Effective Task Force Work in Higher Ed: Exploring Best Practices

An undergraduate student, I was passionate about environmental justice. Through my work as a student organizer, I became a founding member of Wesleyan University’s Sustainability Advisory Group for Environmental Stewardship (SAGES). The work felt urgent, necessary, and overdue: Wesleyan needed a staff member to coordinate its sustainability efforts and a comprehensive sustainability plan. Despite the excitement from students, faculty, and staff around this work, the task force meetings themselves often felt slow and stagnant. While some of my student peers grew impatient with the pace of the work and directed their energy elsewhere, I stayed dedicated. At the time I had a sense of what now as a higher education professional is crystal clear to me: despite persistent challenges, cross-functional task forces are key to facilitating growth and advancement of organizational change strategies. At the time I wondered: what can we do to make this task force transformative for our institution? 

This question matters to me now in a new way: at Culture of Respect we are dedicated to thinking critically about strategies to advance organizational change related to sexual violence prevention and response. The model we provide to institutions of higher education urges them to rely on a multidisciplinary task force. Over the past three years, we’ve worked with over 100 institutions and it’s increasingly clear to us that without a task force to coordinate and lead, a campus’ ability to enact meaningful institution-wide change is limited. At times, our Collective colleagues report the familiar challenges of task force efforts: lack of clarity, troubled partnerships, and difficulty moving the group forward. But, we’ve also seen some impressive results from high functioning teams, resulting in improved collaboration, coordination, and outcomes.

We have been paying close attention to the stories from our Collective institutions about what works and started to identify best practices that help institutions succeed. Last week at the 2019 NASPA Annual Conference in Los Angeles, we had the opportunity to reflect on what we have learned so far and ask attendees what their experiences have been with task forces in higher education. We were joined by two colleagues – Tanya Jachimiak and Steph Trilling – who shared their experience leading a task force at Wake Forest University. 

What struck me about the conversation we had during the session is how patterned people’s experiences were. Many student affairs professionals had participated in task forces in reaction to an event or scandal and cited the overlapping challenges: lack of structure, bureaucratic barriers, and an emotionally and politically charged context. During the session, Steph and Tanya reflected on the “storming” stage of their group: initially, their colleagues were frustrated by the lack of clarity about the role of their task force and its membership. Through the structure of the Culture of Respect Collective and Tanya and Steph’s dedicated leadership, the group found their way: they focused on building personal relationships and making sure every member had a meaningful role on the team. They took time to air disagreements and come to a consensus, as well as to celebrate their accomplishments. And, they emphasized the importance of the task force as a way to seek input from essential stakeholders and facilitate communication across campus.

The session was a great opportunity to consider tough questions about how to advance the ability of student affairs professionals to be change-agents at their institutions. During the session, we worked with attendees to identify some additional strategies to help facilitate task force success. We also reviewed the recommendations from Harvard Business School professor James P. Ware, and identified unique circumstances in higher education. Here are just a few of the recommendations that surfaced as best-practices:

  • bring in diverse stakeholders, including from multiple organizational levels
  • make space for productive disagreement
  • seek input from the wider community
  • set and adhere to deadlines
  • stick to a clear structure and scope of the group’s work
  • rely on subcommittees to advance the group’s goals
  • prepare thoroughly for each meeting
  • foster personal relationships
  • address tensions within the group
  • involve members’ supervisors as a strategy for accountability
  • provide options for meaningful participation for members
  • show appreciation for members’ contributions

Investing time and energy into a task force does produce incredible benefits: since I left Wesleyan over ten years the task force I participated in has helped to create a Sustainability Director position, establish a Sustainability Office, and identified institutional goals in two Sustainability Action Plans. And, our partners from Wake Forest University recently completed their endpoint self-assessment and are able to show how their task force advanced their institution’s policies and programs related to sexual violence prevention and response. These successes cannot be attributed to one person or one event, but instead an amalgam of the mundane details of task force management: detailed agendas, packed conference rooms, friendly reminder emails, unlikely partnerships, sustained leadership, and a shared commitment to creating a better world.