Dr. Sasha Thackaberry is the Vice Provost of Digital & Continuing Education at Louisiana State University. Sasha graciously agreed to answer my questions about her current position, her career path, and the future of digital learning at LSU.
Q1: You have an awesome title: Vice Provost for Digital and Continuing Education. Can you share a bit about the big things that you are working on at LSU?
I was thrilled to join LSU because of the rare opportunity to build online programs and support for students with the high-quality learning experiences and strong, national brand of Louisiana State University.
What we’re doing here at LSU is “leapfrogging today”. We have a lot of ground to make up, but a lot of unique strengths to leverage in order to do that. As we build our programs and online offerings to meet our mission, we’re not attempting to “catch up” with the big players in the field. Today is gone. We’re building programming, support, and structure to scale relevant, contemporary options for our students in Louisiana and beyond. Everything we’re creating is focusing on stackable learning opportunities, from the micro to the macro.
The biggest thing about this huge initiative is that it has critical, unrelenting support from the very top – our board, President Alexander, and our Executive Vice President and Provost Stacy Haynie are committed to seeing this become a success. They get that innovation has to be accelerated, and that meeting the needs of post-traditional and non-traditional students through online programming is mission-centric in the 21st century.
Potentially, more importantly, we have some superstar faculty and programs we have the pleasure to work with – you always need those early adopters and innovators in order to demonstrate what is possible. Our Construction Management program is our first example of a “fully stackable” universe – offering everything from MicroCreds through graduate degrees.
We’re launching their Bachelors of Science in Construction Management in October, along with our Bachelors in Interdisciplinary Studies. Creating that core general education series is expensive and time-consuming but so worth it – we’re very excited about launching undergraduate degrees, both from the flagship and with our strong partners at LSU Alexandria and LSU Eunice, who are part of the LSU Online brand.
A lot of work goes on before the programs launch, and we’ve been working across the university, with nearly every department in order to reconfigure processes and even change and evolve formal policies in order to meet the needs of these post-traditional learners. A lot of our departmental partnerships have improved services overall as those teams have really just run with the change.
Q2: Your PhD is in Higher Education Administration. And you have worked both in a community college and as an academic leader at SNHU. Looking back at your career path, can you offer any advice to others in our world who might be interested in ascending to a leadership role that is similar to your position at LSU?
Say yes. Say yes to everything and prepare to be very exhausted.
I’m sort of kidding but sort of not. I had some unique opportunities because I’ve worked in a lot of different environments – I started as a K12 teacher, worked for a non-profit ed tech, at a community college, SNHU, which is incredible at scale and support, and now a public flagship. But I’ve also had a lot of “side gigs” along the way, doing consulting and design work across non-profits, K-12, community college and corporate environments. It had really afforded me with a wide set of experiences that enable me to look at things from a bunch of different strategic and operational perspectives.
My boss, Stacy Haynie, likes to say that she can “get weedy” because she wants to know the details, and I’m the same way. My recommendation for others seeking to move into leadership would be to get into the weeds of a bunch of different stuff. You need to be able to ask the right questions and dig in order to find creative solutions.
Also, marry well. I’m sort of kidding here, but sort of not. If you want to go into executive leadership, you have to get over the middle-management trap, which means – particularly for women – that you have to put in more time and effort to do the job before you get the job (while not getting taken advantage of from a title or compensation standpoint).
My husband was incredibly supportive during my PhD program. I had a nine-month old when I started my program and had my boy a couple years later when I was in the program. A career and time commitments like that require one of two things: (1) strong dual incomes so that you can outsource things like housecleaning and childcare, or (2) one partner who does more of the family and house stuff so that the other can put in the time and effort necessary to advance.
The hardest time in my professional and personal life was when the kids were little, I was getting my PhD, both my husband and I were working full-time (more than), I was consulting and it was crazy. If he hadn’t made the transition to work from home for more flexibility, and committed to the laundry and a ton of other work, it literally would not have been possible.
The big thing, though, is really to admit to yourself (and sometimes to others) what you need to work on so that you can get really good at learning. I was not a good manager when I started. I had a vision, but I was more like a benevolent dictator than a leader. I had to learn to be a good leader – the figuring out where to go with the vision was never an issue, but figuring out how to actually lead a team to execute it was hard for me.
I was incredibly fortunate to have some great examples and some great mentors who helped me, and I want to be the kind of person who models that type of learning behavior. My job as a leader is to set the vision, support my team, navigate the world of the university, obtain the necessary resources, encourage the team to question me. As a side benefit, this helps to keep you humble.
Q3: Word on the street is that you are growing Digital and Continuing Education at LSU. Can you share some about the plans for your division?
We are actually building something that has never been built before. We’re creating a program at both a flagship and a system that has a wide portfolio of programs that are stackable, incorporate prior learning assessment options, and have a pathway for every student. Our degrees are all LSU degrees; LSU Online is the brand associated with the online delivery modality of our same high-quality LSU degrees. We are not a separate college or university; we are LSU.
Also unique about our model is that we’re combining the high-quality of LSU degrees with in-sourced marketing, recruitment and retention. Everything is being built from the ground up, and we’re building for 3, 5 and 10 years out. We have a learning experience design team that is built to scale online courses, along with professional development for all faculty across the institution (on campus and online).
The 18 months I’ve been here at LSU has been focused on foundations first – building the infrastructure of people, process and technology to create a wide, innovative portfolio of programs to scale. We launched our new website at online.lsu.edu and are going to be releasing new programs throughout the entire year (as well as some great partnerships that I can’t share yet, but that we’re very excited about!)
What questions do you have for Sasha?