The UC Davis campus, founded in 1908, is blessed with a large amount of land, making it the largest of the University of California campuses. We care for over 5,000 acres that are nestled along an ancient creek bed within a vast alluvial plain, the Great Central Valley of California. The main campus grounds consist of traditional institutional landscapes around buildings, agricultural/research lands, sports fields, quads, lawns, the original 100-acre arboretum, and an on-campus natural reserve.
Today, a grand experiment is underway at UC Davis: across the campus, under the old trees of central campus, out in the agricultural fields and campus reserves, and in the gardens of the Arboretum, there are 100+ students at work. Teams of students, some led and mentored, some branching out to be self-propelled and self-managed, are getting their hands dirty and working together with our faculty and staff and our community to help imagine, design, and build the campus of the future. Students are working with campus planners, grounds staff, major donors, faculty, local business people, and botanical garden staff and alumni to lead teams of peers and community members to create new public places and sustainable landscapes across UC Davis. Other teams are inviting local families and the wider community to share the excitement of new ideas, via student-imagined and student-run free public programs that celebrate and teach topics that the students themselves are passionate about, applying knowledge gained from traditional lectures and labs. We call this major campus initiative the UC Davis GATEways Project, and the student program that makes it all become real, Learning by Leading™.
The small UC Davis team leading this community-engagement project is stopping to reflect on what has been learned so far, and to talk about the creative tensions and the risks and rewards experienced during 10 shared years of an uncommon collaboration.
Bob Segar and Kathleen Socolofsky arrived at UC Davis separately. Bob was brought on as the first UC Davis Campus Planner in 1989, and was tasked with planning the future of the entire UC Davis campus during a time of rapid growth. Kathleen, recruited as the first full-time Director of the UC Davis Arboretum in 1998, had responsibility for a major land-based “living museum” with all its complex gardens and public programs. That 100-acre living museum expanded to the “Arboretum and Public Garden” in 2011, as Kathleen was asked to take over management of the entire campus landscape, which she has been running as a public garden ever since. This merger of the Arboretum, Campus Grounds and Landscape Services, and an on-campus natural reserve allowed for more coordinated impact across the campus.
UC Davis already had a special character to build upon when Kathleen and Bob arrived. UC Davis had a long history of innovative student engagement and leadership. Over the last century, UC Davis students independently developed and managed a wide variety of complex enterprises, including transportation systems, a radio station, community gardens, student farms, sustainable agriculture projects, and on-campus food services including a coffeehouse. We cannot think of another campus with a DIY culture as strong as UC Davis.
Against this backdrop of student can-do-ness and know-how, the leader of the Campus Planning Office and the leader of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden formed an uncommon collaboration that leveraged the power of place to put learning and leadership at the center of a transformative program.
Through a series of questions and answers, Bob Segar and Kathleen Socolofsky share the story of how what began as small pilot projects in the UC Davis Arboretum eventually grew to larger projects, then to campus neighborhoods, and finally began to transform an entire campus of a major university, which even has impact beyond its borders. Each stage of reimagination brought new risks and tensions that had to be understood and challenges that had to be resolved as they built teams to work on projects and programs together.
Starting from a blank slate—a new institution, an empty field, an unbuilt museum—is one of the most exciting and interesting challenges a leader can have. But however difficult the “blank slate start-up” might be (and, it IS hard!), reimagining and rebuilding an already-existing institution, campus, or museum may be even more challenging. So, why would a leader bother? Why undertake such a daunting and overwhelming task?
It takes no more than a quick mental survey of our nation’s institutions, large and small, to realize that great riches, opportunity, and energy are locked up inside them. Often built to serve the needs of a much different time, some institutional structures persist even as the world has moved on. Yet these legacy systems are stable and strong enough to keep the old energy patterns moving in what feel like unbreakable cycles. But what if these institutions and patterns are not unbreakable? What if a leader dared to reimagine their own home institution, and worked tirelessly to create small “wormholes” of new ideas and new processes that would make it possible to move beyond “business-as-usual” practices?
Here is the story of reimagining UC Davis’s places, gardens, and programs. It was not a smooth, linear process. There were challenges along the way that were addressed through different strategies we built into the system or developed as we went along.
Question 1: How did this journey begin for each of you? What was your core motivation? How does this program extend from the responsibilities of your job and the way you see your job at the university?
Bob The UC Davis campus is a big place. It was founded in 1908, and now includes a land base of over 5,300 acres in the Davis area alone. I have directed campus planning at UC Davis for almost 30 years. My responsibilities have expanded to include campus sustainability, as well as the leadership and management of the entire public landscape and transportation system. If it’s outside the walls of a building, it’s in my group. This unusual organizational structure, the linkage of long-range planning and sustainability to the daily responsibility for the larger public landscape, is an important part of the toolkit that I bring to this collaboration. I am responsible for planning the future of the campus environment in its multiple dimensions as public place, educational space, and environmental system.
As I began this work, I was influenced by the work of Paul V. Turner. In his seminal work, Campus: An American Planning Tradition, Turner references the European predecessors of American campuses as monasteries, closed quadrangles separated from their surrounding communities for reasons of safety and security. American campuses developed differently. Turner states, “With few exceptions, the American college was to turn outward rather than inward, directing itself to the community or to nature. And its physical plan was to be the clearest evidence of this orientation” (1987).
The program we are describing in this article grows from a shared dedication to the value of that “publicness” that Turner describes. “Creating places for interaction” is the watchword of the campus planner—campuses intentionally push cars to the edge and claim spaces for people to interact across disciplines and across roles. The shaping of the campus environment is all the more important because students are in the midst of an education to discover what is possible. The campus environment has the opportunity to elevate those possibilities.
As it so happens, the UC Davis campus was all but invisible from the interstate highway passing by its southern border. In the last 15 years, UC Davis pursued and realized an extraordinary opportunity to create a new “front door,” welcoming visitors to explore and experience the campus. Precious locations at this new front door were reserved for programs that had high public impact and high regional connectivity (a performing arts center, art museum, hotel/conference center, and a student welcome center among others), organized around public greens and open borders that Turner would recognize. The new front door was planned strategically to literally bring UC Davis out from behind the trees, the better to connect with our public, the better to be known, experienced, and valued.
Kathleen I arrived at UC Davis with responsibility for a 100-acre botanical garden that threaded across the southern edge of campus, which happened to be in the vicinity of the front door that Bob was creating. With a very small staff, a very constrained budget, and a large group of volunteers, I was charged with crafting a new vision and a new future for a beloved 60-year-old campus institution, plus a strategy to fund whatever was needed for current and future needs. My background, experience, and expertise in educational leadership, museum studies, and botanical garden management was a good fit for the challenges I faced as a new leader of an on-campus living museum.
Like Bob, public engagement had motivated my career from the first. I was particularly inspired by the land-grant mission of UC Davis, and, most especially, its commitment to public engagement and public service. Universities everywhere are reevaluating how they can connect better with the community, engage more fully, have the most impact, serve deep purpose, and ultimately have more relevance in society. One document that made a large impact on me was Returning to Our Roots by the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. The report was the result of a multiyear charge to “rethink the role of public higher education” and “called for public universities to join…in ‘returning to our roots,’ becoming once more the transformational institutions they were intended to be” (2001).
Similarly, museums—my own professional field—were searching for ways to connect with communities in more meaningful ways than exhibits and shows. I arrived deeply engaged in national conversations about the future of museums, the critical need to integrate museums into community life, and most especially, to have impact on multiple levels. From the first day at work, it struck me that our garden, a living and working museum, was literally a place about “connectedness” and a bridge to the community.
But before I could expect the longtime, albeit enthusiastic, staff and volunteer corps to make major changes in how they connected to the community, I knew we needed a compelling shared vision to guide us. Therefore, I launched a community planning effort based on the work of Peter F. Drucker, often considered the “father of modern management” and founder of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. Using the Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool (1999), we invited the community to be part of a process to reimagine the future of the UC Davis Arboretum. Over 4,000 people responded in written surveys, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and large community meetings with passion, deep interest, and strong opinions. Over 400 faculty and more than 1,800 students, along with campus leaders, external experts, funding partners, and our visitors let us know what we were doing well and where we could improve. The insights gained from this process launched us into our first deep experience of cocreation with the community and, ultimately, led to reimagining the deep purpose and, eventually, the future of the UC Davis Arboretum.
One insight resonated strongly: many off-campus respondents mentioned that they were curious about what happens at a university, but felt out of place if they visited, except at the Arboretum where they felt welcome. They wondered, “Could the Arboretum tell us more—not just about the plants and wildlife, but about what the university does, what goes on here, and why that is important?” This new idea, “translating the work of the university to visitors,” became an important guiding principle for our staff. We went on to share this insight with our campus leadership. Eventually, a new vision about how we might connect the work of the university beyond the boundaries of the UC Davis Arboretum—with both newly designed gardens and public programs—emerged.
Question 2: How did you turn your vision into a program? Both of you worked together to create flexible programmatic frameworks to guide actions and capture opportunities. Can you explain how that happened?
Kathleen It can be threatening to people to talk about change, which may cause them to become fearful and resistant to those changes. So, rather than trying to make wholesale changes from the get-go, we decided to start by piloting some of the new, emerging ideas in some of our public programs. Since these programs are somewhat ephemeral, this gave us a “safe place” to experiment with sharing work that was underway at UC Davis with our visitors. For instance, adding a public program in which a UC Davis scientist shares his or her research with the public is something that everyone can embrace. These programs were what we call “above the waterline” rather than “below the waterline.” We understood that we could learn from them and either discontinue them or make them better the next time. This “pilot” approach encouraged creativity by allowing the freedom to experiment and create new programs without concern over “sinking the ship” of the institution. We realized that calling a new program a “pilot” was a great way to lower people’s resistance to change. People were more willing to try something new if they didn’t feel like everything was going to change all at once.
At the same time, we began to work closely with the dean and faculty of the UC Davis School of Education (SOE) to cocreate new ideas about repurposing outdoor spaces in the Arboretum and on campus for “informal education” while integrating leadership and learning. Through this partnership with SOE faculty, our initial ideas matured and were embedded within a more rigorous academic framework.
Meanwhile, I became aware of Bob’s work on connectivity and his efforts to build a visitor-centered “new front door” for UC Davis. As Bob and I began to understand that we shared the same deep goal—public engagement—we began to collaborate closely. We developed an informal color sketch map of what we were now calling the GATEways Project—the UC Davis Gardens, Arts, and The Environment initiative—a complex of physical and programmatic “gateways” for the public to engage with the academic “riches” of UC Davis.
Once we had the beginnings of this framework, we began to invite deans, department chairs, and other academic leaders, including the provost, to help us expand the GATEways sketch map and to develop the next iterations of this larger shared vision via in-depth conversations. These “early adopters” immediately understood the impact of this reimagination of campus and were eager to help. Together we cocreated how these public spaces and programs could work, where new teaching and demonstration gardens might be sited, and how public programs could help translate the work and impact of departments and colleges to campus visitors. These natural partners were key in moving this vision forward. They became champions who were ready to marshal resources they had on hand to help us build out the idea, which was very helpful when we faced more institutional barriers later on.
Out of the GATEways Project framework grew a “program model” that has guided our work through to today. We realized that something special happened when we worked with academics (academic leaders, faculty, and students) to bring their scholarship out into the outdoor environment where the public was invited to engage (see Fig. 3: GATEways Program Model Venn diagram).
Bob The front door projects opened up the campus, placing UC Davis on the visual and mental map of people in the region in new ways through shared experience. But as Kathleen began to articulate the power of the public garden engagement strategy, it became possible to take “connectivity” to the next level and show how cocreation could be the most meaningful, longest-lasting kind of connectivity. When engagement matures into cocreation, students and community members are empowered by having a hand in the actual making of the institution, made even more powerful through the lens of making their place on the planet.
Campus planning has always relied on futuristic physical frameworks, but Kathleen’s public garden engagement program brought an intentionality to experiential learning within those public spaces. It became clear through the pilot projects that reimagining the campus as this type of engaged, high-impact garden could add a new dimension to the power of place—not just an “outdoor classroom” but rather a campus that is cocreated and therefore co-owned.
For all of its benefits, cocreation can scare people—How will it turn out? What does it mean for my work? What if it doesn’t meet our expectations? How do you deal with the unpredictability? That’s where the critical importance of flexible frameworks comes in, and a reframing that makes the effort critical to the future of the institution, not marginal or experimental. To help our campus leadership understand the strategic value of our cocreative process, we framed the question: Why does the university need the garden? In discussions with campus leaders, we asked and answered the question: 1. the garden teaches sustainability; if you walk away from stewarding the garden (the university), it fails; 2. the high-impact/engaged garden creates more owners, addressing the trend of disinvestment; when people help build a place, they become invested in caring for and about that public place; and 3. the cocreated garden adds value to place-based education, addressing the trend towards education in absentia by offering students educational and leadership experiences that are only possible in real time in a real place.
Question 3: How did you go from program model to real results? Can you explain the “pilot projects” approach and how the initial GATEways Garden—the “Geology GATEway Garden”—became the first expression of the cocreation/collaboration approach?
Kathleen The GATEways program model emerged first; then we took that first leap into the real world with a GATEways project. The Dean of the Division of Math and Physical Sciences had a new campus building already funded, designed, and ready to build. After hearing one of our earliest presentations about the GATEways framework, he was ready to build a GATEways Garden as part of the construction of the new UC Davis Earth and Physical Sciences Building. Suddenly, we had a space to work, a bit of a budget, and a motivated, engaged group of geology faculty partners.
This was our first pilot project: We brought the best of landscape design and exhibit development to the table with this enthusiastic group of faculty, who had a real passion for connecting with the public. We initially launched a top-down design process, bringing in gifted and award-winning landscape designers to lead the physical site design and our public garden staff to lead the educational program planning. That approach didn’t last long! Although it was more integrative than most design efforts, it still did not capture the true spirit of the cocreative process we had already set in motion through our GATEways Project.
While we were focusing on teaching messages for the public, the faculty had ideas that took engagement to a whole new level. Rather than wanting to teach only the public, they were planning to use the garden to teach their own students. Unbeknownst to us, the faculty started amassing huge boulders in off-campus holding yards with the help of geology alumni. Surprisingly, in our top-down approach, we didn’t have any rock specimens in the original design! We had—through our conversations and presentations—accidentally launched a more true and wholly unexpected cocreation process. Through discussions and really paying attention to our partners, we began to understand the power of what was afoot and jumped on the bandwagon with our faculty and alumni cocreators. While it seems obvious looking back now, at the time it was a bold move to change course in the middle of the design process.
The Geology GATEways Garden itself has worked out wonderfully as a new public space for the UC Davis campus. The students now use these boulders to practice using the tools of the geologist’s trade, the teaching assistants use them for labs and exams, and everyone uses them for tours and talks to the general public.
Bob As Kathleen has shared the story of the garden development, I can speak a little to the institutional challenges we realized we were going to have to face and overcome as we continued to create GATEways Gardens, such as the Animal Science GATEway Garden and the Native American Contemplative Garden.
We realized that serious tensions and risks emerge when you try to conduct an emergent, cocreative process during a linear construction process. Our community engagement process was causing frustration for the architects, subcontractors, and consultants. We began to wonder: How could we implement a cocreative and community process that is open-ended in a place where certainty and regulations and processes are in place to minimize risk? How can we stay on time and on budget, and avoid cost overruns and change orders, so the whole project doesn’t collapse or implode? How can we reconcile a nonlinear, generative engagement process with the imperative of the university to implement in a linear, predictable, prescribed way?
After considerable reflection, we acknowledged that the linear nature of project design and construction would be difficult to reconcile with the nonlinear, iterative, generative nature of cocreating a garden. We finally resolved the problem by separating the budget and timeline for the public spaces from the overall construction project. Instead, we allowed the university’s linear design and construction process to move forward without disruption by taking on full responsibility for implementing the landscape portion of a GATEways Garden after the rest of the project was complete. We had to trust that the funds regularly budgeted to have a contractor install a traditional campus landscape would, in most cases, be enough to cover the “pull-out project” and allow for engaging the community in a cocreative process to develop meaningful ideas for the new garden or public space through a slower but more thoughtful and highly iterative process.
By uncoupling the garden portion of a major building project from contract-mandated milestones and timelines, we now had enough time to develop and test ideas for innovative places and programs. By “pulling out” these pilot projects from the institutional constraints (staying out of the way of our project delivery “machine”), we created time for “What if” thinking: exploring the limits of the possible. We learned to separate the “What if” thinking and brainstorming from the “What is” limitations, so that we could explore novel solutions and include people in the cocreation process without monetary or institutional pressure. With this new understanding, we now felt ready to take the GATEways concept and integrate it with the development of an entire campus neighborhood.
Question 4: As you took your cocreation process to a whole neighborhood at UC Davis, how did you implement a large-scale project, and what did you learn through this process?
Bob “Neighborhood scale plans” are flexible planning frameworks that illustrate opportunities for connectivity of campus buildings, public spaces, and circulation. Neighborhoods are “concrete” enough and small-scale enough to serve as forums for active engagement of neighborhood constituents in the planning process, as people understand the needs of the neighborhood in which they live, work, and study. Neighborhood plans are tangible and practical in the way they can show multiple projects, over time, adding up to more than the sum of the parts, creating a more integrated, interactive, compelling environment around public space than any one project can do on its own.
The west end of the Arboretum shared a boundary with the School of Veterinary Medicine (Vet Med) neighborhood, a section of campus that felt singularly unconnected and disjointed. A framework plan for the neighborhood illustrated the opportunity to link the existing Arboretum with new Vet School buildings and parking lots by creating new public open spaces. Here’s where campus planning began to leverage the public garden engagement model at the neighborhood scale. Typically, we would not be able to afford to build significant new open spaces or increase our grounds operating budgets to maintain large new spaces. But the public garden model relies on “people power” to create and maintain new sustainable landscapes and GATEways gardens. And the “people power” is reliable because we learned that students and community members are motivated to offer their time when creating and learning and contributing to a more sustainable campus. So, we refined our master plan framework to create two new significant public spaces: a native plant meadow that would capture and filter storm water runoff from new buildings and hard surfaces, and a Hummingbird GATEway Garden in partnership with a faculty member’s hummingbird research. Without the organizational infrastructure behind the GATEways program model, we would not have been able to achieve the transformation of this campus neighborhood.
With new buildings planned for the neighborhood, we designed the connecting open spaces so that some would be completed by the contractor and others would be pulled out of the budget, developed and delivered on a flexible, more human-scaled, process-sensitive timeline based on community engagement.
And, this is indeed what happened. Through the Campus Planning Office, we orchestrated multiple projects through this flexible framework to create shared public space, expanding the Arboretum with new gardens to connect with new buildings and shared public space with the School of Veterinary Medicine. This example shows the power of the neighborhood plan, generating connectivity among public spaces for events, GATEways Gardens, sustainable landscapes, academic buildings, amenities such as dining, and pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle access.
Even though buildings are the highest cost elements and the driving force behind major capital investments, the neighborhood framework is flexible and opportunistic regarding building function and size. But the framework is unwavering in the commitment to organizing development around shared public space. Now with campus and community members engaged in the making and sustenance of public space, campus planning can more aggressively assert public space as the organizing feature around which other investments revolve.
The Neighborhood Scale Plan for the area connecting the Arboretum with the School of Veterinary Medicine shows how the new buildings, gardens, and hardscape (parking lot, pathways, etc.) would create connectivity in the area with new public open spaces and investment relationships.
Kathleen As Bob has just described so beautifully, we learned that if you make a major capital investment on your campus, it can deliver so much more than simply a building. It can also help you build a new neighborhood, a new community, a new network of donors and supporters; it can help enrich your programs; and it can help support your faculty researchers. All of these ambitious goals can be worked on, developed, and delivered simultaneously, through the cocreation process. Before you begin to spend major campus funds for needed improvements, challenge yourself to find all the ways that you can leverage these funds to deliver multiple “wins” for the department, for the faculty, for the students, for the alumni, for the donors, and for the visitors. As each project gains more wins, it is harder and harder for people to argue with the value this process is bringing to the institution. We call this The Leveraged Model, as you are leveraging what you have to add more and more value.
As we were piloting our GATEways Program Model at larger and larger scales, we realized that our efforts were more successful and more impactful when students were involved as cocreative partners. It was particularly powerful to have students play a major role because it tied in directly with UC Davis’s commitment to support student leadership and learning. We had always had individual or small teams of student interns at the Arboretum, but involving them more in the GATEways Project led us to expand the model into what we now call Learning by Leading™, our student leadership model. With the help of foundation funding, Learning by Leading™ has grown into a robust program that now engages more than 100 UC Davis students working in teams, led by student co-coordinators under the oversight of staff mentors. Our students arrive somewhere along a spectrum of “learner” to “participant” to “leader.” Depending on their own interests and background, students in Learning by Leading™ teams move along this Leadership Ladder into roles of ever-increasing agency, responsibility, and leadership, supported and helped by peer and staff mentors and formal leadership training sessions.
Students in our Learning by Leading™ program are not only permitted but invited to help build their own campus and, as their leadership skills and experiences grow, to work on student-led teams delivering “real results in the real world” on even higher-impact projects in the regional community and even beyond the borders of UC Davis. As we started the planning process for the Vet Med/Arboretum neighborhood, we already had a full deployment of students in leadership positions, leading community engagement at a new scale. Vet Med faculty could see how student leaders could be part of their new neighborhood. Together, we began to imagine a new campus neighborhood built from the ground up to support student leadership and community engagement.
Once we applied the Learning by Leading™ program and the Leadership Ladder to the process, wonderful program ideas began to emerge. We began to work with a hummingbird researcher in Vet Med, Dr. Lisa Tell, to design a Hummingbird GATEway Garden and integrate student research into the hummingbird-attracting demonstration beds in our nearby Teaching Nursery. A Learning by Leading™ student led a Signature Project to help design the new hummingbird garden, as well as helped organize community and student workdays to get the garden planted. He then created a suite of signs to help interpret the garden for visitors. In addition, after facilities and parking projects were realigned both physically and with teaching messages developed in partnership with the Vet Med team, Learning by Leading™ students and volunteers, along with staff, helped develop and implement plantings for a sustainable parking lot, additional habitat plantings, and a large native plant meadow to serve as a stormwater detention basin for the whole site. Students in our education and outreach teams planned a Pollinator Discovery Day program in coordination with our Yolo County Master Gardeners. And that’s just the start!
Both Bob and I are thrilled with the results of this project and how it has come alive. We’ve been able to align these projects and programs with our fundraising activities as well, therefore leveraging the work for additional external funding. One corporation sponsored our Learning by Leading™ students working in this area, while another gave a large donation for us to host a corporate employee workday on the site. We featured the Hummingbird GATEway Garden in our regional day of giving, which inspired both current and new donors to give donations to support both the garden and the student teams that maintain the site and develop public programs for the garden.
Question 5: Once you had piloted projects at the garden scale and, later, the neighborhood scale, how did you manage to scale up and begin to have an impact across the entire UC Davis campus, and even beyond? Can you share some stories and insights from that experience?
Bob The next scale in the application of the model, from a UC Davis campus planning perspective, has been to use the model to address campus-level issues, such as large-scale sustainability goals. Again, with knowledge that we are armed with the power of this participatory model, we are now in the midst of reinventing the entire campus landscape in anticipation of a changing climate. Without the Learning by Leading™ model, it would be almost impossible to imagine a wholesale conversion of the campus landscape to a more sustainable condition. But we have learned that people will follow their intrinsic motivation to help when the cause is creating a more sustainable future. Now we are creating a 70-year plan, the Living Landscape Adaptation Plan, to convert the campus landscape: 20 years are needed to change our tree canopy to climate-adapted species and 50 more years for those trees to begin to mature.
Deploying the Learning by Leading™ model at the scale of the whole campus, beyond individual gardens and even whole neighborhoods throughout the Arboretum and Public Garden, has required a new level of organizational integration across student, institutional, community, foundation, and corporate partners. Students have already started converting high-input (e.g., water, labor) campus landscapes, such as turf, to drought-tolerant, regionally appropriate gardens. We have proof of concept now, and know we can continue to work at larger and larger scales.
Kathleen This is where the true impact happens, as we move across campus and integrate with student learning. We are also seeing, for the first time, the impact of the Learning by Leading™ model as it moves beyond our borders. These years of engaging with the students and the community have led to wonderful improvements of the Arboretum experience for our visitors and increased the sustainability and engagement of our campus landscapes and neighborhoods. However, in terms of external impact and external funding support, the power is in training, supporting, and launching the next generation of environmental leaders with a full suite of tools and strategies, hard-won through their own leadership experiences. Our entire campus landscape is now the stage upon which those skills get engaged and developed.
Many of our Learning by Leading™ students experience a life-transforming sense of agency as they work their way through the projects, start leading teams, and gradually begin to understand fully how to design and launch complex projects in partnership with other students, the community, and faculty. Once that light comes on, there appears to be no stopping them, as they independently see a problem on-campus or off-campus and roll up their sleeves to tackle it.
These projects go far beyond the gardens and places of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Our program graduates, experimenting and testing their newfound powers, are fearless about facing and trying to solve some truly difficult problems. It is marvelous to see a young person identify a problem, develop a whole new idea to solve it, develop the nuts and bolts of a project plan, reach out to community or faculty partners to work on and refine the plan, and then, along with their partners, launch the new project. Sometimes they need to go out and secure funds from either campus or external sources before they can get started, which is a wonderful lesson in how the real world works. When these new young leaders successfully secure the funds they need, they immediately begin to recruit, train, and lead their own teams, checking in with our staff mentors when they need high-level leadership advice or ideas.
I’ll tell one story, of many, to illustrate this phenomenon: UC Davis has extensive agricultural lands where students are learning to grow and maintain food crops. One class in particular was teaching students how to grow crops on a campus teaching field. While the professor encouraged students to harvest the food after it was grown, a lot of food was going to waste over the summer once the students went home. One student in the class, Hanna, asked if that food could be donated to a food bank, but was told by campus leadership that there were a series of food safety and liability reasons why the food couldn’t be donated. Hanna did not take this for an answer, as she was greatly concerned about the issues of food insecurity in the region. Instead, Hanna worked with our GATEways Horticulturist and edible garden expert, Stacey Parker, to begin to tackle the list of obstacles she was given.
Hanna graduated before all of the issues could be resolved, so another student in our fledgling Learning by Leading™ Edible Landscaping internship, Marin, took up the cause. Marin took the list of obstacles and turned it into an “action plan,” working methodically through each complex issue and finding the right partners and experts to help solve each one, including a national food safety expert who donated his time to the project. After three years of hard, focused work and determination, the team resolved each issue. Finally, with full approval and backing across campus, Marin launched a community food-gleaning program that supplied over 5,300 pounds of fresh produce to the Yolo County Food Bank over two harvesting days, one after the fall quarter and one after the spring quarter. The food bank representative said those were the largest donations they had ever received, and since then, they have been able to use the experience of working with us to partner with local farms to get donations of food from them, too.
Hanna went on to work at a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing food waste. She has told us how transformative her leadership experience with us was for her. She said that, every day, she uses what she learned about partnering across divergent organizations to develop and reach a common goal.
Having this bigger impact also explains our “business model” to sustain Learning by Leading™. Here at UC Davis, our internal funds are directed at campus goals, such as improving campus by converting undeveloped or climate-inappropriate landscapes into more beautiful and sustainable landscapes that support the teaching messages of our faculty partners. But our student leadership training experiences—tightly coupled with real-world projects, team and project management, leadership skill development, and meaningful but realistic goals linked to challenging issues facing society—have also attracted the attention of external funding partners: foundations, governmental agencies, and donors.
These groups are aware of the “grand challenges” facing our world and are working hard to find and then fund projects and programs that can address these issues. They understand that the leaders of tomorrow, with experience and know-how needed to solve complex problems, will have to come from somewhere. In our Learning by Leading™ program, our external funders and corporate partners have found a working model to help prepare the next generation of environmental leaders for the local, regional, national, and global challenges ahead.
Question 6: Thank you both for taking the time to share some of your experiences, the challenges you faced, and a few of the impressive successes you have had with this public engagement effort at UC Davis. I know it is difficult to sum up the lessons learned over the 10+ years of your collaboration, but are there any takeaways that seem the most important, as you look back?<
Bob and Kathleen together Some of the risks and challenges we faced were simply because we began a collaboration that was definitely not “business as usual.” We were rethinking the value that the campus could offer as a public place and a learning environment by trying to integrate innovative student-centered programs with place transformation. And, because we invited in the community to be a part of this reimagination, we ran a serious risk of being seen by more top-down UC Davis leaders or managers as people who “. . . don’t know what they are doing.” This risk required us to communicate our explicit goals and project intentions very clearly, as well as develop new processes and tools to support our collaborative work with campus and with the wider community. Here are some of our most important takeaways:
Embrace collaborative leadership: We believe that many of the successes we’ve enjoyed from our collaboration have been the result of working together to align our goals and responsibilities to simultaneously accomplish “internal” objectives for university resource management and “external” objectives for public engagement and private support. You will always need to provide value to internal and external constituents; each leverages the other.
Most importantly, find your “North Star”: for us, the glue that holds the two together is providing value to the campus community and the public and, more intensively with the Learning by Leading™ program, students. This commitment to students and their future success as leaders and mentors is, more and more, guiding everything we do, and it inspires our partners across campus and beyond. Having collaborators makes you stronger, with more access to different kinds of resources—both in a diversity of ideas and funding sources—and more resilient when issues arise, with a greater diversity of insights and tools to address these challenges.
Foster the power of “AND”: Always seek to invest whatever limited resources you have—time, attention, and money—into the projects and programs that can be aligned with your true purpose and deep goals, which can deliver more wins, and overlapping wins. There is power and energy in a growth mindset: look for people and partners who believe in win-win-win-win, instead of win-lose. In our case, it meant finding partners that believed that, somehow, we could find solutions where the places and gardens of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden would get better and more beautiful, but that simultaneously could support student learning and leadership and build enriching opportunities for lifelong learning and engagement for our community and our campus. As you gain more wins with each project, you can minimize resistance to this new way of doing things as more and more people see the power in the results.
Design people into the system: At a certain point, a light bulb came on that we were developing a process that was almost “anti-institutional” in an institutional setting. The university administrative setting is not alone in its drive to achieve results with “one less person.” Our economics seems to teach that the way to save money or make money is by getting the job done with as few people as possible. And yet here we are, within that setting, developing a model to create these public spaces and gardens by designing as many people into the system as possible—students to gain learning and leadership skills, faculty members to bring the narrative of their work out into public view, community volunteers to steward the gardens, foundation impact investors gaining a model for training environmental leaders, and so on. Is it easier to do it this way? No. Is it coincident with the imperatives of the institution to get the work done as quickly and “efficiently” as possible? No. Although the process may not be more “efficient” in the dictionary definition of the word, we have found it to be much more “effective.” By designing people into the system, these cocreators become co-owners, willing to roll up their sleeves, advocate, and even fund the work. This is the generative part of the work, for the results we see here and the results yet to come when our students take these lessons on the road when they leave.
We hope that some of these challenges we shared in this conversation will sound familiar to you, and that some of the lessons we learned can serve as guideposts to help you navigate past obstacles you may face in your own challenging work, as you build new ways for your community to engage with one another and with your own institutions. We are continuing to invite people to cocreate with us. In fact, we are in the midst of launching our first pilots of the Learning by Leading™ program at other university public gardens.
For more information about the GATEways Project, click http://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/documents/GATEways_lookbook_2017finalweb.pdf for a document that describes some of our successes over the first 10 years of the GATEways Project and outlines some of our next steps and future vision. In addition, click http://publicgarden.ucdavis.edu/learning-by-leading for more information about the Learning by Leading™ program.
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