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University Leadership: An Opportunity to Shine or a Trip to the Dark Side?

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Higher Education is in the midst of a major transition, and universities (especially modern universities) are working hard to adapt by developing new business models. For half a century, the government provided high levels of support for universities on the basis that higher education is a "public good". Thousands of us benefited from this and struggle to adjust to the idea of students as "consumers" who are purchasing an educational product in a competitive market.

As a result of changes in the sector, academics today are faced with a challenge to innovate in how they generate income, run their "back office" organisations and support their colleagues through change, whilst improving the student experience and continuing their own research. These challenges are unfamiliar and the tendency is to try to achieve in every domain. Leadership in times of upheaval is not for the faint-hearted; is this a chance to shine or a move to the dark side?

For many of today's working academics, a successful career has been built on dedication to teaching and research. Research is a solitary pursuit in many disciplines, and in those where teamwork is the norm it is likely that co-authors cross institutions and even countries. In other words, most academics are not experienced or even interested in management roles within their organisation.

Traditionally, academics would take on temporary roles in the spirit of "doing time" on the administrative side. Today, however, roles like Dean of Faculty and Head of Department are full-time positions facing leadership challenges that would flummox experienced managers from any sector. Increasingly, the role of Dean involves negotiating partnerships, developing ideas for income generation, and other aspects of business leadership. Academics are unlikely to be well prepared for these roles and - even worse - are fundamentally suspicious of them as representing the corporatisation of higher education - the dark side. This reflects a widespread, and understandable, discomfort with the new language of the university as an "enterprise", and also a (perhaps less justified) feeling that academics' loyalty should be to their Department, not the "corporate" entity - the University as a whole.

Given the changing nature of Universities, Deans and Department Heads may feel they are betraying the fundamental principles of academia. They may feel ostracised and alienated by their colleagues. In our experience of working with academic leaders at Maxxim Consulting, we have found that Deans who are pressed into the role often feel discombobulated by their new responsibilities. It is rare that they find support from their peer group, and their boss (the Vice Chancellor) is likely to be consumed with their own challenges. They often have no one to discuss their new managerial challenges with, and may feel abandoned.

Clearly, it is a tricky situation for universities. Forcing unwilling academics into leadership roles isn't good for anyone. However, bringing in administrators from outside of the university environment is likely to create a backlash for undermining the core values of the academic world.

So what are universities to do?

Universities need to address these issues though individual and team-based leadership development programmes which can be both enabling and supportive. In order to create positive energy and a united leadership team, Deans need to agree upon the strategic focus of the institution in a non-homogenous market and tailor their roles to focus on key challenges. Leaders can't succeed if they have to do everything, and teams can't work together effectively if they haven't agreed the "Golden Rules" that will guide their approach. Without a united front it isn't possible to change the way the organisation views leadership roles. Success requires a legitimate opportunity to shine in the new role - only then is leadership development worth the cost.

Ultimately, rather than considering the role of Dean or Head of Department as "the dark side", academics need to remember that leading through transition is challenging and these colleagues are doing their best to balance the demands of the new funding environment with the need to preserve and protect what is best about our universities. Give them your support; they are not the enemy.

www.maxximconsulting.com