Leadership in Higher Education: The Skills of Political Competence

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In my neighborhood job security meant working for AT&T, teaching K-12, or joining the ranks or higher education. The latter career track came with the additional advantage of containing a bit of prestige. But there was also a sense of calling, a sense that you’d be serving some collective good by adding to the knowledge of society, and moving truly important agendas ahead.

You also entered higher ed because you felt it wouldn’t be a pressure cooker and the ruthlessness of the private sector wouldn’t rear its head every time you made a mistake.

Well, things have changed.

In a world where AT&T can’t provide job security and the U.S. auto industry almost disappeared, we can’t assume that you favorite college or university will be there tomorrow.

For years higher ed has been dominated by two mantras. One for administrators: “Leave well enough alone and things will get done in their due time.” The other for academics: “Let’s have a faculty meeting.”

But now the clock is ticking.

Higher ed is no longer the proverbial, angelic, oasis amidst a sea of private-sector sharks (if it ever was). Today, higher-ed organizations must keep moving in order to stay afloat. The Ivy League right down to the smallest of community colleges can no longer be guided by the stars—they need leadership that is proactive, pragmatic, and aware that change is crucial. They need the type of leadership that gets things done.

First and foremost leaders in higher ed must understand the three reasons universities and colleges often resist change.

  1. Intransigent culture: Leaders in higher ed must appreciate how to subtly move around the deep culture which has been celebrated and worked for so long. The very culture that has given higher ed its identity must now be adjusted.
  2. Turf protection: Higher ed is an arena of turf and silos. In a world of minimum resources, zero-sum games, and department elimination, this is becoming more evident. We need leaders who have political competence and can mobilize around these issues.
  3. Tension between administration & faculty: Traditionally, there has always been tension between administrators and faculty and each group quickly dismisses the other. Each has their own stereotypes of the other. It’s the false distinction between a stereotypical bureaucrat and a stereotypical academic. In a world where we want to increase shared services and shared missions, leaders must help administrators and faculty come together.

In the context of all this leaders within both the faculty and the administration must develop a degree of political competence. They must understand how to bring people together, mobilize around agendas, and sustain change.

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine told me, when assuming the chair of a large science department, “I don’t do politics.”

My answer was, “Don’t be a chairperson.”

The university is a maze of mixed interests, mixed agendas, and inconsistent visions. Political competence is the minimum we should ask of leaders in higher ed.

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