Our Leader Left. Who’s Left to Lead?

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 22, 2015

This is a challenging time for higher education. Securing funds for operations continues to be daunting. Public universities are continually reminded that there is little appetite among state legislatures for increased budgets. There are frequent alarms about the pace of tuition increases. Campus leaders are confronted by increasing competition from many directions. Demographic trends foreshadow a shrinking pool of applicants. And dire predictions about the impending technological disruption to the conventional educational model suggest that the university, as we know it, is about to go the way of the dinosaur.

These circumstances represent a considerable threat to higher education. The greatest danger, however, comes not from one or a combination of them. It lies in the fact that higher education has a long and inglorious track record when it comes to identifying, developing, and selecting leaders — and without strong, capable leadership, a university can hardly navigate the turbulent waters ahead. Leadership may have mattered less in a more munificent, less competitive, slower-to-change environment, but that no longer describes the situation.

An example of the challenge of leadership played out here in Atlanta during the 2013-14 academic year. By coincidence, the four major business schools in the area — at Georgia State, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Emory — were searching for new deans. At GSU, Tech, and Emory, internal candidates were told they should "save face" and withdraw because internal candidates would not be considered. Essentially, the message sent by each campus was that "our leader has left, and there is no one left who can lead."

Imagine the outcry if, upon a CEO’s departure from a public company, word was sent to shareholders that not a soul had been developed who could step in and keep the business from missing a beat. How would the market greet such an announcement? What would be said about the performance of the departing CEO, other senior executives, and the board in terms of developing a sufficiently deep bench of leadership talent? How could anyone argue that the company had been effective in protecting the rights of stakeholders?

What is foreboding and sad is how little consternation this situation causes in higher education. Our industry has been so undisciplined about leadership succession that an advertised dearth of qualified candidates offers us no jolt at all.

In the end, Georgia Tech felt better about Emory’s number two than Emory did and offered her the chance to become the dean. She accepted. Emory’s search firm found it a dean, someone the firm had been promoting across the Southeast. At Georgia State, there was only a little faculty angst when negotiations with the finalist fell through. That left the provost the choice of labeling the search a failure or courting an internal candidate who previously had been told he need not apply. The provost chose the latter.

There are certainly circumstances in which an external candidate — in spite of the greater risk associated with her hire — makes sense. For example, an individual may have demonstrated success overcoming just the sort of obstacles a college anticipates. Or politics may have tainted the internal candidates. Perhaps the ship has been sinking for so long that qualified individuals have already left for better opportunities. Or the degree of change required is so significant that it is hard to imagine anyone connected with the status quo being positioned to break with the past and pursue what has to come next.

It is also true that some biases favor external candidates. For example, because they are lesser known on the campus, they appear less blemished. It’s also logical that search firms may be biased in favor of external candidates because, after all, if the search required looking no farther than down the hall, it would be difficult to justify the fee.

But with all that said, when a search committee is either told or determines independently that no internal candidates are qualified, then the recognition of a leadership crisis is inevitable. As an industry, we too often fail at the task of developing leaders, and we nearly always fail at — because we simply ignore — succession planning. Those are two practices that every other industry has recognized are crucial to organizational survival.

The dearth of a leadership pipeline begins innocently enough. Sometimes administrative positions end up as assignments given to faculty members who aren’t able to contribute toward teaching or research. Unfortunately, service becomes a way to extract some value from what was essentially a bad hire. This hardly paints a picture of a pool from which you would want to find leadership talent.

Another reason that better leadership development has not been a high priority may be that faculty members don’t necessarily want better leaders. They look to leaders to provide resources that support their individual efforts in research and in the classroom. If faculty members don’t value leaders for their ability to inspire, lead change, and encourage everyone in an organization toward a common vision, then potential leaders who demonstrate those traits will not be identified.

To survive in an increasingly uncertain future, our profession has to change not just what it thinks about leadership and succession but also how it develops talent. The absence of suitable internal candidates for administrative positions in any academic department is a symptom of governance gone bad. Where there isn’t a clear path on which a succession will proceed, those responsible for governance — including the faculty — have failed.

Nathan Bennett is associate dean for faculty and research in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.