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What makes an academic leader?
February 10, 2013 - 8:11pm

In comparison with business and political leaders, leaders in academia appear different (and I use mostly the Swedish/European case as example for my ideas). At least in Swedish universities, academic leadership is collegial and limited in time.

Collegial leadership means that the administrative responsibilities are taken over by one member of the faculty at a time, who becomes a sort of “primus inter pares”. This has consequences for the job criteria: not only must the proposed leader demonstrate managerial capacities (flexible, adaptable, strategic and most of all effective), but she or he must also be a resourceful scholar with a good publication record and deserving academic performance. One obvious problem is that there is no transfer of merits between research and administration. A very good researcher does not automatically make a good academic leader. But since the principle of collegiality must be enforced, the academic performance criterion must be always included, despite its probable lack of relevance, for the sake of legitimacy in the eyes of the other members of the faculty.

The second feature that is particular to the academic leadership is its time-restricted mandate. None of the positions in the administrative hierarchy is permanent; after usually two mandates, the chair/dean/president returns to her/his original position as university teacher. This poses a challenge typical for all limited positions, namely the difficulty of formulating and implementing long-term goals and far reaching transformations.

Moreover, in combination with the collegial idea, the fact that the administrative mandate is time-limited makes highly unlikely the inclination for dealing with deep-seated problems within the institution as well as long-term change. No one would like to take some unpopular decisions during one’s administrative mandate knowing that someday, sooner or later, they will return and be depending on coworkers’ support and collegiality.

A final component of the academic leadership conundrum is the normative component of the academic culture. Traditionally, a “good academic” is a person whose merits fall primarily in the scientific/research areas. Innovative research resulting in new knowledge is the apogee of academic achievement. Taking on an administrative duty means reducing the time left for research; thus administration and leadership are valued not as high as scientific achievements. Because of the necessity of collegial leadership most Swedish academics accept the leadership role, but often their perception of it is that of a “necessary evil”. They see themselves primarily as scholars who temporarily fulfill an administrative role, as persons who have a leadership position, but who are not academic leaders (Rowley & Sherman, 2003).

So, what is your opinion? Who makes a good academic leader? Is it better to be led by “one of us”, who takes by rotation the steering wheel of the institution or better to have a professional manager? Does it make a difference if we think about the chair of a department or the dean of a faculty? And what are the reasons that motivate you to seek positions of academic leadership.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.



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