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Essay on leadership in higher education

New Kinds of Leadership
August 8, 2012
Austerity is now the norm for higher education. Even esteemed ivory institutions are making cuts. States like California have transformed their higher education systems through draconian budget cuts. Small, marginal colleges are laying off staff and closing departments. We are clearly facing many challenges, fiscal as well as existential. Most institutions are like Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz: they have been picked up by uncontrollable forces, are flying through the air and know not where they will land.
 
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing in May, reminds us of the huge paradigm shift we are currently witnessing in American business: "[W]e are leaving an era of some 50 years' duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we're entering an era -- no one knows for how long -- in which to be  a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take away things from people."
 
How can a college president, provost or dean truly lead in an era such as ours when old methods and styles don't seem to work? I would suggest that for today's educational leaders, the requirement is to develop a completely new model of leadership, one that borrows from the tech industry. In his piece, Friedman quotes Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, that today's leaders must "think of yourself not as a designer but a gardener..."  He is, of course, referring to corporate leaders, but his advice applies equally to university leaders. 
 
Higher education is and has always been filled with visionary leaders. Everyone who has ever applied for the position of dean or higher has been asked to describe their vision. Strong-willed personalities have been prized and rewarded. Decisive, gut-level decision making has been the norm. But, might  this new era of higher education (one with limited resources and a wary public, low morale and a Fordist speed-up) require a new style of university leadership?
 
Our challenges are many, but just maybe our challenges provide opportunities if we are smart enough to see them and nimble enough to seize them.  Clearly, some institutions are plotting right now about how to move forward. But most are simply petrified by fear or stagnant because of tradition and will not be able to decisively move. They are like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, refusing to see reality and hoping the danger will soon pass. 
 
We have been reading for some time about how technology is challenging higher education. Journalist Anya Kamenetz (author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education) and others have questioned the core value of traditional higher education. Kamenetz argues, along with folks such as Jim Groom, that large-scale MOOCS (massive open online courses) and places such as the University of the People offer a new delivery model for education that is in essence sans university. A person can take courses from a smorgasbord of places, piecing together an education. Some have even suggested that eventually so-called badges will replace credits. These efforts are clearly redefining place-bound higher education institutions. Large, rich, and well-respected universities, such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, have launched into this world with abandon, offering free courses to anyone who wants them. This only increases their reputation and seems to make their degrees more attractive. One could say, therefore, this effort is terrific marketing. But what about the smaller, less-wealthy places? They may have good regional reputations, but aspire higher. Are there opportunities for them? I think so, for the nimble amongst them.
 
Today's university is in fact up for grabs. And maybe this is a good thing. Mark Taylor questions the use of departments and disciplines. Andrew Hacker questions the value of tenure. Ellen Schrecker reminds us we have lost our soul; Andrew DelBanco tries hard to remind us of our values; Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tell us we are "academically adrift" and Professor X (In the Basement of the Ivory Tower) points to the hidden and faceless contingent faculty who do the bulk of the teaching. Clearly, one central, strong leader is not going to change this landscape for any college or university. We can't and shouldn't be "waiting for super(wo)man."
 
In his Times piece, Friedman suggests that the new model of corporate America, as witnessed by the rising tech giants, is a leadership style that is based on gardening rather than a warrior ethos. I want to suggest that maybe this style is also what higher education needs and, in fact, one could already point to some gardeners in our midst. 
 
Gardeners must know when and what to plant, but they do not control growth. They need to guard against the wind, sun, and lack of water among other forces. They also must know what can grow in their soil and what is their growing cycle, as every plot of land is slightly different from another. Just like a college, no two are alike. College leaders must prune the dying parts to allow the young, growing buds to thrive. They must graft thriving parts onto sick parts to revive them -- but they must also be careful not to kill both in the process. They must also know when to harvest, as well as when to let things grow. Harvesting something too soon, might ultimately kill it.
 
For many of us, the high-tech companies look a lot like campuses: they have a strongly identified personality leading them and loosely affiliated divisions that appear too often be autonomous. But if you look more closely at the high-tech model, you can see the gardening.These companies allow crops to grow, but they watch them carefully, guarding against one overrunning another.They know how and when to pull the plug on a project, or, if successful, when to turbo-charge it, moving it more to the center. 
 
It seems to me the real power of this new (really not so new) leadership style is to let everyone be a gardener. Letting more sectors of the college experiment (within reason) makes us more nimble and flexible as well as able to recognize unimagined possibilities. Collectively the parts of a college are, after all, smarter than the central administration. Encouraging risk, rewarding success, and reallocating resources accordingly will empower constituent groups to become responsible partners in our communities.
 
So the garden metaphor that best applies to higher education is that of the community garden: democratic, shared, expressing unique and local values and engendering deep loyalties, our campus gardens are ready for all of us to pick up the shovel. As we are in the midst of the quiet of the summer, immersed in research, vacations or redesigning our classes, now is the time to think hard about where you will dig, what you will plant and where will you stand to improve your institution right hear and right now. We already have the seeds, so let's start planting. Who knows what might grow right under your feet.
 
 

Bio

Richard A. Greenwald, professor of history and sociology, is dean of St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, NY. His most recent book, is the co-edited Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New Press).

 

 

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