University leaders in a new light

University leadership

Much is required of universities in a time characterised by global competition for talent, radical changes in the labour market and increasing concerns about economic, social and environmental sustainability. Universities of the future will focus on purpose, build meritocratic cultures, improve on governance and develop organisational resilience. They will offer flexibility, will encourage multiple pathways of vertical and horizontal connectivity between certificates, diplomas and degrees, will encourage diverse institutional responses for the country’s higher education challenges of affordability, access, equity, and employability and will encourage diversity in purpose, structure, financing, delivery, modularity, governance, and much else.

The increased pressure on universities, that are being squeezed by various factors like rising costs, increasing globalisation, demanding stakeholders, effects of digitisation, rising competition from new segments like massive open online courses, the growing expectations and a demand for greater accountability even in the face of dwindling state support, naturally translates into demand for a very high quality leadership in teaching, research, administration, finance and public outreach who can cope with the increased complexity and challenges at hand. The economic pressures, the digital disruptions and rising job complexity, together, are prompting universities to relook at their current strategies for the top job.

Fresh approaches

The role of the university leadership has no analogue in the modern business world. However, the litany of disruption in the universities of the future redefined by global competition, new technologies, digitisation, growing tuition fees, and a strong demand for rapid impact, calls for a different set of leaders who can bring fresh approaches to problems. Though vice-chancellors are generally recruited from the academic ranks, increasingly, the role comes with expectations in terms of knowledge and experience that no academic can be expected to have acquired. These include media and crisis management, fundraising, industrial relations, financial management and the principles of governance. 

The range of leadership skills that will lead the universities of the future spreads across a wide spectrum of skills — athletics, academics, finances, marketing, collaboration, team-building, fundraising, continuous learning, scalability and research, to name a few, all housed within a model of shared governance that could drive almost any traditional business leader to distraction.

The job requires administrative and financial acumen, fundraising ability, and political deftness. The leaders must be excellent communicators; accessible and responsive but also measured and restrained in an era driven by 24X7 news coverage and social media. It is often said that universities are now ‘big business’, and should, therefore, be seeking business experience in their leaders; albeit quite a few business executives have failed in their attempts to transition into university leadership. Certainly, universities must be managed in a business-like manner, but they are not businesses: their objective is not to seek profit for shareholders, and their enterprise is not focused on a narrow range of products and services.

A successful university leader must grasp the unique quality of an institution where power emanates not from management but from the knowledge and authority of the professoriate, and where the purposes for which it exists are timeless rather than short-term. The leader will often need to balance the pressures of society to improve the ‘return on investment’ of education at the institution as well as manage societal development. One will need to chart a difficult path with one’s academic deans, providing incentives for individual schools to excel and grow while fostering collaboration and cooperation with each other to drive the overall health of the university.

Vibrant interface

Universities – and university networks – must rise to the occasion and offer leadership programmes that attract and groom those who see a future career at the vibrant interface between academia, industry and society at large. It calls to invest in creating a set of future leaders through structured training focused on leadership development, work on succession plans and even explore lateral candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.

The dogmas of the past are inadequate for the stormy future and the leadership in the universities of the future. The greatest opportunity for the leader is having the capacity to influence the direction of a great institution, to see staff inspired by plans for change, and to watch as a good idea radiates out across an academic community, often to profound effect. Tagore’s magnificent view that “Life should not be the infinite elongation of a straight line” fits so well to define the risks of tomorrow. Universities have big goals and big aspirations and only a nonlinear planning and a strategic mindset can help reach these big goals. We must tread with caution!

(The authors are with Schoolguru Eduserve)

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University leaders in a new light

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