Faculty Members Can Lead, but Will They?

Academe needs a new breed of professors, who aspire to leadership roles

Brian Taylor

April 08, 2013

Colleges and universities looking to recruit leaders from within the faculty ranks will face more and more difficulty.

From our respective positions—as a provost (Janel) and a search consultant (Dennis)—we often hear senior executives in higher education say that building a new generation of faculty leaders will be a major challenge in the next decade. We hear the same thing from trustees and members of search committees seeking college and university leaders. At stake is the effective governance of the academy.

Not long ago, each of us wrote in these pages about provosts as leaders. Janel wrote of her journey from the faculty into the senior levels of administration and what she learned along the way. Dennis focused on the plight of provosts in recent presidential searches. The juxtaposition of our two articles led to an extended exchange between us about the state of leadership emerging from the faculty and how to face that challenge. Here is what we concluded.

Institutional and faculty culture work against leadership development. All too often in academe, taking an appointment as department chair is seen as a demotion or simply a temporary term of service. Those who do become chairs are thought to besacrificing what they want for what the institution decides it needs. At the same time, academic culture tends to be suspicious of faculty members who desire administrative responsibility.

It is also the case, of course, that institutions invest little money in actually training faculty members for leadership. Department chairs see themselves as mere paper-pushersrather than leaders. That represents a lost opportunity, because they are on the first crucial step toward leadership on campus.

Decision-making structures in higher education also contribute to limited leadership development for faculty members. Professors often have an imprimatur over many aspects of an institution, especially the curriculum, but their decisions are too frequently disconnected from costs and fiscal realities. The disconnect can lead some professors to avoid or be outright hostile to the business side of the institution.

So it's not surprising that the "black box" of executive accountabilities—such as fiscal management and fund raising—remains mysterious to faculty members. In extreme cases, they can perceive those responsibilities as counter to the mission of the college, so much so that curriculum development remains separate from strategic planning.

The recent influx of college and university leaders from outside academe is, in part, the result of a faculty culture that, at best, eschews administration and, at worst, denigrates those who aspire to executive leadership. Institutional structures often reinforce those attitudes. Faculty members who have the personality, acumen, and drive to lead are seldom, if ever, exposed to issues at the strategic level, leaving them largely unprepared for campus leadership when the opportunity presents itself.

Faculty members must accept that change is the norm. Higher education is going through significant changes at a fast pace. Some faculty members simply do not comprehend how challenging the times are. Governing boards may grasp that better, but they have difficulty understanding the decision-making culture of academe.

The question is: Can faculty members lead in this context of rapid change? The times demand a different sort of academic leader, one adept at strategy. Colleges and universities need leaders who can assess conditions on the ground, anticipate how trends will affect those conditions, persuade people to buy in to difficult decisions that will make others unhappy, and then execute those decisions and be held accountable for them.

Today's leader must be idealistic in terms of values and aspirations but pragmatic in terms of decision-making and execution. And whether faculty members like it or not, the modern leader must make decisions that are rational in regard to the long-term fiscal health of the institution—a leader must help the campus make choices about what it can and cannot afford. Strategic investments are crucial, and opportunities come and go quickly.

Today's institutional leaders must also create faculty structures that value dialogue, inclusive decision-making, autonomy, and collegiality. Faculty members tend to focus on first principles and philosophical positions as the basis for advocating a particular decision or direction. Presidents, provosts, and deans, however, are necessarily more Aristotelian in their approach: They work from the data on the ground. They focus on the very real limits on budgets, politics, and other factors. They build strategies based on those realities.

Every professor has the intellectual capacity to understand and embrace the elements of modern leadership necessary to guide institutions in today's higher-education marketplace. Certainly, sufficient numbers of faculty members aspire to leadership; national organizations and some institutions conduct training programs for future leaders that draw plenty of participants. Most traditional colleges and universities ascribe to a process of shared governance that provides opportunities for faculty to become knowledgeable about the challenges and opportunities facing academe.

In short, the knowledge is available, the environment promotes exchanging it, and those who might receive it have the intellectual capacity to embrace, interpret, and use it. So, assuming that faculty members can learn the essential elements necessary for leadership, the larger question is: Will they?

A quick glance through the comments that follow articles about administration on The Chronicle's Web site reveal the vitriol routinely directed at administrative leadership. Even traditional leaders—people who started out as faculty members and colleagues—are vilified for the very act of attempting to lead. Mentors regularly advise graduate students to avoid administrative responsibility. Even the service aspect of the tenure-and-promotion process is often derided in these pages. Peers regularly assume that those talented scholars who move into administration have given up on their intellectual aspirations.

It is not remotely unusual, during the early stage of a search process, to hear a faculty member say, "Why do we even need a dean/provost/president?"

Unfortunately, faculty members too often believe that thinking strategically is the opposite of shared governance. They deride strategic planning and instead think of higher education as a "build it and they will come" culture. That misperception is symptomatic of both the disconnect between budgets and decision-making and the polarization of the campus. People do their own thing with no coordination toward a common objective.

Yet a big part of any leader's job is to get everyone moving in one direction, to be mission-centered and say no to mission creep, to understand fiscal realities, and to think strategically—that is, to ask what comes first, what comes next, why, and what will happen as a result. Faculty members develop those skills as they build their own research programs, but they often reject the use of those skills at the institutional level.

The upshot of this culture: Faculty members want leadership that emerges from their ranks, yet they don't encourage (and often actively discourage) peers and charges to develop the skills, knowledge, and desire to lead. If there are no people at this intersection, institutional boards in particular will seek leadership solutions elsewhere.

Thus, while professors love to think that trustees want nontraditional candidates only because they want colleges and universities run "like a business," the fact of the matter is that boards look seriously at nontraditional candidates because they exhibit the qualities of effective leadership. And boards have trouble finding those qualities in a shrinking pool of traditional candidates who come from the faculty. "Scholar-leaders" with the necessary knowledge, ability, and mind-set to think strategically and act boldly are becoming increasingly rare.

Can this culture be changed? We believe it can, but it will take intentional action on the part of the faculty and those in administration. Structures need to be developed that provide professors with meaningful opportunities to learn vision-setting, strategic planning, and budgeting at the departmental level. But it will also take a change on the part of faculty. We need a breed of professors who will not nurture antipathy toward leadership. Maybe the immediacy of the leadership dilemma will galvanize faculties and administrations alike to re-examine their prejudices.

Then again, maybe this culture is too entrenched, and higher education will have to continue looking beyond the traditional faculty for its leaders.

Either way, one thing is clear: Faculty members can lead. Everything they need is available to them. The future of leadership in the academy, then, turns on that latter question: Will they?

Dennis M. Barden is senior vice president at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm based in Chicago. Janel Curry is provost at Gordon College, in Massachusetts.