Staying on Course via a Course Correction

In a hypothetical case study, Barbara McFadden Allen, Robin Kaler and Ruth Watkins give advice to leaders who have to reconsider the directions in which they are heading.

September 22, 2016
 
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Chancellor Mary Ann Pipes could see precisely what her new institution needed to do to ensure a vibrant future. She had recently been recruited to a chancellor position, a role she had worked long and hard to achieve. Her significant experience and the higher education context -- both in research and in student recruitment -- suggested to her that, although the institution she joined had a storied past, it must make some significant changes to maintain a high profile in the future.

Pipes’s vision for the institution included significant structural reorganization, dividing a large, unwieldy arts and science college into three more focused units (science, social and behavioral science, humanities), and, in the process, realigning several departments to create a new college focused on environment and sustainability. She was eager to enact these changes as swiftly as possible, particularly given that the regents agreed with her vision. Indeed, they had selected her at least in part because of it, and they asked her for status reports on the reorganization at each executive committee meeting.

Pipes and her colleague Provost Ben Johnson had set about the change process in a data-informed manner. Armed with facts about declining enrollment and a loss of external funding, as well as efficiency metrics, the chancellor and provost set up a series of discussion sessions and campuswide town hall meetings to present their plan.

Yet despite compelling data and reassuring messages, they encountered surprising levels of resistance. Many faculty members remained skeptical about whether the resources existed to adequately support a new college. A group of faculty organized parallel sessions, drawing on their own data to illustrate that the best institutions in the country maintained a large liberal arts and sciences college, and that other universities that had implemented similar reorganizations had not realized the positive outcomes that Pipes anticipated.

As arguments against reorganization strengthened, Pipes became even more determined to expedite change and implement the plans she had formulated when she earned the chancellor position. At the Faculty Senate meeting, however, a public standoff ended with a vote on the creation of the new college being tabled. After the meeting, Pipes received calls from several regents, wondering what was wrong with the faculty and why she couldn’t just “get it done!” Even as her frustration grew, however, Pipes remained certain of her vision.

Can Pipes succeed in her leadership role?

Yes, if she is able to pivot from her vision, genuinely listen to concerns and honestly re-evaluate what is most essential for the long-term success of the institution. That may mean slowing down or even reconsidering whether it’s the right time for all of what she hoped to do. In re-evaluating the situation, Pipes may find it expedient to stay the course on some aspects of the change, while modifying others. She may find that building a coalition of support for part of the plan is better than a stalemate on the effort as a whole.

The best leaders recognize that what they think is less vital than what other members of the university community -- namely the faculty members and other campus leaders who are instrumental to enact any vision -- think. Leadership is not only about building and shaping a vision but also recognizing when it is time to modify course from good ideas that might be ahead of their time. As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Of course, Pipes will have to educate the regents about shared governance and help them understand and appreciate how, while it might slow the initiative, it is still the surest path toward long-term success. By focusing on the foundational steps that must happen to build trust and ownership, Pipes can offer the regents regular progress while respecting the university’s culture.

No, if Pipes single-mindedly persists in her vision, without consideration of other perspectives and alternate strategies. She risks a deepening divide among campus leadership, regents and faculty, and she imperils the very positive impacts she sought to achieve. It may well be that Pipes’s ideas about reorganization have significant merit, but that merit will not be realized for a very long time on the current trajectory.

In a nutshell, good leaders work to build a vision through collaboration. It is, of course, important to know when to stand firm, and equally important to know what deserves that firm stance. Embracing shared governance -- and the various perspectives it provides -- can identify paths and solutions that otherwise are overlooked. Equally important, it can provide a barometer for when it’s time to reframe, regroup or even rethink an approach.

Bio

Barbara McFadden Allen is executive director of the Big Ten Academic Alliance. Robin Kaler is associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ruth Watkins is senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah.

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