Transforming STEM Leadership Development
Web Exclusive

Transforming STEM Leadership Development

The STEM Leadership Institute® and My Tenure Trek® provide powerful professional development experiences for STEM faculty and administrators

By Ben Dedman

March 8, 2021

In 2017, Dr. Latha Ramakrishnan found herself sitting alone outside, looking out over the peaks of Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountain. She had just finished participating in My Tenure Trek® (MTT®), a signature experience of Project Kaleidoscope’s (PKAL) STEM Leadership Institute® (SLI®).

“It was evening, summertime, and the setting was so beautiful,” Ramakrishnan says. “MTT® can be very emotional and make you feel vulnerable. I wanted to have my private time and space.”

But as she was reflecting on her experience, she noticed that another participant had sat beside her. “He didn’t say much; he didn’t do much. He just said, ‘I’m here for you.’ I will never forget that moment, and I will always be grateful to my team member.”

Since 1996, the PKAL STEM Leadership Institute® has offered transformative professional development opportunities for early- or mid-career STEM faculty and administrators. Unlike many leadership institutes, SLI® doesn’t provide any guide, toolkit, or training for leadership functions like analyzing a budget or writing a strategic plan, or strategies for specific roles as administrators. So, what do participants take away?

“It depends on what you, as a reflective leader, need the most. And it’s different for every leader,” says Dr. Kelly Mack, executive director of Project Kaleidoscope and vice president of AAC&U’s Office of Undergraduate STEM Education. “We are a resource to empower you to show up as the very best leader that you are intended to be—not the way someone else led and not as what you were taught to believe leadership ought to be, but according to what you are destined for.”

Re-envisioning STEM Leadership Development

When Mack first joined AAC&U in 2012, institute alumni and staff struggled to describe the SLI® experience to her.

“They said, ‘It’s magical. You just have to be there,’” Mack says. But this description worried her. “Magical is subjective, sometimes even cultural; what is magical to one group is not necessarily magical to another. Making magic for one group, and not all, is a dangerous approach for any leader to take.”

Back then, SLI® was held in rural Colorado, about five hours from the Denver airport, and was limited to a couple dozen participants. While the remote setting and small group created an atmosphere of introspection and community building, “it was also very White, largely inaccessible, and not at all family-friendly,” Mack says. “The magic was happening for too small, too homogenous a group.”

SLI® relocated from the mountains of Colorado to the countryside of Maryland, with rolling hills, majestic views of mountains, nearby shopping and restaurants, and only a one-hour drive from three international airports.

“You’re still rather isolated, intentionally, to have a moment to spend with yourself,” says Dr. Pamela Leggett-Robinson, who has attended SLI® as both a participant and a mentor. “As STEM faculty, we rarely get those moments.”

In its new location, the institute was able to accommodate a second session each year and double the capacity of both sessions. To maintain the intimacy of the small, serene, and introspective experience, participants are encouraged to take advantage of the outdoor meditation labyrinth, the nondenominational chapel on site, and endless walking trails nearby.

“As accessibility to the institute grew, so did the demand and the diversity of our participants and mentors,” Mack says.

The four-day schedule is packed with experiential learning exercises (ELE) led by well-respected scholars on topics ranging from organizational change theory, to work-life balance, to racism in STEM.

In every aspect of the institute, “our participants are not just passively sitting in chairs, listening, and talking,” Mack says. “They are physically engaged in solving complex problems, communicating across difference, cultivating their leadership presence, and reflecting on their all-too-important leadership values.”

The exercises are fun, says Ramakrishnan, now dean of the College of Science and Technology at Bloomsburg University. But they are also designed to “lead us in interpreting what we experienced and how to apply it to a problem we will have as a leader,” she says. “I always thought that if I’m vulnerable then I am weak.”

With the support of her mentor and other institute participants, “that was the big thing that was broken for me in the institute. I feel like I can be vulnerable and be a leader as well.”

Every SLI® participant is supported by a mentor, who acts “as a guide on the journey,” Leggett-Robinson says. SLI® mentors are trained in evidence-based coaching across racial, ethnic, and gender differences.

“That has been a really impactful outcome: to be able to provide professional development for our mentors in ways that support both them and the institute,” says Christina Shute, who has served as coordinator of the institute since 2007.

For several years, Leggett-Robinson has led the ELE on work-life balance, empowering institute participants to reassess the effect of their work on their personal lives. While most people think about work-life balance as finding time for both work and play, “they never talk about the things that are given up; the things that we miss out on because of our work,” she says. “It’s a very personal time. People share things about their marriage, their family, raising children, bias or discrimination, or anything that might be stopping them from moving forward.”

My Tenure Trek: Reflecting on the Tenure Experience in STEM

While SLI® had been preparing faculty to lead the nation in reforming undergraduate STEM education for decades, until 2016, the institute didn’t focus much on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This was despite ongoing and increasing shifts in the demographic landscape of higher education.

“We needed an experiential exercise that would allow participants to not only recognize and admit to bias, but also confront their biases and those of their colleagues in a non-threatening environment,” Mack says. “That’s how My Tenure Trek® originated.”

MTT® was created by SLI® cofounders Judith Dilts and Sylvia Nadler and is based on an experiential exercise called Lifeline. For the institute, the exercise was fully redesigned and adapted to mimic the lived experience of STEM faculty seeking tenure. The experience is supported by professional diversity facilitators with expertise in mixed-group discussions about race and racism.

“It’s so moving and so powerful because the language, and the overall experience, is so raw and so authentic,” Mack says. “It can become extremely intense, not just for our participants and mentors, but also for ourselves, even though we’ve seen it so many times.”

No two MTT® experiences are ever the same.

“Every year, participants who have heard of MTT® think they know what it will be like,” Shute says. “But until you’ve actually been in it and felt the changes it brings about within you, you really don’t.”

As participants go through the exercise, “you see some people struggling, some have a whole lot, others have so little, and still others are just trying to hustle or game the system,” Mack says. All of this is intended to be exactly like what STEM faculty experience as they are seeking tenure. “Even if you’re doing well, others around you are not. You have to figure out who and what you are in that moment—whether you are perpetuating the system or dismantling it.”

Some participants report feeling guilty about receiving special treatment without having done anything to earn it. “For them, it’s sometimes the first time in their careers that they are able to really see that their own experiences have nothing to do with their brilliance as scientists, but everything to do with the anti-inclusive systemic structures and barriers that we all fall prey to,” Mack says.

Others have equally significant—though different—breakthroughs.

“MTT® helped me draw connections between the tenure track process and all the invisible social and emotional labor,” says Dr. Mays Imad, a professor in the Department of Life and Physical Science and coordinator of the Teaching and Learning Center at Pima Community College. “That all affects one’s well-being, especially for historically marginalized faculty members.”

One year, when Leggett-Robinson attended as a mentor, “I was really dealing with a lot of professional issues,” she says. Her work with the other participants, and the time she took for her own reflection, “was a pivotal turning point for me—an epiphany, almost. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I can actually do this. It has nothing to do with a position or a title; it has everything to do with my ability to give back to other people.”

Being a Leader for Undergraduate STEM Reform on Your Campus

At the end of the institute, every participant is welcomed into a national community of thought leaders, which acts as a continuous resource once participants return to their campuses.

“I have leaned on that support at every critical juncture in the last four years, when I was making the most critical decisions in my professional career,” Ramakrishnan says. “Where I am today—I don’t think that would have happened without SLI® and the MTT® experience.”

This summer, as PKAL prepares to launch the virtual version of the next SLI®, they have one goal in mind—ensuring that the deeply powerful community-building, reflection, and experiential learning of the institute are not only preserved, but poised to make dramatic changes in how STEM faculty and administrators see themselves and the differences they can potentially make as leaders.

“This was the most transformational experience I’ve had,” Ramakrishnan says. “I could really pinpoint the challenges that I was facing, not just sitting back and taking them. I am now in the driver’s seat so that those things don’t happen to me [or anyone else] again and again.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.