Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
In one very different Honors class at the University of La Verne, the pursuit of becoming a great leader begins with a search for the self.
The three professors showed up only a little late for their Monday night gig. Not wanting to disturb the proceedings, they each tiptoed in and found a seat near the back and sat quietly.
Their class had started without them.
At the lectern in the front left corner of the room in the Hoover Building, two students, Maxfield Brown and Natalie Holland, presided over the proceedings of the three-and-a-half hour honors class and listened as a fellow student stood at the front of the room and filled in the others on the plight of on-campus food service workers locked in a battle with the vendor’s management over the right to unionize.
Dr. Terrence Deal, one of the three professors, turned to an observer and whispered, “See, I told you. You never know what these kids are going to do for class.”
For Deal, a La Verne alumnus who is a nationally-renowned speaker and the author of more than 20 books on leadership, it would be enough to simply stand up front and lecture in the conventional way. But there was nothing conventional about this Honors 340 class, “Leadership in a Changing World,” nor the evolving curricular framework around which it orbited.
Within the parameters set by the three professors, the students held sway over how class was conducted.
Those who may have wished to alert university leadership didn’t have far to walk: University President Devorah Lieberman was one of the other three professors, herself a scholar in intercultural communication.
The third was Dr. Jack Meek, himself a highly decorated scholar and author, who is a political scientist and one of the university’s gurus in that field.
Three professors teaching one course from three different directions: Before anyone opened a book, there was already diversity of thought. Of course. How much better to teach a subject as vast as leadership from the perspective of three great minds?
“Leadership means different things to different cultures, and people assume leadership differently,” Lieberman said. “This class came out of a spontaneous moment. We were talking about the idea of a leadership institute, what we thought La Verne needs, and talking about leadership in general. Then we started talking about Terry’s scholarship in leadership and we thought, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t it be powerful if we actually taught a course together?’ You say stuff like that all the time and it never becomes a reality. But Terry followed up and it became a reality.”
Deal was so committed to the class and the concept and the opportunity to teach along with Lieberman and Meek that he commuted each week from his home in San Luis Obispo, either by train or by a chartered flight into nearby Brackett Airport.
“We started the class by having each of us tell our own story,” Deal said of the three professors. “It was very personal. Each of us told our stories in a different way and each of us had his own story. The students’ assignment for the next class was to come to class to tell his or her story. For a lot of them, that was a very difficult assignment. We provided no guidance, other than come and tell your story.
“They had to undertake an inner search. What we’re trying to do is get to the heart and soul of leadership. It starts with coming up with your story. There was a lot of emotion in those students’ stories. For the first time, they were allowed to confront themselves.”
The fall class was a good example of how higher education is evolving and helped set the pace for how the University of La Verne stays on the leading edge of that evolution. Of course, the three distinguished scholars designed the course, moderated the discussions, assigned the work to be done between class meetings. But the 10-week course also proved to be an exercise in self-discovery for its remarkable students.
“It’s a class on leadership and so what I think they’re really trying to do is allow for the students to take leadership roles, and in being teachers of their fellow peers as well as these individuals,” Brown said. “Obviously, these are very excellent teachers, and professors, and, that the president of the university would allow us to even take a leadership role over them – it is really, I think, serving the purpose of putting you one under a lot of pressure to do well.”
“But secondly, it is a chance to really learn what it takes to lead. This is an Honors class. These are students who are considered to be some of the best and brightest minds of the school. So, bringing them all together and trying to put them in leadership roles with one another really shows you what it’s like to be a leader at a very high level of management.”
This penetrating, big-picture approach to learning is part of a new doctrine at the university, called the “La Verne Experience.” It is a way of learning, a way of thinking, a way of living. It is an integral part of the agenda Lieberman brought to the university when she took office as president in July of 2011.
The “La Verne Experience” was then formed and refined by committees of university faculty, who set out to incorporate La Verne’s traditions and values, and integrate curricular, co-curricular, and community engagement activities to promote best practices for higher education. The objective was a unique learning experience for all students, one that positions the university to be distinctive, compelling, and competitive — locally, regionally, and nationally.
Such an approach not only keeps class sessions challenging and engaging for the students, but gives La Verne professors great latitude in maximizing the effectiveness and relevance of their teaching.
“The beginning part was fun for us. What did we want to achieve and how did we want to achieve it?” Meek said of the formative process between the three professors. “Terry led us in a discussion around literature. I think the idea was that we all get bogged down in our disciplines so much, tied to them so much, that we don’t see the bigger picture, we don’t see how imagination can come forward and we don’t see how the soul can come forward. He was intrigued by idea of the role of literature and leading us in that question.”
“So, packed with our disciplines, we decided to relieve ourselves from that duty of obligating ourselves to telling people what we know, and to have students discover what they think is important along with us. And then, along the way, we come in with what we think we can add to the discussion along with their discovery.”
Much of the discovery came through the reading, which was intense — one book per week, each provocative in its own right. From the reading came a written response reflecting the impact on each student from a deeply personal level.
“The whole notion of leadership is having to discover yourself, having to discover where you stand and then having provocative viewpoints. We had the students read 10 novels, one per week, to provoke the discussion around a lot of issues we think a leader really has to come to grips with. I don’t think any course could cover this kind of ground.”
— Photos by Jeanine Hill