How Colleges Prepare (or Don’t Prepare) Their Leaders Is Holding Back Innovation

August 09, 2016

The resignation of Temple University’s president, Neil D. Theobald, last month is a story that is becoming all too common in higher education: A new leader takes over with much fanfare, only to be ousted within a few years (in Theobald’s case, just three years).

At a time when higher education is under tremendous pressure to reinvent its financial model and remake its curriculum for a digital age and a diverse student body, who will — and perhaps more important, who can — run colleges and universities for this new era is a question increasingly being asked by trustees, faculty members, and policy makers.

Sure, new ideas to transform teaching, financial aid, and student services often bubble up from experiments in the trenches. But presidents encourage innovation by setting the tone, crafting the narrative for internal and external constituencies, and finding the money to expand boutique projects.

The average tenure of a college president has dropped slightly in the last decade — from 8.5 years to seven years, according to the American Council on Education. Unfortunately, turnover at the top often stunts the growth of innovation across a campus.

Presidential searches sometimes take six months or longer; once new presidents finally arrive, they go on "listening tours" for their first year; and then they embark on an extensive strategic-planning process in which previous priorities are shelved in favor of new ones. By then, it’s two years after the predecessor left, and probably much of the senior leadership has also changed.

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What makes those transitions even more difficult in an era of rapid change is that finding qualified candidates for college and university presidencies, as well as for senior-leadership roles, is becoming more difficult.

Over the past three years, I have led a program to find the next generation of higher-education leaders under the direction of the presidents of Arizona State University and Georgetown University. Nearly 90 midcareer administrators have completed the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, which combines the latest research on teaching, student success, and finance with the principles of "design thinking" and leadership training.

In working with those administrators, from a range of public and private colleges, the faculty and I have learned eight lessons about why it is so problematic to find the next generation of leaders, and by extension, why innovation so often gets stuck on campuses.

1. Teaching and research are perceived as more valuable than administration. Faculty leaders find it challenging to leave their colleagues, teaching, and research to lead change and innovation that aren’t always understood or appreciated by traditional academics as necessary to the institution’s future. Stepping up can actually feel like a step back, especially if future faculty status is threatened by the diversion to leadership.

2. There’s a steep learning curve. Professors and staff members exchange knowing looks when a new dean or provost steps into the role. They know it will take a year or two before the new official has learned enough about leading people and processes in a complex system to be useful in daily management and decision making.

And not every academic-turned-leader makes the transition successfully. Academics who step into such posts must learn the difference between generating knowledge and managing the challenges of an organizational-leadership role that requires people skills, systems thinking, and vision. They must make the shift from focusing on their own teaching and scholarship to bringing about results through others.

3. Many leaders are short-termers. Turnover in leadership results in a disruption in the concerted, committed effort needed to bring about lasting change and innovation. The agendas of presidents last only as long as they are in the role. The long-term nature of college and university culture leads to a passive approach as well. "Waiting out" the term of a poor president, provost, or dean is a common way to resist change and tolerate the high turnover of key positions. That mentality breeds complacency and a sense of resignation in the institutional culture.

4. Administrators lack a big-picture view. The diversity and complexity of challenges facing higher education today require leaders to look outside of their institutions for new solutions and innovations, yet most are "heads down" inside their institutions, keeping up with daily demands. Even when they look up and grasp a bigger picture, a glimpse at the context can be more daunting than clarifying.

5. Professors don’t understand how decisions are made. Academics are not trained in how to build the necessary networks and relationships that enable them to get things done. They are unclear on how board decisions are made and the importance of cultivating good relationships with board members and other stakeholders.

I often hear basic questions about how a provost works with a president, and how the triangle of president, chief financial officer, and provost operate together to achieve goals. In short, many professors don’t know how things get done and are ill prepared when assuming senior-level positions.

6. Academics aren’t trained to look inward. Research shows that emotional intelligence is a key determinant of leadership success, yet while an academic career requires intense scrutiny of intellect, it calls for little self-reflection.

Faculty members in leadership roles do not make the connection between their self-awareness and their ability to inspire and bring about results through others. They have little understanding of the impact of their style on others. They put a higher priority on solving problems, making decisions, and completing tasks than on reflecting, building relationships, and developing leadership, unwittingly sabotaging their own effectiveness.

7. Scholars are averse to risk. Leadership requires courageous decision making, holding a clear, principled position in the face of controversy, and a willingness to express a bold vision for the future. With a habit of research and analysis, many academics are uncomfortable navigating the ambiguity of institutional decision making, preferring to stay with known approaches rather than move the organization forward without guarantees of success.

8. Career options are often poorly explained. We hear from many leaders who go through our program about their frustrations in learning about new career opportunities. Many academics have little insight into opportunities on their campuses or elsewhere, and are not sure of how to work with headhunters. There is relatively little mentoring, coaching, or overt succession planning that would allow for the cultivation of the next generation of leaders.

The result? Talented leaders feel uncertain about options and unclear about their qualifications and how to explore new opportunities.

With the average college president nearing his mid-60s, a wave of retirements is expected in the coming years. The people who fill those top jobs are critical to the success of innovative ideas across campuses and throughout higher education. The biggest hurdle to change in higher education is not a lack of money, shared governance, a reluctant faculty, or tradition. It’s leadership, and right now, the likely successors to this generation of presidents are not prepared for the top job.

Jeffrey J. Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle, is a writer and professor of practice/special adviser at Arizona State University and a visiting scholar at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for 21st Century Universities.

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