Without doubt, university leaders must have strong leadership skills to guide their institutions through crises related to shrinking enrollments, racial bias and discrimination, sexual harassment, financial solvency, admissions issues, and other serious challenges. Yet little has been written about the need for leadership skills among faculty and academic staff members. Strong faculty and academic staff leadership is essential, however, for institutions to truly thrive in the current higher education landscape. Faculty and staff members are, indeed, change agents in higher education.
Supporting leadership skills training for faculty and academic staff provides many benefits. For instance, it:
Increases "bench strength." Academe especially needs a pool of talent that is ready or nearly ready to take on new positions because of recent trends toward shorter periods of tenure for administrative leaders. Building effective teams of leaders -- rather than just one successor -- from which to choose skilled replacements is a prudent approach. That approach is not just relevant for administrative positions, for which many existing academic leadership programs provide preparation, but also for leaders of faculty governing bodies, task forces or committees, as well as for instructors and academic advisers. Those are the individuals who often exert their influence through the work they do with others to achieve common goals that are aligned with the institution’s mission. Without effective leadership of such efforts, sustained forward movement is not possible.
Empowers faculty and staff members to take charge of their development. Most faculty and academic staff members who begin their careers at a university focus on what they were trained to do: e.g., research, teaching, scholarly and creative activities, advising, and student or career services. Only now are some graduate schools providing professional development training that includes leadership and other skills development, and it will be some time before current students exert their leadership as academic professionals.
In our experience, faculty and staff members desire professional development yet lack access to financial resources to pay for external leadership institutes or to dedicated personnel who can create local development opportunities. But we have found that providing and supporting leadership skills training on a campus lets people know that such skills are valued for everyone, not just an anointed few.
Enhances diversity and inclusion of faculty and staff from underrepresented groups. The lack of diversity in the faculty, especially at the rank of professor, and in university administration has arisen in part because women and people of color are not appreciated for their leadership skills. When an institution provides leadership training for all faculty members and staff, not just people in formal leadership roles where diversity is at its lowest, it sends a more inclusive message about who is valued as contributing to the life of the university.
Heightens awareness of effective mentors and role models. When an institution values the development of leadership skills among various faculty and staff members, it makes way for the development of other people as well. Leadership expands networks, which benefits not just the leader but others with whom that person comes in contact. Positive leadership contagion is necessary for institutions that wish to scale up their leadership and for people who are more junior in their roles or new to the institution. Whether it takes the form of seeing more role models or mentors from a distance or connecting with them personally, it encourages everyone to grow and develop.
Given such benefits, we offer three suggestions to create a culture of leadership in colleges and universities.
In-house leadership training. While not intended to replace the need for external leadership institutes like Higher Education Resource Services and the American Council on Education, in-house programs can provide excellent development opportunities, a national perspective and a wide peer-mentoring network. Instituting a local leadership training program makes skills development more accessible and inclusive for those who may not be able to afford the costs of external training.
At our institution, Wayne State University, our Academic Leadership Academy is designed to enable faculty and staff members to broaden and diversify their networks within the university, thereby increasing communication and collaboration so they can be more effective leaders in their current and future roles. We have also found that offering this program has led to a greater demand for leadership training among academic staff, some of whom once viewed “professional development” as a code word for the “remediation” of lagging performance.
Mentoring and information. Junior faculty at Wayne State are paired with senior colleagues who can guide them through the tenure and promotion process. Only recently, however, has the institution focused on the needs of midcareer and senior personnel, such as associate and full professors and other staff with more than 10 years of service, some of whom may be considering new leadership paths. Offering information about leadership trajectories through mentoring, panels or informal coffee hours can make more transparent the preparation or experience required for formal and informal leadership roles. Personal invitations from senior colleagues can also signal to the recipients that others see their leadership potential, increasing their confidence in their own skills.
Faculty and staff recognition. Most institutions recognize faculty and academic staff members for their contributions to research, teaching and service. We argue that those same recognition processes can be used to promote leadership, either with small revisions to award descriptions and rubrics or with new processes. Financial awards are attractive and up the ante, but recognition need not be restricted to monetary incentives. A university can use in-house publications, social media blasts and other communications platforms to recognize faculty and staff leadership and enhance awareness across the campus about the extent to which leadership is valued.
Institutions can also use new methods to create programs that provide recognition, training and mentoring. For example, our new podcast, EmpowerED to Lead, recognizes academic leaders who empower others with their wisdom and advice, as well as provides informal training to the campus community.
To be sure, some people may argue that leadership skills development is not necessary for scholars, advisers and other academic staff: “We’ve never done it before, and we survived. Why should we start now?” But we are already seeing the fruits of investing in new programs and conversations around leadership. The initial cohort of fellows in our Academic Leadership Academy includes 26 faculty and academic staff members who are leading novel and impactful leadership projects to advance student development, staff and faculty success, and community and global engagement. We are also hearing a heightened sense of optimism from a more diverse group of people in different roles than ever before.
These early indications provide more evidence that we must support leadership among all ranks for a thriving university workforce. The ultimate benefit is that institutions will be better prepared for the challenges of 21st-century higher education.