Applying Art of Hosting as an Open Governance Model

Alfonso Sintjago and Brittany Edwards

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. – Dwight D. Eisenhower


As the elected leaders of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) at the University of Minnesota from 2012–14, we value The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) and related emerging civic engagement models promoted by the Center for Integrative Leadership (CIL). We feel this practice is best used in conjunction with program evaluation, openness, and democratic governance. GAPSA used the feedback from our evaluation process to restructure. In the various surveys and focus groups we held, students asked for a more welcoming and inclusive process. Despite GAPSA’s identity of cross-sector governance, the organization had not previously emphasized the importance of integrative leadership, collaboration, and engagement to the degree it has since its recent restructure (2013 Constitution, Bylaws).

Yet, we see Art of Hosting as a radical practice for democratic governance and inclusive change within the University and beyond. We feel it is where democratic institutions need to move in order to remain relevant and evolve in our post-Enlightenment era. These intentional environments are like the coffeehouse/ penny universities of Oxford, or Café Procope of Paris, or the café culture of Vienna of today—they are low-cost gathering spaces for creativity and thought to emerge. It is the Art of Hosting: the creative practices of making people feel welcome and included. It is a practice that invites civility in discourse, and encourages participation. Art of Hosting is a forum for new ideas, for decision-making and social change to emerge. This is the environment and culture we feel is best for graduate and professional students to thrive, and where the best products of academia might emerge. This practice has the opportunity, in combination with open governance and related open movements (affordable textbooks, creative commons, open data), to transform both academic and political culture to be more inclusive, transparent, and productive, at a time when we need it most.

However, we have heard some misconceptions about Art of Hosting. Some of these misperceptions exist because the practice needs to be appropriate to the context of the event, and the needs of those involved. For example in the Spring of 2012, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler asked GAPSA to co-host a Town Hall-style meeting for fall as part of a series of listening sessions with major stakeholders across the University for his inauguration. It was also meant as a check-in with our population after the graduate student unionization effort, which had been a major source of division among stakeholders, documented in these articles (1, 2, 3, 4). In this event, we were able to demonstrate the value of the World Café process, as an efficient way to gather feedback from a large group, in a short amount of time. As an engineer by training, President Kaler is concerned with improving efficiencies and using his time well. In this context, Art of Hosting techniques were quite effective. After hosting this forum and other events using an Art of Hosting approach, we were encouraged to do more. This chapter highlights various ways in which we have incorporated Art of Hosting into University of Minnesota graduate and professional student government.

Structural Changes to a Well-Established Organization

Accounting for close to 40% of the student body at the University of Minnesota, GAPSA represents more than fifteen thousand students (see Figure below), as the graduate and professional student governance organization in the Twin Cities campus. All currently registered, full-time graduate and professional students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, full-time undergraduate Nursing students, and Pharmacy and Medical Students at University of Minnesota-Duluth are members of GAPSA. As such, it represents a very diverse group of programs and interests. GAPSA was established in 1990 as a nonprofit (IRS 501(c)(3)) confederation of independent college councils representing students to the Board of Regents, the President of the University, the University Senate, the University at large and wider community. GAPSA also provides a space for students to convene, share knowledge, and promote mutual understanding, collaborating so we can most effectively address broader challenges.

UMN-TwinCitiesEnrollmentUniversity of Minnesota-Twin Cities Enrollment – Spring 2013

GAPSA’s ability to influence and promote major changes relies upon the connections between student groups, and its ability to bring student concerns to the awareness of administrative bodies. By meeting with President Kaler and other administrators across the University, as well as allocating student representatives in University governing bodies such as the University Senate, GAPSA can voice concerns and learn about initiatives that are taking place across the University. By supporting issues such as Open Textbooks, Tobacco-Free Campus, Student Advocacy, among others, the administration became aware of and acted on these concerns.

GAPSA acts as a natural catalyst for cross-sector collaboration and leadership development. Yet GAPSA did not include a mechanism to ensure project continuity, maintain student-administrative networks, and ensure a basic understanding of collaborative leadership techniques that are useful in promoting greater effectiveness and collaboration. When Brittany was elected Vice President, she was approached by several council presidents who were not pleased with the direction of the organization. Members of the Executive Board implemented an anonymous survey to the Assembly, asking for feedback to improve, and it confirmed the organization was facing major challenges in terms of student engagement and satisfaction.

Particularly, the data revealed that parliamentary procedure used to run meetings created a climate where a few people dominated the discussion, a process that was being controlled by those who best understood it.

These challenges provided a unique opportunity to reframe GAPSA and restructure it in a way that would effectively address the needs of students and fulfill the organizational mission. We were not afraid to be bold and innovative. In the search for answers, GAPSA looked at multiple models, and in the beginning of the 2012–2013 academic year, the GAPSA Assembly voted in favor of a developmental program evaluation process, to address the continued dissatisfaction with the organization. The initial phase of this evaluation included an extensive student body survey, focus groups with members of each of the ten councils, and individual interviews with executive board members.

Various Assembly members drafted resolutions promoting structural changes; some initiatives were supported by individuals, who later became a part of the 2012–2013 Executive Board and contributed to its transformation. We have made structural changes to GAPSA’s constitution and bylaws, based on feedback gathered during from our evaluation. We hope that the ethos of these changes is institutionalized and that student government remains collaborative and open. We have shared the restructuring ideas on various occasions, including two focus groups with the Council of Graduate Students (COGS). Increasing dialogue not only improved our outcome, but it is also a key attribute of student government where all stakeholders should have a way in which to express their concerns.

We also felt that GAPSA’s issues went beyond these structural problems. As an organization, we were not demonstrating integrative leadership or authentic civic engagement. This could easily propel the entity back into inefficiency after a transition in leadership.

Based on a positive experience with World Café, various GAPSA members expressed their support for becoming more involved and discussed the possibility of strengthening GAPSA’s partnership with the Center for Integrative Leadership (CIL) (illustrated in the figure below). This direction was also reinforced by our developmental evaluation and our awareness of Open Governance models. GAPSA has integrated CIL tenets and civic engagement techniques into its process and activities. We are demonstrating GAPSA’s promotion of integrative leadership by using and experimenting with emerging technologies—MOOCs and e-learning, and Art of Hosting. The openness of these strategies increases transparency and individuals’ willingness to be included in processes.

CIL-GAPSAAlignmentNew CIL-GAPSA Alignment

This change, which identifies CIL staff as an adviser, also helps connect GAPSA to a broader University community. As Merrie Benasutti, Associate Director for Student Initiatives said, “The value I add is that students come and go every year, but I’m consistent, and I think the community recognizes me as somebody whom they can turn to.” Her priority is to reinforce student learning and engagement in the community, affect broad institutional change, and help future students practice Art of Hosting. She embodies the practice of making people feel welcome, which we feel is central to the Art of Hosting approach.

Why Art of Hosting? Its Relationship To Student Government

Liberal arts colleges and programs promoting a holistic education require a set of core or standardized courses from their students. These courses provide the foundation of an informed and engaged citizen, and allow students to better understand the complexity of societal problems, their individual strengths, the benefits of collaboration, and the value of others’ knowledge and understanding. In contrast, as elected student body leaders, there are no core courses or requirements, only the expectation that a student does their best to represent the student body.

Yet, student leaders in GAPSA bring what they learn in coursework to their roles. Brittany took a class on Managing Civic Engagement, where she learned World Café and brought it to the design of the session with President Kaler.

Along with another executive board member, we took the PA 5190 One Health/Finding Common Ground/Grand Challenges that expanded upon some of the Art of Hosting techniques to facilitate a Finding Common Ground Forum on Animal Health and Worker Well-being. The Forum is a daylong event, including divergent stakeholders across controversial issues in which graduate and professional students facilitate at each table. By participating in the event, we became aware of its potential in helping to further conversations about Grand Challenges, from gun policy to climate change. It could be applied as a way in which to address politically sensitive topics, and we expressed this possibility to the MN Senate Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development.

These applications emphasize to us the importance of divergence/convergence by seeing the many concerns of participants but allowing them to leave the meeting with a newfound understanding of either the problem or ways in which to move forward. We learned the techniques vary depending on the groups gathered and the topic of the conversation. Appreciating the potential of combining different civic engagement and Art of Hosting techniques convinced us of the importance of more application. By setting our focus on major challenges, we can come nearer to addressing them, and transform into an action-oriented organization that tackles challenges, knowing well that they may not have a permanent solution, or may take a longer timespan to address.

In the spring 2013, we hosted an Open Space Technology forum on E-learning with Provost Karen Hanson. In June 2013, several newly elected board members attended the three-day Art of Hosting training that exposed a core group from public health to veterinary medicine to education to the work. We plan to host a fall Assembly meeting using multiple Art of Hosting techniques to bring about a more productive conversation. We will specifically explore the sustainability of higher education.

As we hope to plan other World Café and Open Space Technology events with administrators in the future, we also have discussed ways in which to include Art of Hosting techniques in innovative ways. GAPSA is also developing a MOOC environment with partners, to promote the discussion of Grand Challenges, while helping to tear down silos and barriers common within larger research universities. We hope that this platform will be able to include various Art of Hosting techniques within a digital environment. The figure below highlights some of our initial thoughts about how some Art of Hosting techniques can be included within an online environment. Transferring Art of Hosting elements to a different environment can help spread its core concepts and help additional projects to benefit from its affordances. By sharing ideas and promoting collaboration we hope to help promote innovative solutions to complex challenges.

AoH&OnlineEnvironmentsArt of Hosting and Online Environments

A major way in which GAPSA is promoting Art of Hosting and an Open Governance Model, in addition to hosting events, is by changing its structure and promoting integrative leadership, as well as providing its members with the information they need to host their own Art of Hosting events. GAPSA represents students in ten different councils including the Graduate School, Carlson School of Management, Law School, Medical School, Dental School, School of Nursing, College of Pharmacy, School of Public Health, College of Veterinary Medicine, and College of Education and Human Development. In prior years only a handful of councils were represented within its executive body. We hope that these changes will result in structure and practices that makes us more flexible, action-oriented and more representative of the student body.

As a land-grant institution, we believe the University of Minnesota has an obligation to practice and explore the boundaries of emerging ideals in 21st Century democracy. This means using a combination of information and civic engagement technologies to improve higher education. We believe that this is the future of the land-grant institution—to provide public opportunity to exchange ideas freely in a public forum. In Vienna, this meant Cafés. We love coffee, but we feel there are new means to share ideas today. For us, that means a combination of newly available online exchange in the Creative Commons, and related practice in community through the Art of Hosting.