The WHOLE Experience: Reflecting on The State of Higher Education Leadership


Dr. Morris Thomas serves as Assistant Provost for Digital and Online Learning and Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Assessment at Howard University.  Dr. Thomas is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the School of Education. As a Project Management Professional (PMP), he teaches Project Management to MBA students in the School of Business. Dr. Thomas has developed, The “ENHANCE Learning Model” and “The WHOLE Experience Framework.” These models center on the learners’ environments and experiences. His scholarship has taken him throughout the United States, Canada, Cuba, Germany, India, Ireland, Malawi, Puerto Rico, and South Africa.


For the purposes of this article, everyone who serves in any capacity in higher education is considered a leader. According to McKinsey & Company, leadership is a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization. Leaders within the context of higher education are faced with an ever-evolving landscape and with that comes a wide range of continuous challenges and opportunities. There is no shortage of difficulties facing institutions of all types. Many of these issues are multifaceted, nuanced, and complex, such as AI, the political landscape, mental health, economic factors, and the list goes on. Nevertheless, in many instances, those who serve in these institutions are not provided with the resources and/or respite needed to manage these rapid changes and demands. It cannot be assumed that because people continue to “show up” that all is well, and business should carry on as usual. It is important that leaders are cognizant in how they approach their work and one way to do so is through intentional reflection.

Reflective Practice

There is a popular saying, “check on your strong friends…” The sentiment of this statement is that even those perceived as being “strong” may also struggle as they face challenges. Typically, leaders within the higher education sector are high-achievers and high-performers, ergo the prevailing assumption of being perpetually strong. In addition to checking on your strong friends, there is the need to check in with self. One way to do so is to engage in reflective practice. Reflective practice is an opportunity to pause, reflect, and take notice of practices and behaviors that may benefit from further assessment and revision. Another way to think about reflective practice is to consider mindfulness. Mindfulness in its simplest form involves an intentional focus and awareness on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting one’s state of being.

The WHOLE Experience for Leaders

A way to apply reflective practice is to employ a model or framework as a barometer or lens that might serve as a means of assessment and accountability. The WHOLE Experience Framework (WEF) was conceptualized to consider five elements that can be considered for improving environments and experiences. The WEF is typically employed to assess the environments and experiences of students in the learning context, this framework can also be leveraged to improve the environment and experiences for those who serve as leaders within our higher education institutions. After all, if those who lead in the higher education context are not having and/or facilitating appropriate environments and experiences, students will inevitably be impacted. The WHOLE Experience Framework encompasses an acronym that represents the following terms, Welcoming, Holistic, Open, Liberating, and Empowering.


Creating welcoming environments is centered on providing settings and experiences that induce feelings of safety, hospitality, and a sense of belonging. In higher education leadership, this means fostering an atmosphere where all stakeholders – from students and faculty to staff and administrators – are valued and respected. It involves implementing inclusive practices, promoting diversity, and ensuring that communication channels are open and accessible. Leaders should strive to create spaces where ideas can be shared freely, where collaboration is encouraged, and where every individual feels they have a voice. This welcoming approach extends beyond physical spaces to include virtual environments, especially as remote and hybrid work models become more prevalent in higher education.


A holistic experience considers that higher education leaders are whole people, and there are many situational factors that impact their personal and professional lives. This perspective acknowledges that leaders are “whole people” who are not always able to completely unplug from their personal lives due to their leadership roles and responsibilities.  It involves recognizing the importance of work-life balance/harmony, mental health, and overall well-being. Institutions should in meaningful ways provide resources and support systems that address not just professional development, but also personal growth, stress management, and health. This might include having no-meeting days or time blocks, offering wellness programs, mental health resources, and policies that support family commitments. By taking a holistic approach, institutions can foster more resilient, engaged, and effective leaders who are better equipped to handle the complex challenges of higher education.


An open environment fosters feedback. Leaders ask the opinions of others and are able to freely bring up issues without fear of retaliation or being labeled problematic. This culture of openness is crucial for innovation, problem-solving, and continuous improvement in higher education. It involves creating mechanisms for regular feedback, such as anonymous suggestion systems, town hall meetings, or open-door policies. Leaders should actively seek input from diverse perspectives and demonstrate that this feedback is valued by acting on it when appropriate. An open environment also means being transparent about decision-making processes and institutional challenges. By cultivating openness, institutions can build trust, encourage creativity, and create a more dynamic and responsive educational environment.


Liberating involves schedule flexibility, including remote work policies, using paid time off, and intentional breaks. In the context of higher education leadership, this means moving beyond traditional rigid structures to embrace more flexible and adaptable work arrangements. It recognizes that productivity and creativity aren’t always tied to a specific location or time frame. Institutions should consider implementing policies that allow for flexible hours, and remote work options where feasible, and encourage the full use of paid leave in all forms, i.e., health related, annual, personal, etc. This approach also involves creating a culture where taking breaks and disconnecting from work is not just allowed but encouraged. By providing these liberating elements, institutions can reduce burnout, increase job satisfaction, and ultimately enhance the quality of leadership and decision-making.


Empowering involves environments and experiences that include opportunities for advancement, demonstration that employees are valued, and recognition for contributions. In higher education leadership, this means creating clear pathways for career progression and professional development. It involves providing leaders with the autonomy to make decisions within their areas of responsibility and the resources to implement their ideas. Recognition programs, both formal and informal, should be established to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of leaders at all levels. Empowerment also means investing in leadership development programs, mentoring initiatives, and opportunities for cross-functional collaboration. By fostering an empowering environment, institutions can cultivate a sense of ownership and commitment among their leaders, leading to more innovative and effective leadership practices.


According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), 2023 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey (ERS) only 58% of higher education employees are generally satisfied with their jobs. Being that there is a relationship that exists between being motivated and satisfied, it is important for leaders to consider the environment and experiences being fostered. The value and quality of higher education is being scrutinized more than ever. If those who lead in this arena are not having appropriate experiences, it is likely that the value and quality will too be impacted.  Higher education institutions are not merely comprised of beautiful grounds and buildings but exist and function because of the leaders who serve. Therefore, it is imperative that leaders within this context engage in reflective practice, considering their whole selves and the WHOLE experience for those with whom their work touches.


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