Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Searching for the future leaders of higher education

A week ago the search consultant coordinating the hunt for a new Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business was on campus.  He spoke with the faculty, the staff, administrators and students about what they were looking for in a new dean.  In the middle of last week we posted a job for an Assistant Professor of Strategy.  Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I attended the Senior Leadership Academy, a year-long seminar for mid-level administrators hoping to take cabinet-level positions in the next few years.

We are by all accounts in the middle of a huge restructuring of higher education, as demographics, economics, technology, and advances in pedagogy replace higher education as we have known it with a new higher education--one more focused on outcomes, on learning, on accountability, and on engagement--all delivered in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.  If these changes are to be guided in some way by leaders of higher education, one would think that the discovery, recruitment, job descriptions, qualifications, training, compensation, and expectations of leaders would reflect those changes.  In key ways they do--for example, our position description for the faculty spot is more attentive to diversity and sustainability than it would have been even five years ago.  But in more important ways, the search for future leaders of colleges and universities seems to be unaffected by changes in higher education.

Consider the qualifications expected of Deans, Provosts, and Presidents.  In nearly every instance, the expressed qualifications are the same--lengthy experience in a discipline, steady movement through the ranks, and increasing familiarity with key components of the college--fundraising, budgets, athletics, personnel, assessment, etc.  In sum, leadership in higher ed is a combination of academic expertise and leadership experience.

This would be a perfect combination if higher ed was unchanging.  But in fact the leaders of the future are likely to dwell less on content and more on pedagogy, less on traditional divisions in the academy and more on connections across the academy, less on fundraising and more on revenue creation, less on advising and more on mentoring, less on teaching and more on learning, less on rules and more on processes.

Who is likely to have these skills?  Student development people who have spent their careers managing residence halls, mentoring students, and creating learning outside the classroom.  Civic engagement types who have learned to collaborate, develop partnerships, and link learning to public purposes of higher education.  Entrepreneurs who know how to make money from an idea and some human conncetions.  Tech folks and process people who have figured out how to be both efficient and flexible.  Lumpers, not splitters.  Systems people, not institution people.  Mission people not market people.  Global folks and local folks, not state folks or national folks.  People who have moved around in their careers, trying out lots of different things, not people who have moved up in their careers, following a straight path to the top.  People, in fact, who disavow the notion of a "top" in higher ed, be it in the power of the presidency or the prestige of the Ivy Leagues.

The good news for the future of higher education is that a lot of the people I met at Senior Leadership Academy have exactly the skills I described above.  The bad news is that the academy produces relatively few of those people even today.  Or rather I should say that those people may emerge in the academy but they struggle to find a home.  They are outliers in their departments, the work on the margins between divisions, they are prone to move from one initiative to another.  So perhaps the first challenge for today's leaders is to look out for such people, to give them space to flourish in the institution, and to acknowledge their work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You present an interesting scenario. While I concur that the real leaders of the future are those that you describe, the reality is that they probably will not become the leaders. That is because the system is not really set up to allow them to become leaders. The traditional aspects are so persistent and dominant within the culture it seems unlikely that they will be given those opportunities unless someone already in a position of power breaks tradition and really supports such efforts. There just seem to be too many road blocks.
And my guess is that the potential leaders you describe will only wait and participate in the background for so long before they give up or go elsewhere.