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Academic Leadership Dos & Don’ts From the Field: Interview with Edward Lawler

edlawlerNever before has academic leadership been so challenging. Today, universities more then ever need proactive leaders. Individuals who understand academia, understand the context of universities, and can create change. Academic leadership does however make unique demands. In the next month we will be returning to the theme of academic leadership and the challenges of creating a proactive academic community….No place is better to start then with an interview with Edward J. Lawler who is a uniquely experienced academic leader.

Sam Bacharach: You have a long career as an academic leader–can you give us a brief background of your career?

Edward Lawler: Well, I’ve led academic departments. I was president of the faculty senate and I started a strategic planning process at the university of Iowa. After moving to Cornell in 1994 I’ve became the dean of the ILR school for 8 years. Now, I’m chairing a strategic planning process at Cornell.

SB: Your also an active researcher and you have a long line of research publications. Can you tell us something about your research and the non-administrative part of your career?

EL: My long standing interests are on power, negotiations, organizational politics, and, more recently, organizational commitments. And the questions of when and how are people attached to groups or organizations? My current theme is about the role of emotion and affect in the development of ties to groups and organizations [Read about his new book here].

SB: When you think of academic leadership, what comes to mind?

EL: Well the common metaphor,”herding cats”,  is often used as a description of what academic leadership is like. I would say though academic leadership is about framing problems, issues…organizing collective efforts, tasks, committees, and individuals to move in some direction and being a good facilitator and a good listener.

SB: Are there any unique problems a academic leaders faces that other leaders don’t face?

EL: Academic leaders must have the support of the faculty to get things done. In universities faculties are really in control of the heart of what happens through their teaching and research programs. So, if an academic leader wants to make a shift in emphasis or move in a new direction he or she must have the support of enough faculty to get that done. There doesn’t have to be consensus–but enough people have to be on board.

SB: You had a number of distinguished roles as an academic leader. Why do you think you have received the support you have had and how do you think you’ve been so successful?

EL: One of the things that I think helps me is that I really enjoy the problem solving aspect of academic leadership. Having a problem, figuring out how to address it, who needs to be a part of it, et cetera. What’s worked for me is I understand problems and decide what to do with them in the context of conversations I have with people and committees. I don’t go off in a room and think about something and make a decision. I can’t make a decision I’m comfortable with unless I’ve talked to a variety of people. I don’t have to talk to everyone–not everyone has to agree, but I have to make decisions and move toward them by talking with other people.

SB: It seems today that American universities are in a huge crisis–the size of which they have never seen before. How is that effecting academic leaders at large?

EL: In some ways it’s the perfect storm. The economy has hit university endowments, states are cutting like never before, and tuitions are up and parents are facing pressures. I think part of the problem that academic leaders face today is how do you make the decisions and proceed. Now, academic leaders will have to make decisions without faculty support and they haven’t done that before. They won’t have the time, necessarily, to go through a deliberative process as they have in the past. So the question is: how does one be deliberative and consultative within a shorter period of time and make a decision knowing full well it will get a lot of push back?

SB: That means you’ll have to adjust the very style that has worked for you up until now.

EL: You’re absolutely right. The style that’s worked for me up until now won’t allow for a lot of deliberation. I will have to act without the kind of support that I normally hoped to have or expected to have when I am in these positions.

SB: Where should academic leaders come from?  Should they come from academia or from the outside?

EL: I think there are exceptions in some schools where deans might be great if they were from the outside. But I’m a strong believer in academics leading academic organizations. The reason for that is universities are such unique organizations and I really don’t think anyone can understand them sufficiently or get a modicum of support from the faculty without being involved with them closely. If the issues facing the unit have to do with relations outside or getting resources in new ways it can be possible. It’s certainly possible that a dean, from the business world perhaps, might be able to do some things that an academic couldn’t do.

SB: Does your research give you an aspect of legitimacy?

EL: My research has given me some legitimacy and credibility with the faculty. In these leadership positions, I’ve worked hard to keep my research going, mostly because I’m committed to it and also it helps me maintain credibility over time. Nothing can hurt an academic administrator’s credibility more then, over time, letting their research languish and having the faculty perceive that.

SB: Do you think “administrator” is a bad word in academia?

EL: It’s a word with mixed baggage. It’s not a bad word if it’s combined with ‘academic’. Administrators have less legitimacy in a university if they aren’t academics.

SB:  How do you get elite, quality, academics to get into administrative roles?

EL: It’s increasingly difficult because of the demands of these roles. The demands of administration have grown and the jobs are all consuming. People in these positions have a hard time keeping up with their research. I think the way you do it is to get the institutions to provide those who want to be administrators with a frame work for them to do it. That means providing time, resources, and being able understanding schedules. I do think academics can keep there research going if they have the support of their institutions.

SB: What’s the role of a academic leader withing the social commitments of a university?

EL: I think, certainly in leadership positions, especially in academics, that the tie to social commitments is more than just instrumental and transactional.

SB: At Cornell?

EL: My commitment to Cornell is there, in part, because I believe in what Cornell stands for. It’s an ivy league institution and an elite one–but one that works to provide education to kids of all backgrounds and has been, since its early history, open to a broad range of people from different classes and religious backgrounds. It’s a distinguishing characteristic of Cornell. And it’s something I strongly believe in.

SB: So, in a way, social commitment is part and parcel being an academic leader?

EL: I believe that’s exactly right. You can imagine someone getting pulled into academic leadership just for the extra salary or prestige. I don’t think that person will be effective over time unless they develop that commitment. And it might happen when only they start to get involved.

SB: Thanks for you time.



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