University of Northern Iowa enrolling third round for $25,000 'leadership academy'

Some faculty question its methods, benefits

A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (The Gazette/Jim Slosiarek)
A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (The Gazette/Jim Slosiarek)

For a third year, the University of Northern Iowa is spending about $25,000 on a “provost leadership academy,” guided by a “courage and renewal facilitator” using “clearness committees” and a “circle of trust” approach that culminates in a three-day retreat on a centuries-old farm in Minnesota.

UNI Provost Jim Wohlpart launched the academy in fall 2016 — when he was interim UNI president and a finalist for the top job. Mark Nook was chosen, and Wohlpart remained provost — pursuing the leadership initiative in that capacity with general education dollars committed to a “provost’s strategic innovation account.”

That account, which rolls over from year to year, has a current balance of about $380,000, according to UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen. In addition to costs associated with the academy, the account pays for things like institutional membership fees, faculty stipends, equipment, and renovation.

Nook didn’t respond to a request for comment on the leadership academy.

Neither University of Iowa nor Iowa State University have provost “strategic innovation accounts.” Both do offer some form of leadership training, but those programs differ from UNI’s in that they’re facilitated by university faculty and staff and charge participants a fee — often covered by the department or unit in which they work.

For UNI’s academy, Chris Johnson — who calls himself a “courage and renewal facilitator, thinking partner, traveling teacher, and deep listener” — comes down from Minnesota four times a year to participate in dinners and to lead daylong sessions, which he opens by chiming a type of gavel on a bowl-shaped instrument.

Johnson, co-founder of The Milkweed Group and Prairie Oaks Institute, follows principles of the “Circle of Trust” approach, which is based in the Quaker faith and is meant to “create a process of shared exploration — in retreats, programs, and other settings — where people can find safe space to nurture personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.”

Johnson told The Gazette that UNI is the first and only school for which he’s offering this type of academy. But, he said, others have inquired.

Several past UNI academy participants told The Gazette how much they’ve gained from the experience — both professionally and personally — noting it has awakened them to their strengths, aligned their actions with their life priorities, and fostered campus connections.

Others, though, have asked whether the training methods are appropriate, produce measurable benefits, and make financial sense at a time when UNI — like Iowa’s other public universities — are cash-strapped, forcing administrators to increase tuition and leave faculty and staff posts unfilled.

“A common concern was that faculty who participated in this with the understanding they would develop leadership skills … said they found very little about the content of the program that was related to leadership,” Joe Gorton, UNI professor and president of the faculty union, said.

He reported talking to several faculty who participated in the training who believed administrators would be hard pressed to show “how spending tens of thousands of dollars on this has brought any added value to the university or anything else.”

“I might not be concerned if the university was in a strong fiscal position,” Gorton said. “But quite the opposite. The university is in a very weak fiscal position.”

'Devastating' cuts

State appropriations for Board of Regents universities have plummeted over the decades, accounting for 33 percent of general education funds today from more than 77 percent in the 1980s. Meanwhile, tuition accounts for much more — nearly 63 percent today from 21 percent in 1981.

The board has absorbed “devastating” midyear funding takebacks for two straight years, as well as appropriations below university requests. In the current budget year, lawmakers de-appropriated a total $11 million from University of Iowa and Iowa State University, sparing UNI because it relies more heavily on in-state students, who pay lower tuition rates that don’t cover the cost of their education.

But all three campuses are increasing tuition, with UNI proposing a 2.8 percent increase for resident undergraduates — lower than the 3.8 percent bumps at UI and Iowa State as it tries to remain competitive with peer institutions. The board had asked for $12 million more in the upcoming budget year, and lawmakers have proposed an increase in general fund appropriations of $8.3 million.

UNI, specifically, has said it would spend new revenue on enrollment management, increasing student retention, and investing in faculty and staff vitality “in ways that recognize and reward excellence and offer opportunities for continued professional development.”

Wohlpart’s leadership academy has been billed as addressing that last goal by, among other things, supporting emerging leaders across campus; fostering creative service and scholarship; encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration; and sparking wider discussion and innovation. 

'A new kind of space'

Most of the about $25,000 that UNI spends on the academy annually goes to Johnson’s Milkweed group, a Minnesota-based company offering workshops, retreats, and individual “clearness consultations” that Johnson founded in 2014.

He and his wife, Kim Devine-Johnson, also co-founded Prairie Oaks Institute, the nonprofit education, retreat, and sustainable-living center on a farm in Belle Plaine, Minn. that hosts UNI’s capstone retreat.

Prairie Oaks started in 2002 under the name “Devine Valley Renewal Ministries, Inc.,” according to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office. It registered as the nonprofit Prairie Oaks in 2009.

Johnson told The Gazette he and Wohlpart met years ago at a retreat he was leading, and soon began collaborating on the idea of a novel UNI employee training. A contract they’ve established pays Milkweed $20,000 per academy for program design and facilitation — not including mileage, meals, and lodging for Johnson.

The closing retreat at Prairie Oaks costs $3,275 — not including travel. A total for the first cohort reached about $26,000 with expenses. Costs for the second are still in process, and Johnson said he’s developing an assessment tool to measure the benefits.

Interested employees must apply to participate. The application notes participants “will explore the intersection of their personal and professional lives, with insights from the work of scholars, poets, artists, naturalists, musicians, filmmakers, scientists, and various wisdom traditions.”

“Clearness committees, peer action-learning circles, and other high-integrity and strictly confidential processes of discernment and mutual accountability will be a key component,” according to a program description.

The first and second cohorts saw about 50 applicants each, according to UNI spokesman Ketelsen. Applications are then reviewed by Wohlprt and Johnson, who confer on final selection.

About 15 are chosen, and UNI is accepting applications for its third round now, with applications due by June 4. That group will meet for the first time in October — starting with a Thursday-night dinner.

They’ll meet again for dinners and full Friday training sessions in January, April, and June, before heading to Minnesota in September 2019. As part of the training, participants are clustered into triads, which meet monthly independently. Johnson also is available for phone consultations.

“In those action learning circles, or triads, they coach each other around things that are going on in their own lives and work and leadership challenges,” Johnson said.

He told The Gazette a final three-day retreat at an off-site location is an important part of the work as it helps participants put into practice ideas they’ve been mulling.

“It provides a new kind of space, a time-away opportunity, for them to engage physically with the content that we’ve been working on,” Johnson said. “It takes us outside the walls of the classroom, so to speak, and lets them connect what they’ve had in their head throughout the year in new ways.”

'Be my own leader'

Kristin Moser, director of institutional research and effectiveness at UNI, participated in the first round of the academy and echoed Johnson’s sentiments about the capstone retreat bringing together a yearlong exploration of the “deep care you feel for people and for the planet and for your work.”

“For me, it was a little difficult to name what I actually gained from it,” Moser said. “A lot of it didn’t come to me until we had that full-circle meeting at the very end when we were in Minnesota and thinking about the community we had built together and thinking about everything we had talked about … It was giving myself the permission to be my own leader and not having to follow the path that everyone has followed.”

The retreat itself she described like a “summer camp environment.”

“We were over in a big farm house, so we’re all bunking together — there were four to five people to a room,” she said. “We had all gotten to know each other over the past year, but not quite that intimately — passing people in the hallway on the way to the shower and brushing your teeth together.”

Days were intensive, Moser said, with early mornings and late nights.  

“We created all the meals together,” she said. “We had a lot of discussion. Nights were spent by the campfire with the guitar, and we did a lot of singing. It was a really neat way to end the year that we’d spent together.”

Readings and discussions through the year focused on being a patient leader, a servant leader, and the intersection between spirituality and leadership, Moser said. And it has made a difference in her experience on campus, she said.

“The culture before Jim came was so different at UNI,” she said. “Knowing that someone at such a high level appreciates you for who you are. For me, it just made me want to work that much harder, just to give back.”

Leslie Prideaux, director of UNI alumni relations, was in Moser’s triad and said the academy connected them on campus collaborations they wouldn’t have contemplated previously.

“The whole experience was transformational,” she said, noting the academy started with the unique assignment to bring an “artifact” to the dinner at Wohlpart’s home symbolizing “who you were and who you wanted to be or how you thought of yourself.”

“That really set the stage of getting to know these people on a very different level,” said Prideaux, who brought a pair of eye glasses to represent her unique way of thinking.

UNI associate professor Kelli Snyder, also in the first cohort, acknowledged spiritual underpinnings in the training’s curriculum — with on-campus sessions starting with several minutes of silence for centering and introspection.

“I definitely could see some faculty and others being turned off from an experience like this — it’s super touchy-feely, and I’m OK with touchy-feeliness,” Snyder said. “But I do wish that people who tend to not gravitate toward experiences that are rather touchy-feely in nature and where you talk a lot about emotions — and there is a lot of emotion that is emitted during these sessions — being open to let themselves be vulnerable to those experiences and having those conversations.”

It prompts growth through introspection, she said.

“I won’t come out of this experience saying, ‘Oh this experience changed me,’” she said. “I don’t think it changed me at all. But it allowed me to experience and acknowledge the skills that I’ve had all along.”

But Gorton and others remain skeptical.

“To me, this smacks of a kind of new-age hustle,” he said. “People are making money off of it. And they are making a lot of money off of it.” l Comments: (319) 339-3158;

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