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Viji Sathy on leading the Academic Leadership Program

September 20, 2022 | Laney

Viji Sathy, the IAH’s Tyson Academic Leadership Program Director, talks about how the program helps faculty across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, her experiences in leadership development, and the way she brings her work in inclusive teaching into the ALP seminars. (Recorded in Summer 2022.)

Sathy also notes her book, Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom, which is now available from West Virginia University Press.



Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast in the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m your host, Kristen Chavez. Today I’m talking with Viji Sathy, the director of the IAH’s Tyson Academic Leadership Program. She is also the Associate Dean for Evaluation and Assessment and the director of the Townsend Program for Educational Research in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also a professor at the practice in the department of psychology and neuroscience. In addition to her work at the Institute, Dr. Sathy is a national expert on an inclusive teaching and studies innovative instructional approaches and curriculum and higher education programs aimed at broadening participation in STEM education, and evaluations of teaching and learning. Dr. Sathy participated in the Academic Leadership Program in spring 2021, and soon returned to lead the program. As she enters her second year in this role, we talk about the program and how it helps faculty and her own experiences with the leadership development. So thank you again for joining us. I’m so glad that you’re able to have you with us.

Viji Sathy: Thank you for inviting me.

KC: So you participated in the spring 2021 cohort as an Academic Leadership Fellow.

VS: That’s right.

KC: For those who may not be as familiar with this program, can you share about what the program entails or a member of the cohort?

VS: Sure, as you mentioned, I was a member of the spring 2021 cohort. And the fellowship is a year however much of the programming occurs in the spring term, there are a few things that we do in the fall, mainly getting to know each individual member and having a sort of kickoff dinner where people get to meet one another and chat. But the bulk of our work is done in the spring term where we meet for several hours, usually Thursdays. And it’s a great structure. It basically starts with check ins or what we call check ins, the ability to bring issues at hand that have surfaced in the past week, or maybe revisit issues that people have brought up in prior weeks. And I love that because they’re really timely topics that come up and something somebody says might spark something for someone else. And there’s a lot of brainstorming that happens in check ins as well. And then usually, we also have the opportunity to have lunch and chat. And then there’s usually a topic of discussion that either there are readings around or some kind of material we engage with, that we discuss in the second portion of the meetings. And I love that as well. And a lot of that content, or what we talk about is derived by what individuals in the cohort want to discuss as part of their academic leadership journey. I work with a wonderful co-facilitator in the group, Rob Kramer. And we designed the curriculum based on our conversations with individual cohort members in that sort of initial meeting in the fall.

KC: Nice. And this is a pretty small cohort, right, a small group?

VS: It is. There are eight, usually eight individuals and they can be from anywhere in the university. So it’s a unique program in that a lot of times you are often just with individuals within your school, or unit. And I like that this program allows for individuals across campus to get together and to talk because what happens is, everybody benefits: the people who are from units, let’s say if they’re from outside College of Arts and Sciences, where we tend to have the majority of participants, they really bring their perspective about how things are done on their unit to the group. And then the group also learns about just the culture and the kinds of activities that occur and programs outside of the College of Arts and Sciences, which is great because it just builds awareness about what happens around campus.

KC: Yeah, that’s amazing that we’re able to not just help arts and humanities faculty or College faculty, but everybody across the university. So that is great to hear. What were some of your major takeaways when you were a fellow and well, how did that kind of lead you into applying to be the program director?

VS: Yeah, that’s a great question. It actually came up in my interview when I applied for this position. The biggest takeaway for me happened in one of the sessions we had a panel of prior Academic Leadership Fellow participants join and we got to just pick their brains about different leadership roles that they’ve had, how they navigate choosing what they want to do and how they do their work. And something that stuck with me was somebody said, if there’s a position that becomes available that you’re interested in, put your name in the hat. Even if you don’t think you’re qualified, even if you think someone else may get the position, what you’re doing is you’re educating other people about what it is you’re interested in. And that is very beneficial for everyone. And I really thought that that made a lot of sense. Because I think a lot of times, and I think this is pretty common, maybe for women in general, to sort of look through a list of requirements for a job and think ‘I only meet three out of the five, so I shouldn’t apply.’ And I hadn’t really considered the idea that this, it’s an educational experience, for the people who are reviewing the materials to see that this is the kind of position that you might be interested in, at least at this time, and maybe even in the future, right. So you’re really just communicating where your values are and where you want to be. And, and that is an important prospect. And so I think that was something that I just I love that advice. And so of course, when the ALP director position became available, it was exactly the kind of position where I thought I would like something like this, I am going to put my name in the hat, even though I’m only one year out. And we were a strange year at that because it was during COVID times. And we met exclusively online. So a lot of the typical programming of ALP was not in place, the year that I participated. So I knew that I was coming in already with a different mindset than a typical fellow might have. But it worked out and I got the position.

KC: And we’re glad you’re here. And I think that’s such a fantastic perspective that I also wouldn’t have thought of thought of it in that way in the sense that, yes, I could maybe try to reach that goal, even if I don’t hit all those requirements, but also just signaling to others that how can you help me get to that point. So I think that’s just a great mindset. You’re giving us little leadership tidbits already?

VS: Well, it’s not just how can I get there, but you’re also telling the people, this is the kind of position I want. And so now that person knows when other positions become available, they can say, ‘you know what, I have a candidate who I think would be great at this,’ right? So you’re, you’re really potentially just sharing with others who may be influential in other spaces about how you might you know, how your leadership skills may come to bear in that position.

KC: Yeah. And that’s wonderful. So now you’re going into your second year as the program director, what has that been like seeing it from a different perspective? And you also mentioned, your experience as a fellow was a little bit different because it was COVID. And which, of course, we are still in, so programming is still a little bit different, perhaps. So what has that been like? And maybe what, what do you hope for this next year?

VS: Sure. Despite doing everything online, in my in my cohort, I found it very valuable. And that’s the reason I wanted to apply for this position. I think it has and it continues to have a lot of potential in helping people really carve out the time to think about leadership and to think about their place at the university, which is so important, because I feel like often we’re sort of this hamster on a hamster wheel, just doing what we must, from day to day. And this program gives people the opportunity to pause, and to say, wait a second, what am I doing? And what am I saying yes to? And is that thoughtful and intentional? And also equally importantly, how do I say no? And what things do I say no to? I think those are all really helpful things to think about, especially mid-career, when we may settle into routines without really thinking through why we’d settled into those routines. So it can be a good reset, it could be a really great time to pause and reflect. And I think this program does an excellent job of that. And to do it in fellowship with others, right. So you’re really, in many times, we hear similar themes from individuals, despite coming from different units, coming up with the same kinds of ideas, a lot of the kinds of experiences we have are, are pretty universal in terms of why am I here and what am I doing and what do I plan to do? And I and I appreciate this program for its ability to give people that chance to reflect in a structured way, right? So we’re really providing resources and potentially the opportunity to reflect and to put into practice some of these changes.

KC: So past listeners of this podcast may remember you from a previous episode on your work on inclusive teaching, which was released around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, this has always been part of your work with students for a very long time. How have you brought the importance in the methods of inclusive teaching within your role as program director?

VS: Yeah, this was a big part of my interview was talking about this. You know, being a facilitator, even when with eight Fellows is a lot like being in a classroom, facilitating a discussion. It may not be as sort of content-heavy as a course may be. And a lot of our courses are very discussion oriented. So I really wanted to think about how I could bring that to bear structuring discussion, making sure people feel felt valued in their contributions, that they belong as part of the cohort. There are all kinds of things that come to play when we get in a group, and especially in a group like this, where we share a lot about ourselves, and it’s sometimes professional, but sometimes personal. And you want to be able to help people feel like they can be forthright about issues that they might be dealing with and to feel supported by their colleagues and by the facilitators. So I think a lot of my work is thinking about the design of our meetings, thinking about, you know, what are what are our objectives, which is something we often talk about in teaching, we have learning objectives. So the same applies in this case, when we set up a kickoff meeting, what are our objectives in the kickoff meeting, and then designing experiences that meet those objectives. And I remember an early meeting I had with Rob, where I said, let’s talk through the objectives as I saw them, as a participant, and what do you see? And he said, you know, what, we’ve never really thought through what the core objectives of the program are, we have sort of a definition of what the program is. And so we crafted some objectives. And we just sat down and said, Okay, let’s keep revisiting these. At every session, let’s feel like we’re making a dent in some of these objectives. And I think that’s one of the values that I bring is really thinking about this from a various sort of, like lesson-oriented facilitation piece, where it’s really about like the design of it, and are we meeting the goals of what we hope to meet in the sessions?

KC: And you mentioned Rob Kramer, who is our leadership consultant, and helps facilitate these meetings with you. Can you talk about that balance and your work together?

VS: Yeah, Rob is great to work with. And honestly, one of the big reasons why I put my name in the hat, when this position became available to be able to interact more with Rob, he’s such a skilled facilitator; obviously, a wealth of knowledge as it comes to pertains to leadership. And, and I just felt like I needed more opportunities to sort of absorb as much as I could, with him by my side. And he has been really wonderful to work with, you know, I… what an asset to have at our campus, at the IAH. He brings with him, not just his knowledge, but his history with this program. So when I stepped into the role, he really could fill me in on the various ways people have addressed, say, the kickoff session, and talked about some of the advantages of doing things some way and disadvantages of others and we really got to sort of dig into things, not with a clean slate but with the opportunity to say like what’s worked well, what have you noticed working well? What do you want to see more of? And now, me going into the second year, reflecting on my own experience with material, reflecting on how we lead people through some material, thinking about tweaking it the second time around. He’s just such a great person to bounce ideas off of and as game for changing things, which I’m always game for. So it’s nice to be on the same page on a lot of this.

KC: As program director, what do you hope faculty will most get out of the Academic Leadership Program?

VS: Well, like I said, a lot of it is just the ability to, to process and pause and think about leadership, and to hopefully cultivate relationships with the people that they are in the cohort with. This is a key part of the program. And one thing you’ll hear often I think a lot a lot of former ALP fellows talk about this, that they still keep in touch with their cohort members. And I want that for the for the fellows as well. So how do we create a cohesive group and make sure that they continue to support one another? I think it’s always challenging because, you know, we select or there’s a group of people who select cohort members, you don’t often know if they’re going to gel until you get them together, but it’s part of our role to think about how they might gel, how do we bring out the assets and individuals and, and show that they do, they can offer each other really helpful advice or a sounding board. And I think we did a great job of that with this first cohort. I’m looking forward to thinking about how to push it a little further in the second. And we still, as you mentioned, we’re still dealing with COVID, and so this past year, we started remotely. And then we met in person with masks and spaced and windows open and, and we moved gradually to a semblance of what might have been the pre-COVID experience where we sit around a table together, even having lunch together. And so I look forward to the next year, we’re hopefully we continue on that trajectory and, and one of the things that we have lost in the last couple of years was the ability to go off site to do a retreat, we’re going to hopefully fingers crossed, be able to do that in the upcoming year. And we were able to adapt a lot of the retreat agenda to be here either on campus, and this past semester, we went just across the street to Siena [Hotel], and, and did some of our work there. I really appreciated the ability to be off campus to do some of this work, because I think sometimes we have to sort of turn down our little brain, like turn down that mode of like, I’m at my workplace and I’m doing, you know, I just have my work mind in place. I really want people sometimes, especially when we go off site, I think it allows for people to be a bit more open about how work fits into their life in general, and really be flexible about the goals that they have. And they don’t all have to be work-oriented goals.

KC: Yeah, I have a feeling I might have an idea of what your answer to this question might be. But as the application period is opening up, why do you think faculty should apply to the academic leadership program?

VS: It’s a really great chance to get to know some colleagues very well over the course of semester. And to think about, again, your place at this institution and your talents. I mean, presumably, the reason you’re applying is because you’re wondering if leadership is the right space for you. Or you’re in a leadership position, and you’re wanting to hone your leadership skills. And I am of the mind that there are so many leaders on our campus. In so many spaces, we have what we call informal leaders, and they are people who are influential. And they may not have a title or a stipend, or, you know, the kind of “prestige” that might come with certain roles on campus. But they’re every bit as powerful and influential in their space. And I want those people to recognize the power they hold and how they can influence, especially their ability to make change at Carolina. And we’re at a place now where I think a lot of people see places for change that places where they want change. I would like for people to say, “Could I be the person who could make that change? What could I bring to a space that’s different or unique?” And to really take ownership of that. And I love the idea of thinking about broadening who thinks of themselves as a leader and how they lead.

KC: Yeah, that’s great. And I think as a leader yourself, you’re really emphasizing and showcasing that. And whether it’s your work at the IAH or in any of your many other roles, I think you help exemplify that and bring other people up with you no matter what.

VS: Thank you.

KC: Yeah, I applaud that. So what are some other components to the ALP program that you may not notice right off the bat?

VS: Sure. Well, I mentioned that we meet extensively in the spring term. There’s another component of this program that I found really helpful. There’s a week long program that fellows participate in at the Center for Creative Leadership, or CCL. And one of the things that I really appreciated about that program as a participant is that you are together with other individuals across many different sectors of work. Sometimes you’re the only academic, although oftentimes, there’s at least one or two more, and many people in industry are there to learn about leadership. And it can feel a bit strange because I think people try to do the translation between what say, a boss is in a traditional work setting, versus what we might have on our campus. But one of the things that I think is really helpful is that you recognize that a lot, a lot of the issues relating to leadership pertain, no matter which industry you’re in. And so it’s helpful to go through the exercise to be with these people to learn about leadership. But one of the most beneficial things I think, is that you are asked to do a number of assessments related to leadership. And one of them includes a 360 evaluation where peers evaluate or you will provide a list of people who would provide an evaluation of your leadership skills and strengths and challenges that you then get to see and as sort of digested format and a report. And people often talk about this, both the fellows in my group and the cohort members in this past group, these measures or inventories or assessments that people take is really helpful in shedding light about who they are and how they approach things. I think there’s a lot about it that feels very natural when you read it that’s, “of course, that’s me, that’s how I how I do things.” But to see it written out in a report, and that way, I think really does highlight what your strengths are, sometimes we are our worst critics, and we don’t see the good things. And we may focus a lot on the negative things. And so I really appreciated that tool that allowed you to sort of hold a mirror up to your own leadership skills and see them – and for some individuals to just recognize that they do have great talents, and they were discounting them potentially, and for others areas where they might like to grow. And, and I think this is what I love about this program is that we can explore that together, this is a great place to think about any challenges they might experience and how we can all help each other overcome those challenges.

KC: Since CCL is done prior to the cohort meeting first semester, does that kind of help inform some of the meetings are the discussions with the group?

VS: That’s a great question. In the past, they haven’t too much in a formal way. They’ve come up in discussions or check-ins informally. But I would love to see them brought up in a more systematic way, in the groups. And we, this past year was the first year where we actually had a session where we debriefed about some of the things we learned at CCL, as well as some of the assessments that people took. And, and I’d like to do a little bit more of that, because there’s such rich data that’s, that’s really presented in this format, that it’s nice to dig into it especially early on where we can kind of learn where certain people have the same kinds of challenges or strengths. And then maybe later where we were feeling a bit more comfortable with each other to really dig into things.

KC: So finally, as you know, our final question is one that we ask all of our guests: what is a book that has changed your life? Since you were previously on the show, you mentioned The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters by Priya Parker. Now, I’m not going to get you to try to change your answer, if that still has been the one that has changed your life. But is there anything that you’ve read recently that has really left an impact on you?

VS: Hmm, that one’s still resonates for me so much, I think, because it’s so tied to the work that I do. And it’s such a different and elegant way to talk about the purpose of gathering. So I’m going to stick with it. And I’m just going to say it really does.. when we talked about outcomes earlier, it really does, I think make us all think about what is the point of getting people together. And not just letting sort of ritual or habit dictate how we might interact in a space. But really designing an experience that makes whatever it is you hope to happen actually happen. And it’s just it was, it’s not necessarily a shift in how I think about gathering because, you know, that’s the kind of work I was doing in the classroom. But it really helped me think about doing it in every realm of when we get people together, including at the fellows meetings every Thursday, right? So really thinking through even personal types of activities, how we might actually more intentionally engage with people in groups, and not use not waste or squander that time. It’s such valuable time that we’re all together. So I really am sticking by that one.

But I will say that my book I with Dr. Kelly Hogan is coming out this summer.

KC: Congrats.

VS: Thank you. And it changed my life in the way that you know, a project like that can change your life. So it’s not something that that I’ve read obviously from cover to cover, but poured over every word, and,

KC: You were pretty involved with it.

VS: Pretty involved with it, and it really has been such a culmination of so many conversations around gathering and around teaching. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how people take to that and what kind of conversations come out of that, so yeah.

KC: And one more time what is the title?

VS: It’s called Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom.

KC: And we’ll be looking forward to it.

VS: Thank you.

KC: Thank you, Viji, again for joining us on the show.

VS: Yeah, thanks for having me.

KC: Thanks for listening to this latest episode of the institute podcast. You can apply for the Academic Leadership program at our website, There you can find the latest news featuring arts and humanities fellows, information about grants and leadership development opportunities for all UNC Chapel Hill faculty, and spotlights on upcoming public events. All of our podcast episodes are available at our website. Now you can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud and more.


The Tyson Academic Leadership Program is currently accepting applications for the 2023-2024 year. The application period closes on Oct. 28, 2022.

Categories: IAH Podcast

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