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Rethinking Leadership Development in Higher Education

—Co-written with Eugenia L. Weiss | Associate Clinical Professor and Director of the Orange County Academic Center, University of Southern California—

The EvoLLLution | Rethinking Leadership Development in Higher Education
Though administrators are tasked with helping to guide institutions through increasingly complex and challenging times, colleges and universities do minimal work in helping to train and develop their future leaders with the skills they will need to succeed.

In a recent article published by The EvoLLLution on public-private partnerships, I highlighted the economic and political imperatives that drive the complex nature of higher education today and introduced a paradigm of management reform with a contemporary focus on efficiency and quality by conceptualizing Public-Private Partnerships (P3). The article covered key do’s and don’ts but it failed to provide one main ingredient for a successful partnership—indeed an element that continues to plague higher education—leadership. Thus, for the purpose of this article, the lack of leadership development in higher education will be discussed as a structural or institutional gap.

The word “plague” in reference to leadership in the previous paragraph was chosen because of its insidious nature to infect and spread, while typically commencing in one area or individual. However, most importantly, when detected early, a plague is often treatable or at least manageable. This article will not focus on specific traits of successful leaders, which is discussed in a plethora of books and articles, but instead the focus will be on how to build and enhance good leaders in higher education.

What is good leadership?  Although our definition is not new or without bias, we believe a good leader is an individual who can establish a values-oriented vision and mission that promotes the success of others and their institution. The leader’s decisions are noble, placing the success of others (i.e. community) as a guiding principle. This level of leadership is not driven by blind devotion to the institution or by ego and ambition, but is instead guided by responsible stewardship while considering the needs and particular limitations of the institution.

As graduate students and assistant professors, much of the guidance that is provided in faculty development is along the lines of “publish as early as possible and develop a research agenda that could garnish external funding.” This advice provides an opportunity to secure a tenure position and establish a roadmap to promotion but does little to prepare the faculty member to lead a department or transition into an administrative role effectively.

Although, I have questioned many times the drive and focus on individuality that exists in higher education, I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and an early introduction to leadership while serving in the United States Marine Corps. The experience has led me to embrace a leadership code that seeks to develop an open and collaborative environment, which fosters empowerment, professional development, and inclusion. In the Marine Corps an effective leader listens first, asks critical questions second, and lastly, provides thoughtful suggestions that promote a clear direction to achieve a mission. Great leaders (as opposed to good leaders) accomplish this by embracing and promoting institutional values and creating an institution-centered approach. To ensure individual and team success, they engage in clear, concise and thoughtful communication, which promotes collaboration to articulate and carry out solutions. Effective communication allows for transparency, relationship building and a sense of direction.

The question remains; how do we develop leaders among us?

Higher education leadership is multidimensional and complex, requiring an exploration through a systemic lens. A perspective that takes into account the intersection of relationships with regard to family, research, students, local communities, athletics, alumni, parents, media, public officials, faculty and global interests. Department chairs, deans, vice presidents and presidents alike have been hijacked by the occupational high tempo thus leaving them little time for professional development or to be mentors/mentees. This fast pace, combined with the aforementioned traditional values that have been historically summarized as “publish or perish,” have provided the perfect storm for universities to fall short of developing leadership curricula and fellowships to build and support future academic leaders.

Although there are leadership programs provided by various entities, each program varies in cost, theme and time commitment and care should be taken to ensure that the content is at the appropriate level for the prospective leader candidate. At the risk of over disclosing, I confess that besides being indoctrinated by Marine Corps leadership values, I too am a product of Harvard’s Management Development Program, Berkley’s Executive Leadership Academy, and most recently, the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows Program. Each of the above mentioned programs are unique and have provided an opportunity to further explore the complexity of higher education leadership while examining my understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader in today’s changing educational environment. While I respect, refer to and shamelessly promote the programs mentioned, we believe that leadership development must begin early and from within the institution, leaving the more advanced programs for senior-level faculty and administrators.

Institutions of higher education have the responsibility to invest in developing leadership programs that prepare young or early-stage faculty to become leaders, as well as to become more purposeful contributors to the broader university strategic goals. In the end, this will impact those that the institution is intended to serve, namely students and future world leaders. When universities develop an internal leadership course for faculty and create a tailored experience, faculty can be afforded the opportunity to:

  • Develop an understanding of characteristics affecting higher education leadership today and in the future;
  • Develop an understanding of governance and leadership in a diverse environment;
  • Develop and enhance understanding of financial data, funding and resource allocations;
  • Increase an awareness of the functions of leadership, communications and government relations;
  • Become an effective agent of change;
  • Engage in self-reflection.

However, it would be unrealistic to expect an assistant professor establishing their research and publication agenda and working diligently towards tenure to lose focus on those goals. Therefore, we would propose a set of programs designed for various levels of professorship. Similar to that offered in the Marine Corps and other military branches, the course and content depends on the rank and experience of the participant as well as the individual’s career goals. For instance, at the assistant level, there are essential elements that are applicable and can provide the bird’s-eye view of the current landscape in higher education and would include curricula that involves such topics as:

  • Funding allocations
  • Diversity in higher education
  • Crisis management and communication (media)
  • Entrepreneurial environment including “friend-raising” & fundraising

The initiative of an internal leadership program requires a commitment by the highest authority on campus, be that a president or chancellor. Factors to consider when developing a program:

  • Allow deans to nominate a candidate or fellow;
  • Develop an independent review committee;
  • Select an exclusive number of participants based on selection reviews;
  • Establish a full-year curricula that provides time for application;
  • Ensure success by establishing faculty buy-in;
  • Evaluate all leadership development training sessions to measure effective delivery and well vetted and informed content;
  • Ensure that guest speakers and presenters are current experts in their topical areas;
  • Ensure faculty have a buy-out from teaching load (i.e., course release) and committee responsibility for the duration of the program while not affecting their annual performance reviews.

By instilling early the underpinnings associated with the values of leadership and the key topics for navigating the institutional culture, we can directly impact the future of higher education. The objective is to develop leaders who share the values of respect, community, professional development, and responsible stewardship, while seeking to promote others to lead and achieve success. In other words, a mindful leader who embraces collaboration and inclusiveness. An early introduction of leadership may increase faculty desire to become mentors and mentees while promoting others to challenge themselves to leadership positions within and outside of the institution. At the very least, faculty will be better informed on the elements of an effectively led institution, and then be able to advocate for organizational change and understand leadership from a systems perspective.