In Impossible Times, Which Academic Leaders Are Shining?

It’s a near-impossible time to be a leader in academia, but some administrators are finding inspiration in the current environment and encouraging their institutions to boldly move ahead. In the interview below, Zachary A. Smith, Ph.D. – leader of WittKieffer’s Education Practice – shares insights regarding:

  • how success is defined
  • which leaders are standing out against all odds;
  • how COVID-19 will spark innovation in higher education;
  • what new leadership roles are cropping up;
  • how Gen X leaders may be poised to lead change.

There’s much happening in higher education right now as schools look to open this fall, and as the issues of student diversity, equity and opportunity are front and center. Is this changing the leadership landscape?

Smith: Definitely. It is changing how success will be defined for today’s leaders. Those leaders who are successful will be those who truly advance issues like fairness, equity and opportunity and can show measurable change on their campuses. We are seeing this reflected in the leadership searches we are conducting, as search committees and campus constituents expect candidates to have incredible depth, empathy, cultural awareness and a proven track record of promoting diversity and inclusion in their work. And of course, success will be defined by whether or not schools are able to open back up safely and effectively – and stay open amid the uncertainty around COVID. There is a lot riding on every decision.

A high-profile article in the Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that higher education leaders are failing as they seek to address COVID-19. Do you agree?

Smith: Rather than look back at what institutions should have done to better to prepare, I think we should be focusing on what leaders can and should do in the future. This is a once-in-a-generation crisis for which nobody was fully prepared. I believe some leaders were well positioned and better prepared to manage the crisis better than others. We are seeing firsthand the importance of skills like crisis management, effective communications, decision-making (with less than perfect information), courage to make difficult but necessary decisions, and good judgment. In many cases, leaders are chosen for their academic pedigree and strong research and teaching records rather than their leadership skills. Understanding the academic enterprise will always be an important consideration when selecting academic leaders. However, many talented leaders are often overlooked because the academic constituency nearly always demands candidates with a CV worthy of tenure rather than a CV that demonstrates strong leadership skills and ability.

Next generation leaders need to have a deeper understanding of the business model of higher education institutions, and an ability to assess the changing market, develop innovative solutions, and implement an efficient response. Curricular change is something that has been talked about for years, but most institutions do not have the courage or stomach for going through the process. Faculty and students transitioned to online and distance education in a matter of weeks. Under normal conditions, the change that took place in March would have taken years, not weeks. We know change is possible, but everyone needs to start rowing in the same direction – like we saw in March.

Do you see leaders who are struggling to lead during the crisis? What challenges are they having?

Smith: I think the current crisis has allowed some people to shine more than others. Some leaders were not built to manage during difficult times. I think we’ve seen this dynamic exposed in numerous contexts, not just in higher education. Information changes daily and oftentimes decisions must be made with incomplete data. Leaders who lack the courage to make tough decisions with ambiguous information are struggling during the current crisis.

The sheer number of decisions that higher education leaders have had to make is enormous. This can lead to decision fatigue. Once decision fatigue sets in, leadership effectiveness declines. Furthermore, most academic leaders are conditioned to lead by consensus. The shared governance culture requires a consensus-driven approach to leadership on many campuses. Under normal conditions, this is an effective way for the best thinking to emerge on complex issues, and to ensure campus constituents have a voice in the decision-making process. However, crises like the current pandemic require a more nimble and efficient decision-making process, often at the expense of gathering feedback and input from stakeholders.

Which leaders are excelling today and handling the pressure of the moment? What characteristics define them?

Smith: Leaders must put aside their own anxieties and fears and focus on making decisions that benefit the greater good of the organization. It takes courage to make directional decisions in times of uncertainty. Courage, judgment and projecting a sense of calm under pressure separate average leaders from great ones during a crisis. Identifying what information is or is not important is also a critical skill to move the organization forward. Finally, leaders who communicate frequently, directly and clearly help to alleviate the anxiety felt by their employees. Employees would rather hear bad news than no news. Strong leaders effectively communicate difficult news while displaying confidence about the future.

Do you think that COVID-19 could spark innovation in higher education? What are some of the possibilities?

Smith: I do. To make a very simple analogy, I think about how the pandemic has changed the lives of my children, who are 11 and eight years old. They have had to adapt overnight to a new learning environment. They have become competent with technology in a matter of weeks that would have normally taken years. They have learned new life skills and how to manage their day more independently. They have become more creative with their time.

Likewise, higher education institutions have also had to adapt overnight and become more creative. As I mentioned previously, we have seen that they can indeed make decisions and implement changes quickly. Decisions that would have normally taken years in a pre-COVID environment are happening in a matter of days and weeks. Unfortunately, it took a pandemic for this to happen, but I do believe it will spark faster and more meaningful innovation. I’m hopeful that things that were taken for granted in the past will not be taken for granted in the future. I’m hopeful that resources will be more directly allocated toward strategic objectives. Institutions cannot be all things to all people. The possibilities for change and innovation are endless.

Are new leadership roles cropping up, or are traditional roles taking on added responsibility?

Smith: I do think we will see some new leadership roles emerge. In light of the race-related protests and calls for change that we are witnessing in society (and will see on campuses this fall), chief diversity officer and other positions related to diversity, equity and inclusion will be rightfully prioritized. The growing national response to racial injustice combined with the ongoing pandemic has raised a number of critical social issues that institutions must confront. In fact, my WittKieffer colleagues and I are seeing many institutions incorporate more direct questions on race and social injustice during interviews and open forums across all leadership roles in higher education.

In addition, online and distance education is an obvious area that will grow. While some institutions have been very effective at providing online education opportunities, others have not. As I heard one student say, if higher education courses will be more prevalent through online modalities, why should students pay high tuition costs when they can learn what they need to learn through YouTube videos? This simplifies the issue, of course, but it’s also true that information is accessible to everyone. The bigger question is, what is the value of the campus experience, and how do institutions ensure they are delivering it in a way that resonates with today’s students? And if that campus experiences is once again interrupted, how can institutions infuse their remote or virtual community with more components of campus life, so that students feel they are still benefitting from being a part of the institutional community?

Public health is another area where we may see more activity at the leadership level. This spans across every dimension of campus, from new academic programs in public health to chief campus health officers.

As the current pandemic plays out, what trends do you foresee in leadership talent? Do you expect to see a wave of retirements, or a wave of individuals who are rededicating themselves to their careers?

Smith: Like everything related to the pandemic, it’s hard to predict. I can say with confidence, however, that strong leadership has never been more important. The impacts of today’s decisions will be felt for years to come. In five years, we will look back at decisions that were made, scrutinize them intently and dissect why some institutions prospered and others found themselves in the university graveyard. Strong leaders will emerge, but we may not realize the full extent of their leadership impact until the dust settles many years down the road.

Regarding trends, we’ve already seen a number of university presidents and cabinet-level leaders postpone their retirements due to the pandemic. My hunch is that many people in leadership positions who had planned to retire in the near future will continue to delay out of a sense of service. We are also already seeing a new crop of recently retired leaders come back out of retirement and leverage their knowledge and experience during a time when their skillsets could have a positive and big impact. We know there is a shortage of leaders coming up in the Generation X cohort. The good news is that most Gen X leaders have been through a lot of crises during their working careers (Y2K, 9/11, the Great Recession, and now a worldwide pandemic) and have a refined sense of what it means to manage through disruptions and challenges. I’m optimistic about the resiliency and skillset of the Gen X cohort, but unfortunately there is not enough of them to fill the leadership gap that is before us.

Ultimately, I see this period of change as a chance for leaders to remind themselves why they got into higher education in the first place. This is a moment in time when they can rededicate themselves to their careers and make a positive and lasting impact on students and society.

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