A Philosophy of Academic Leadership
Better let me be tossed around–
To the end of my days,
between the city of Yes
and the city of No!
Educational leadership is most often linked to administrative titles, but the truth is that any employee of a college or university may be an effective leader. When we do consider the work of academic administrators, however, we discover how complicated their lives can be and that it’s not realistic to imagine they can lead without making some mistakes. One may lead a regiment by command, a band by baton, or parish, pulpit. In those cases, very loosely speaking, the “followers” have voluntarily agreed to follow. But academics, particularly faculty members, have been richly trained to be—and are and should be—leaders themselves, and this makes the world of academic administration a challenging form of leadership.
Administrators who wish to avoid becoming “death stars” in the solar systems of their educational institutions, need to create an environment of trust. Good administrators do this by cultivating authentic, personal relationships with all of the people who report to them. I can’t over-emphasize how important this is. Without an environment of trust, a leader’s efforts will be stymied by doubt. Credibility may be vaporous. And even good initiatives will fall before they stand (to everyone’s discouragement); or perpetrate fraudulent illusions of goodness (to everyone’s shame); or conspicuously die on the vine (to everyone’s disillusionment).
An environment of trust is supported by respect for process and shared governance. Nothing breeds distrust faster than unexplained departures from process. I have seen, for example, corrupted search processes that resulted in professional devastations for which there was no remedy and certainly no excuse. Whether process is defined in bargaining agreements, policy, or even just past practice, good administrators avoid short-cuts that may seem expedient even when the outcome may appear obvious and inevitable. Why? Because credibility of the outcome is at stake. Whether the result is new hire or a new project, everyone will be confident that it survived a vetting process.
Process is also often connected to shared governance, a practice of inclusiveness and appreciation of the splendor of diversity. It is a concrete manifestation of our commitment to a core academic value, namely that discernment of truth is our raison d’être. If that is the tap-root of the educational enterprise, then who would not want as much input into our decision-making processes as is reasonably possible?
In addition to supporting inclusive processes that are born of our core academic values (like discernment of the truth), administrators can encourage and support the professional development of those who report to them. My late father-in-law, the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, had a motto: Ask the next question. He concretized this phrase in a piece of silver jewelry formed in the shape of the capital letter Q, with an arrow through it and wore it around his neck in the last years of his life. If we too value life-long learning, then we are committed to travel to conferences (and present our papers there), to read, to take sabbatical, to write, publish, and speak. Good academic administrators therefore encourage faculty to renew themselves, and they vigorously search out ways to allocate scarce funds and time to that effort, and they know how to explain its merits to a sometimes wondering public.
The power of professional development is amplified in environments of trust, especially in academia, where faculty, the primary innovators, then feel safe to suggest we tip the tiller toward more adventurous waters. The job of a dean (or chair or VP) then, is to connect the willed gifts of the faculty to the broad objectives of the institution. An administrator who lacks creativity and vision will not be good at this, and one who is creative but lacks personal relationships may misinterpret motives and misguide the effort. But the blend of authentic relationships, trust, and creativity lead naturally to a collaborative spirit that energizes, rather than drains, inspires rather than deadens. It enjoys a credibility that invites campus-wide respect, and, significantly, the approval of a supporting public.
The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote a poem called “The City of Yes and the City of No.”
Fiscal constraints, incompatibility with strategic goals, the status of other on-going projects, etc., can make it hard for an administrator to live in the city of Yes. But hard does not mean No; it means try harder. Good administrators are therefore alert to opportunities wherever they may arise. But when the administrative answer really must be No, and No without even a whiff of maybe later, then it will be those personal relationships, those foundations of genuine mutual understanding among colleagues, that mean a trip to the city of No is not a condemnation of one’s value or integrity.
Finally, a good academic administrator leads by checking the impulse to be risk-adverse. It is reasonable, for example, to find out what other institutions are doing or have done about such-and-such, but when that tactic becomes a habitual decision-making modus operandi, then mediocrity (which inspires no one) becomes the standard of the day, leaving no room for even the most responsible forms of innovation. Any mountain climber will tell you calculated risk is good. It doesn’t mean there will be no mistakes; it means that we learn to accept, as Janel Curry (Provost at Gordon College, Massachusetts) recently wrote in the Chronicle of Education, that we must make decisions in the absence of complete information. It is an amazing lesson to learn and re-learn and is the thing that makes us feel truly alive.