Leading change for changing leaders

Dan Greenstein

The subject of leadership has long been a fascination of mine, both as an historian and as a veteran of several executive roles in the non profit and higher education spaces. I am especially interested in the question of what it takes to be a successful institutional leader in the current environment, particularly in light of a new report from Deloitte and Georgia Tech that shows a quickly changing path to the president’s office.

While I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers when it comes to leading innovation and change on today’s campuses, the recent conversations I’ve had with leaders from all corners of higher ed yielded a few observations that are worth considering:

The higher education leadership bench is neither deep enough nor diverse enoughThe American Council on Education’s American College President Study provides a sobering illustration of this point. In 2012, more than eight in 10 presidents were white, and the average age was 60. If these trends hold (a new edition of the survey is due out soon), then we are indeed heading for a crisis of leadership in our enterprise. While programs like the ACE Fellows Program and AASCU’s Millennium Leadership Initiative are making strides to strengthen and diversify the leadership pipeline, more must be done. And we are not seeking to diversify the pipeline for its own sake, but to reflect the real and lasting changes on our campuses and to help ignite the career aspirations of an increasingly diverse student population.

In terms of strengthening the pipeline, there also needs to be greater focus on the essential competencies for today’s campus CEO. This includes things like a deep understanding of today’s students and their needs, the ability to translate data into action, and strategies for maximizing the time available to focus on internally facing issues.

Calculated risk-taking is important but too often is not rewarded or even encouraged. College and university leaders today face a challenging combination of financial, political, and reputational pressures, and so it is not surprising that caution and conservatism usually prevail in approaching sensitive or high risk/high reward situations. But as my colleague Patricia McGuire rightly argues, we find ourselves in a period of tremendous economic and social change, and silence and self-absorption on higher education’s part will only lead to further questioning of its relevance.

Consistency and persistence matter. Too often, when we read stories of high performing or high promise institutions like Georgia State University or Sinclair Community College, we fall into the trap of thinking that change came quickly and easily. But when you talk to their leaders, one of the first things they will tell you is that their change efforts required focused and sustained effort, as well as a healthy dose of trial and error. This can be difficult amid frequent turnover in campus leaders and policymakers, making it especially important to vest responsibility for and ownership of change within and throughout the campus community.

Value conversations about higher education need to be a dialogue, not a soliloquy. The latest Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents found that only 12 percent of campus leaders feel that the public has an accurate view of the purpose of higher education. The danger in a finding like this is that the reaction of many in the higher ed community will be to mount campaigns to explain the value proposition to an increasingly skeptical public. The first step is to listen; why are people questioning our value – and values? Where can we find common ground?

All of this is easier said than done, and leadership alone will not dramatically improve student success rates or close attainment gaps. But effective and courageous leadership is an essential element of the change equation, and understanding what is required of leaders in a time of change and uncertainty is time well invested.