Advancing Practice In Academic Development: Chapter 15


Edited by David Baume and Celia Popovic
Routledge – The Staff and Educational Development Series
Publication January 2016

You can order your copy here

Chapter summaries and extracts will on the SEDA Blog over the coming months. (There may be small differences between these and the published versions)

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Chapter 14 – Leading an academic development unit

Julie Hall and David A. Green 


In this chapter, the authors use theoretical frameworks to explore key issues faced by leaders (sometimes also called heads, managers or directors) of Academic Development Units (ADUs). They focus on the importance of values for an ADU’s success, the difficulties of balancing individual and institutional priorities, the unusual HE context (in which most colleagues are themselves experts), the pros and cons of collaboration across the institution, and the role of ADUs in institutional change. Using real case studies from the USA and the UK, the authors illustrate these issues with topics as diverse as changing assessment practices, technological change, curriculum review and mentoring schemes. Links to web sources referenced in this chapter can be found at

Some extracts


… as developers, we work with academics and we are academics – or at least  we believe we should be. And as the ‘academics’ academic’, the ‘meta-academic,’ so to speak, we need as best we can to model exemplary approaches to our work (Baume and Kahn, 2004). To that end, using theoretical models to underpin what we do is a way for us to signal that being an academic leader can be informed by research, be carefully considered, and applied in a nuanced way to acknowledge the peculiarities of working in the ‘knowledge business’.


Defining and establishing an ADU based on values

For example, one ADU in the US runs a programme for new academics, but the provost’s office decides who must attend; the ADU helps teams develop their programme assessments, but a quality assurance office evaluates it. The ADU’s underlying values help it navigate changing institutional politics and priorities with integrity, while ensuring all along that academics can continue to trust a unit that is specifically designed to help them develop in their roles.


Managing the balance between supporting individuals and meeting strategic priorities

Writing about educational change in the school system, Fullan (2008) points to a challenge for leaders to remain alert to the real issues for academics and students while being able to take a strategic view and prioritise the focus of effort.


Establishing a unit that values academics’ expertise

A risk for us as developers when working with individuals and departments – particularly early in our careers, when enthusiasm for student learning can overshadow all else – is that we may disregard academics’ expertise and insider knowledge, and instead try to impose an oversimplified one-size-fits-all approach to higher education that treats academics as novices with little of value to offer. Even when our ideas may be well-founded, we may end up presenting them using a particular epistemological framework that conflicts with the values or methods of a discipline or department, leading our contributions to appear counterproductive or intellectually flimsy. In turn, we may overlook the potential cognitive dissonance academics can experience when their identity as a subject expert rubs up against being a pedagogical novice. This tension is explored further in Chapter 3 on professionalism.

Managing the ADU’s collaborations with other centres

Depending on our partners in collaborations, we may wish or need to take different orientations to be most effective. If, for instance, we notice academics struggling due to increased research expectations or fears of job losses, then adopting the ‘romantic’ orientation – which emphasises both the intellectual and emotional – may lead us to partner with counselling services or human resources on stress and resilience; alternatively, taking an ‘opportunist’ orientation – looking for institutional ‘cracks’ or levers – may lead us to seek connections with an institutionally highly funded, but academically not well-regarded, unit to run a joint event on an area of common interest that lends itself to the ADU’s critical, academically driven philosophy.


Conclusion: Some lessons learnt from our own experiences

  • There are no fixed recipes to leading an ADU.
  • Time spent on establishing the unit’s underpinning values and principles aids decision-making and brings benefits in the longer term.
  • Directing an ADU is as much about managing upward as it is managing the team.
  • Leading an ADU requires resilience so that we are prepared for our units to be disbanded, reshaped or reconstituted and can work through those changes.
  • In some situations, we will need to adopt uncomfortable or atypical orientations in order to succeed.
  • We can and should use appropriate research to underpin our work, our processes and our rationales.

About the Editors

David Baume is an independent international higher education researcher, evaluator, consultant, staff and educational developer and writer.

Celia Popovic is Director of Teaching Commons at York University, Toronto, Canada.

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