want to know as we close out and think about where you’re going next, what’s next for you? What’s next for your presidency, for Yorkville? I would love to hear what’s on the horizon or the roadmap for you?
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (34:07):
Thanks, Cristi. It’s an exciting time. Of course, it’s conference season is upon us. Maybe I’ll see you as one of your colleagues at the STLHC conference coming up at UPEI. That’s on the horizon. I’m going to be doing a pre-conference workshop sharing the signature learning outcomes and getting people to participate in saying, “What pedagogies and what assessment approaches do you think might be most effectively aligned with these?” I’ll be doing that. There’s a conference coming up at University of Manitoba on academic integrity, and I’m so excited to be joining them as well and talking about some of the chapters from my recent book on that topic.
A writing project I have underway right now is being facilitated by one of my faculty, and it’s all on an ethic of care. Mary Drinkwater, she’s one of our faculty in our Faculty of Education. I’m thinking a lot about how do we create cultures of caring in the academy? I think to the point you were making earlier, we’re attracting international students, first generation students, like others who just haven’t been well-served by the public university who might find it a bit cold, or anonymous, or not so welcoming caring, if we put caring at the heart of what we do, sincerely caring about our students, our faculty and staff.
I am working on that concept right now, and I’m wondering about the implications for leadership and culture, and systems, a pedagogy of care. Anyway, I’m excited about that.
Dr. Cristi Ford (35:54):
I love that.
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (35:56):
I’d be happy to share more of that perhaps in another session.
Dr. Cristi Ford (36:01):
Yeah, that would be great to hear about. As I’m talking with other educational leaders, I’m hearing a lot about humanization, humanizing the online experience and coming out of the pandemic a real need to shift how we’ve been serving learners, and providing opportunities for grace, really being able to create user profiles. I definitely would love to take you up on that opportunity. It’s been really, really great to spend some time with you today. I know how busy your schedule is as a president of a university, but I really am excited that you could take some time to spend time with me and our listeners, and just share a little bit about your background experience. It’s been really great to have this time to chat with you.
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (36:42):
Thank you, Cristi. I really love your questions. They’re terrific. Absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to share.
Dr. Cristi Ford (36:50):
Absolutely. Listeners, if we can, we will drop the books, Dr. Christensen Hughes, that you referenced in the resource section so that you can take a look there and see more around her research and work. Yeah, we’d love to keep the conversation going. Thanks again for joining me.
Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes (37:08):
Dr. Cristi Ford (37:11):
You’ve been listening to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators. This episode was produced by D2L, a global learning innovation company helping organizations reshape the future of education and work. To learn more about our solutions for both K-20 and corporate institutions, please visit www.D2L.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up-to-date with all new episodes. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, school’s out.