Addressing the Academic Leadership Crisis

In a recent editorial entitled "The Imminent Crisis in College Leadership," Richard Ekman, the president of the Council of Independent Colleges, suggested a growing risk is that more institutions may soon be led by presidents who have less of an understanding of the academic mission, and he called for greater investments in professional development and succession planning for academic leaders at all levels (from the department chair to the provost).

While Ekman's editorial was primarily focused on how academic leaders perceive the presidency (in the wake of recent research indicating how few provosts aspire to be presidents), his editorial also hints at several key practices that are needed, more broadly, for fostering in an institution's academic leaders not only the inclination but also the skills to become effective leaders. Among his suggestions:

  • "Faculty members with the potential to serve effectively as department chairs or assistant deans need encouragement to view such roles as opportunities for professional growth and support."
  • "Presidents should take seriously their role as mentors of talented young administrators and faculty members."

We turned to Pat Sanaghan, president of the Sanaghan Group, for suggestions about specific steps institutional leaders can take toward those objectives.

The President as Mentor

Sanaghan suggests that presidents have lunch with faculty on a regular basis. "This is just smart, both for relationship-building and for stewarding your political capital." Sanaghan recommends establishing a monthly lunch. Each month, select 4-5 faculty from different departments. The lunch will achieve the most if the group is diverse both in the faculty member's disciplines of study and their seniority. "Invite an adjunct instructor," Sanaghan suggests.

Use these faculty lunches as opportunities for mutual dialogue about the direction of and challenges faced by your institution. The president has the opportunity to understand better the perspectives of the faculty and to help the faculty understand the complexities of managing a college or university. Rather than discuss the demands on the presidency in a negative light, however, share details and questions that invite the faculty participating in the lunch to glimpse a systemic perspective.

Second, presidents need to model the type of mentoring, leadership development, and team-building that they expect the members of the senior team to foster throughout the institution. "Only the president can build the senior team," Sanaghan remarks, "but most presidents don't take the time. Some presidents think, 'These are smart people; I'll get out of their way.' But a perfunctory monthly meeting does not nurture a team."

"The problem with one-off meetings with individual team members is that you lose the opportunities for your team members to develop a systemic view of the institution, to work across silos and engage in more strategic discussions of how to meet the university's goals."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

Rather than set a protocol to meet every third Tuesday, for instance, Sanaghan recommends holding regular meetings with the entire senior team, meetings that are designed to invite input from multiple perspectives on the strategic challenges faced by the institution.

The Provost as Mentor

Sanaghan says that the provost needs to take an active role in developing both deans and department chairs as leaders within the institution. The provost needs to put in place processes and expectations that encourage academics entering leadership roles to begin thinking of themselves not only as faculty but as developing leaders.

"When someone becomes a department chair or a dean, they need to have their own learning agenda. Instead of hitting the road running, help them hit the road learning. Encourage new chairs and deans to develop objectives for what they want to learn in their new role."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

"Do they want to manage conflicts better? Do they want to learn to develop and manage budgets? Help the new dean to think of herself not as a beleaguered dean unsure of what she needs to do, but as a learner." The learning agenda that deans and department chairs outline needs to include their objectives, initial steps toward those objectives, and a learning network -- who can a dean talk with on campus to learn more about the position, share notes, share practices or learn new ones, and avoid reinventing the wheel?

Sanaghan stresses that it is important for provosts to invest in developing their department chairs, not just their deans.

"The provost should be meeting with groups of department chairs on an ongoing, monthly basis. Walk through what challenges they're facing in their work and how you can be of help. Keep in mind that your department chairs may well be your deans later."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

Sanaghan notes that many institutions lack "a coherent, articulated educational process" for developing department chairs. "The transition from professor to chair is a baptism by fire."

It will not be enough for the previous department chair to have a quick briefing with the incoming chair. Sanaghan recommends taking these additional steps to help get department chairs started right:

  • Offer a professional development seminar for department chairs; whether through a formal seminar or a biweekly bag lunch session, create opportunities and protocols for chairs to compare notes, share obstacles, and inquire about one another's practices.
  • Make sure there is a "briefing book" available that documents clearly and describes the departmental budget.
  • Besides offering a briefing book, establish a process in which the outgoing chair mentors the new chair during the first year.
  • Set the expectation that the dean will have regularly scheduled meetings with new chairs.