On the same weekend that Virginia Tech won its first Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tournament championship in men’s basketball, an ACC success of another sort took place on campus with a meeting of the ACC Academic Leaders Network.

The 90 faculty members and administrators who attended the March 10–12 event came from each of the 15 ACC universities: Boston College, Clemson University, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Florida State University, North Carolina State University, Syracuse University, the University of Louisville, the University of Miami, the University of North Carolina, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest University. They’re all long-time sports rivals, used to meeting on the court or the gridiron.

Yet, apart from a bit of friendly ribbing, attendees were far more interested in collaboration than competition. The Academic Leaders Network (ALN) “is about building relationships and trust, sharing experiences and resources, and encouraging creativity and the sharing of ideas,” said Amy Hogan, assistant provost for leadership initiatives for Faculty Affairs in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost

The ALN debuted in 2018 after ACC leaders, inspired by the Big Ten’s Academic Alliance, decided to create a similar program that would leverage the diversity of innovation and ideas among the ACC’s many top-tier research universities. 

Each ACC school selects five faculty leaders — deans, department heads, associate provosts, and other academic administrators — to join a year-long cohort focused on leadership development, collaboration, and understanding of trends and challenges in higher education. This elite group meets virtually as well as in person three times throughout the year on the campuses of member institutions. Virginia Tech hosted the inaugural ALN gathering in 2018 and became the first repeat host in 2022.  

The five leaders chosen by Virginia Tech for the 2022 ALN cohort are:

Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, Trish Hammer, Natalia Henao-Guerrero, Eileen Van Aken, and Jill Sible, Virginia Tech's 2022 cohort of ALN leaders
The members of Virginia Tech’s 2022 Academic Leaders Network cohort are, from left, Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, Trish Hammer, Natalia Henao-Guerrero, Eileen Van Aken, and Jill Sible.

ALN events are designed to facilitate inter-university collaboration, develop leadership capacity, and promote understanding of trends and challenges in higher education. Participants enjoyed a dinner with Provost Cyril Clarke; a campus tour; networking activities; panel discussions about topics such as diversity, self-care, and leading in a time of transition; and even a yoga class. They also joined ALN communities of practice centered around common challenges in higher education, like student mental health or recruitment and retention of diverse faculty members. 

“The sessions reminded me that leadership is a talent that must be developed with intentionality, especially during changing and challenging times,” said Sible, who’s held administrative positions at Virginia Tech since 2008. “I've already met some kindred spirits among the participants and look forward to building stronger professional relationships with them.”

In the past, the cross-pollination enabled by the ALN has yielded fruitful collaborative projects, such as new models for faculty mentoring and professional development programs for postdocs. According to Hogan, one innovative pedagogical project — an undergraduate course for design thinking that was cooperatively pioneered by faculty from Virginia Tech, Boston College, and NC State — "brought together students from across our universities, and it never would have just come out of thin air” without the connection provided by the ALN.

Because the ACC comprises such a wide breadth of colleges and universities — public and private, rural and urban, larger and smaller, land-grant and not — meaningful conversations with leaders from other campuses provide valuable new perspectives. “Meeting people from other universities, some of whom are in very different roles and have very different disciplinary backgrounds than I do, can really benefit me as a leader,” said Van Aken. “I also like to think that it benefits the institutions, because we can share best practices and strategies and reaffirm that we have some of the same challenges.”

Two more ALN conferences will take place later this year at Boston College and the University of Virginia. Hogan is looking forward to meeting again with “a really strong, competent, accomplished network of leaders in higher education. You can see those connections being formed and light bulbs going off.”

Written by Melody Warnick