The challenges of 21st century higher education are unprecedented. In the wake of the recent economic crisis, universities have had to cut programs, eliminate entire academic departments, trim organizational layers, centralize administrative functions, and move seriously toward distance learning as a core pedagogical technology. In this arena where hard decisions are being made on a daily basis, senior administrators and faculty members need to develop the necessary skills to get things done.
In this context, the core model of what the university is about is sometimes challenged. While it’s easy to maintain that the core values are identifiable and consensual and easy to make a gesture toward excellence in teaching, research, and outreach, the specific priorities that underline each of these are constantly debated.
Now that we’ve moved into a zero-sum age and that hard decisions have to be made, hidden agendas come to the surface. Turf becomes a battleground and a bit of justified paranoia spills into the air. As higher education redefines itself, units within academic settings, universities, colleges, etc. find themselves taking defensive positions.
As we struggle toward cost-reduction, elimination of overlap, and survival in the competitive environment—tensions between the two key components, i.e. administration and faculty, have become more intense than ever before. As leaders put together strategic plans focusing on the future, they face new and complex challenges in implementing those plans. While the writing is on the wall and change is inevitable, the leadership challenge is to know how to move ahead without throwing out the baby with the bath water.
In this context, at all levels of higher education, leadership must show two competencies. First academic leaders need the political competence to make sure they’ve mobilized support for their agenda. Next, they need the managerial competence to make sure that they can go the distance. These competencies are comprised of specific skills that are essential to moving higher education forward.
Leadership training in higher education, as it has been for a long time in the private sector, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
This past year my colleagues and I at Bacharach Leadership Group were given an opportunity by Mary Opperman, Cornell University’s head of Human Resources, to develop Cornell’s high-potentials.
The challenge was clear. How do you take a group of individuals who know their system well and are familiar with the business of higher education and train them in leadership by incorporating their experiences and giving them a systemic appreciation of strategic, tactical, and operational skills to move agendas ahead.
Over a seven-month period, we met nine times as and we focused on a integrated set of skills including the skills for mobilization, the skills for negotiations, the skills for sustaining momentum, and the skills for coaching. The class also took a battery of online courses provided eCornell. The training aimed at assisting Cornell’s high-potentials to become truly entrepreneurial leaders within the university.
In many ways, the higher education setting is more complex than the private sector. In an academic setting, the contingencies are numerous, the constituents varied, the agendas open and hidden, the politics complex, and the management and structure is often unclear, making it a difficult maze for both administrative and academic leaders.
The program we developed for Cornell wasn’t a typical leadership program. It wasn’t based on charisma. It wasn’t based on broad notions of transformational and transactional leadership. It was based on the reality that it’s difficult to get something done in loose organizations like academic institutions. And indeed, if something is to get done, we need leaders that are both capable of getting people on their side and keeping them on their side.