Effective University Leadership – What Does It Take?

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Effective University Leadership – What Does It Take?

Effective University leadership traits are close to superhero level – the skills, knowledge, and experience required to be an effective leader of a higher education institution are unlike that of nearly any other profession. Traditionally, universities have looked for candidates who were steeped in the world of academia. Qualifications included a terminal degree from an accredited institution of higher education as well as significant time spent in the ranks of faculty building a deep vitae of publications, presentations, and grants. However, that mold seems to be changing as more institutions of higher education look for leaders who can handle today’s pressing challenges.

New Challenges Emerging for University Leadership

Higher education looked very different from the late 19th century through the 20th century. During this time period, higher education institutions enjoyed increasing federal and state funding, growing enrollments, opportunities to expand academic programs, and options to extend their services through the creation of university systems.

Today’s university leadership faces a different political climate and a different set of pressing problems than their predecessors. For instance, the University of Montana’s new president will step into an institution beset by multiple difficulties, including declining enrollment, budget issues, and an intense focus on campus rape, which includes a federal investigation and inclusion in bestselling author Jon Krakauer’s book on the subject.

In light of these issues, the University of Montana presidential search committee is considering making a terminal degree a preferred attribute instead of a requirement, and has stated that the committee also may review the resumes of candidates who have extensive experience outside of higher education. However, some faculty members have expressed concerns about this approach, stating that a president must understand about research, grants, and other academic components of the job.

Other universities have broken the traditional mold of a university president by hiring candidates who are described as “hybrids.” These candidates’ resumes boast professional experience beyond the walls of academia and in higher education. For instance, Dr. Robert Gates brought deep experience working in the federal government along with time spent in academia to Texas A&M University’s presidency from 2002-2006. In 2013, Purdue University hired Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — who holds a law degree and is a former CEO — as its president. Recently, Metropolitan State University selected Dr. Janine Davidson as president; she taught at Georgetown University and served as an undersecretary for the U.S. Navy.

This hasn’t always gone well, e.g., Simon Newman (“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t . . . you just have to drown the bunnies . . . put a Glock to their heads”), a former consultant (Bain & Co) and JP Capital Partners (private equity firm) who served as president of Mount St. Mary’s University, is the poster child for why many feel that a president should have higher education experience.

However, these selections, while initially controversial among some stakeholders, can be fortuitous. For instance, Dr. Gates is considered one of the top presidents in Texas A&M’s long history. Furthermore, Gov. Daniels is described to be a neutral hire from a faculty perspective while his leadership has proven to be positive for the university based on other perspectives, according to faculty ombudsperson Dr. Ralph Webb.

Effective Leadership Traits for Today’s Presidents

Many in higher education still focus on academic excellence when selecting a new president. In a recent survey compiled by The Change Leader, university leaders stated their biggest leadership challenge is academic leadership succession, closely followed by overall leadership succession.  This mirrors 2016 survey results and is exceeded only by issues such as student debt, improving student outcomes and student preparedness (most of which are academic issues).

However, running a university is different than administering academic programs, especially when most academic leaders are chosen based on their publication records, their ability to bring in grants and other purely academic measures, instead of their leadership capacity. Increasingly in today’s world, higher education leaders need to be well versed in all areas and have a strong leadership cabinet.

What skills does effective university leadership need to have?

The Change Leader suggests the following:

  • Fundraising
  • Understanding academic programs
  • Enrollment management
  • Facilities
  • Finance
  • Accreditation
  • Leadership
  • Board management (managing upward)
  • Relationship building both inside and outside the university
  • Communications
  • Public relations
  • Crisis management
  • Lobbying elected officials and policymakers
  • Leading partnerships

Analyzing the Environment to Find a Leader

Higher education institutions that will be or are currently seeking a new president would benefit from doing a thorough analysis, including a scenario planning exercise, to create a detailed picture of the internal state of the university and emerging external issues. The results of this effort can help identify the qualities that a new president will need to successfully negotiate upcoming opportunities and challenges. This type of exercise also can serve as a way for different stakeholders such as faculty or alumni to better understand the institution’s current state of affairs as well as external challenges that are rapidly emerging.

The changing of the guard at the top levels of a higher education institution can cause angst among stakeholders. However, this change is also an excellent opportunity to assess the institution’s situation and then to hire a leader who is equipped to skillfully guide the institution through a maze of cultural, financial, governmental and other types of icebergs.  Thoughtfully selecting the right leader – even if he or she has a hybrid resume or a different educational background — can help the higher education institution be well-positioned to achieve success in today’s rapidly-changing world.

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