People gathering to discuss sex trafficking, redesign of state services for the blind, and a library for a refugee community. Classes using group discussions to probe more deeply into both readings and professional experience to change adults’ awareness of themselves and improve their strategic actions. University-wide initiatives engaging diverse stakeholders to understand their needs and design effective information technology tools. Something is stirring at the University of Minnesota.

This book explores these stirrings, documenting the emerging applications of the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter (hereafter, “Art of Hosting”) within a higher education institution. The stories showcase innovation and leadership within and across colleges, schools, departments, and classrooms. They offer insight into how unexpected and significant change can unfold, even in large public bureaucracies. They inspire us all to think about how slowing down at the right time to have focused conversations has the potential to change everything. These accounts offer hope.

Higher education in the 21st Century is at a crossroads. The transformation of society unleashed by the Internet is transforming all aspects of higher education. Courses are no longer 15-week experiences where campus bound students partake in professors’ wisdom in classrooms but are designed in shorter and longer blocks at unconventional times using unconventional teaching strategies. Classes are “flipped” and free massive online open courses (MOOCs) are enrolling students from around the world. Research that was once locked in the ivory tower is accessible to all citizens through blogs and collaborative web-platforms. And University libraries now archive and index electronic sources, facilitating scholarly exchange at unprecedented speed. New platforms, such as electronic peer reviewed journals and eBooks (such as this one), are transforming academic publishing.

These new trends in the virtual world are accompanied by other challenges requiring effective face-to-face communication. Classrooms continue to welcome an increasingly diverse group of students into common spaces for shared learning. As college loans soar and employers increasingly value experience over credentials, students seek applied and community-engaged learning opportunities to hone what they have learned in the classroom. Many organizational tasks require traditional disciplinary and departmental silos be ignored to pursue more systemic action. Academic leaders are called to help communities face the grand challenges posed by a globalized world, which require new practices and frameworks to navigate change as well as more innovative and integrative solutions.

Universities must simultaneously transform every part of their operations to respond to these pressures and leaders are being called to look for ways of cultivating change in the academy. The editors of this book have joined others (Duin, Nater, & Anklesaria, 2012) to create a second volume from the University of Minnesota focused on this theme.

This book illustrates, both in the content it shares and how it was created, some ways the University of Minnesota is responding to these conditions using the energy generated by the participation of more than 175 faculty, staff, and students in the Art of Hosting. It documents an array of activities, involving personal, curricular, and tactical changes in classrooms, departments, and colleges. The stories show how application of the Art of Hosting approach alters how people do regular, everyday work—process personal loss, consult with organizations, teach, engage volunteers, convene community groups. Read together, the twenty chapters add up to a vision that real changes are occurring. And these stories are merely the tip of the iceberg; many colleagues expressed regret in not being able to contribute to this volume because of the quick production timeline and other commitments.

While the results are collectively significant, none were initiated in the President or Provost’s office, nor were they associated with any strategic institutional initiative. Participants merely came to a three-day Art of Hosting training as individuals, eager to explore the way in which conversations could help to change our world. They left committed to making a difference. That is, in fact, the beauty and the deeper lesson the chapters offer for complex systems change. In a typical university endeavor, the leader-in-charge (department chair or other) gathers information, processes it, delegates tasks back to individuals or committees, and communicates a story of success to any supervisory administrator. These stories point to an alternative approach.


In these accounts, leadership is not determined by position or degree. Here, leadership is demonstrated by people playing a wide variety of roles. Whether they are Deans, students, faculty, or project coordinators, they stepped into leadership because they saw a need.  In most cases, they deliberately decided to change their own teaching, management, or community engagement practice after experiencing something significant at an Art of Hosting training or gathering. They decided to make change from where they sit. In these actions we see demonstrated amazing abilities to cross the social and organizational boundaries that so often impede people in Universities from working effectively with each other. They sidestepped bureaucracy. Their stories are inspirational.

However, they are not without risks. As these stories showcase, the Art of Hosting approach pushes the edges of professional norms. It evokes a particular language that, while enabling effective communication among hosts, can also sound odd to administrators or other decision makers. The foundational premise that effective problem resolution emerges from group engagement and insights, and pushes on conventional modes of management, particularly in hierarchical organizations. The value placed upon lived experience as a source of knowledge challenges other models of expertise, such as objective analysis and structured research, present within Universities.

Yet, the Art of Hosting applications described in this volume are merely one iteration of an approach to complex systems change that is gaining traction as creative thinking and engagement are being brought to complex challenges (Holman, Devane, & Cady, 2007; Wheatley & Frieze, 2011). For example, many initiatives and events around the country are bringing in product and graphic designers to help with knotty grand problems (Brown, 2009; Wolfe Wood, 2013). Computer programmers are attending “hackathons” to develop new apps and information technology solutions to pressing community needs (Newsom, 2013). Corporations, nonprofits, and foundations, and even the federal government, use idea competitions and prizes to develop new products and to develop new solutions to persistent issues (Lui & Sandfort, 2011; Tapscott & Williams, 2008). There are more venues for citizens to engage in deliberative conversations with other than ever before (Jacobs, Cook & Carpini, 2009). And, although we may be bowling alone, we are also finding new ways to organize into community (Putnam, 2001; Putnam & Feldstein, 2004). These diverse examples, like the Art of Hosting applications at the University of Minnesota collected here, are using new practices and platforms to leverage collective insight. They are supporting emergent change, creating results that could not have been predicted when initiated.

As an eBook, this volume also showcases how academic publishing is changing in light of the new environment. It is open access, published under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license, and readable through an array of electronic readers including iPad, Kindle, Nook, and Android-based tablets. There is a companion website allowing for ongoing interaction with the stories, themes, and ideas published in the book; set up in a blog format, readers are encouraged to add their comments and share particular chapters through this site. Authors also were invited to supplement their written descriptions with photography and video. (For more information about the overall book writing process that offers a radically different model of content creation and editing through application of the Art of Hosting practice to these tasks, see Epilogue.


Using this Art of Hosting eBook approach, we were able to move from initial concept meeting to book publication in less than six months. Our actions were guided by the purpose we crafted in the first design meetings:

To make visible to others the practical application of collaborative leadership unleashed by the introduction of Art of Hosting practice at the University of Minnesota and inspire significant shifts in complex institutions.

We hope the product we have created fulfills this aim and acts as an invitation to be courageous in pursuing change from “where you sit.” Higher education needs such courageous leadership to respond to challenges of this era.