How to develop and nurture academic leaders at our universities

Published On: 21 November 2022|

Academic leadership is one of the most important foundations for success in our universities. However, leadership and management in academia presents its own challenges with many promoted to higher positions without proper training or a clear understanding of the complexity of the roles they are expected to fulfil.

So, just how does one balance an academic experience and leadership responsibilities and set about improving managerial skills?

According to Dr Oliver Seale (left), Director: Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at Universities South Africa (USAf), planning, preparation and support is key.

“We say to our deans, you were chosen and stepped up because you are good at what you do, as academic leaders. We can teach you the management requirements and skills. You just need to stay the course.”

Dr Seale was in conversation about academic leadership and management with Professor Anne

Mc Lennan, a senior academic and HELM Associate, as part of the HELM Summit 2022, held from 15 to 17 November, which explored innovative leadership development strategies for sustainability and change in higher education, globally.

Continued Dr Seale, who authored the book Deanship in the Global South: Bridging Troubled Waters, said: “My experience is that universities can stand or fall on academic leadership and never more so than in the last decade or so. In some quarters the question is sometimes still asked: Are leaders born or made – is it nature or nurture? For me, it’s both. Today, everyone has the potential for leadership. The sooner one can discover that, and develop it, the better.

“Leadership styles have evolved over a number of decades. There are now as many approaches to leadership as there are leaders. There are also many general styles, including servant and transformational leadership and more recently humanistic (which is more about EQ), transpersonal, collective or distributed leadership,” he said.

“There seems to be a shift towards the notion of collective leadership, especially in the time of CoViD. We saw, from our own universities in South Africa, how universities who had rarely engaged with each other began to collaborate, especially around the issues of technology-mediated learning and digital transformation.”

He said that shifts in the global landscape mean that leaders also have to adapt to changing circumstances, which include:

  • Changes in geopolitics and global economics
  • The geopolitics of knowledge demographics
  • The impact of the new technological movement
  • The slide towards anti-intellectualism
  • Global warming and mass consumption
  • The fact that 20% of the world’s population will come from Africa in 2030.

Those in leadership roles in the Global South focus much of their attention and energy on scholarship and research in crisis management and not enough on key functional roles, like deanship or HoDs, which are critical for the university sector, Dr Seale explained.

“South African education has been in crisis management mode for the most part of the last decade, and we seem to lurch from one sectoral challenge to the next. We have not reached a point of environmental stability in our higher education system. #FeesMustFall had a huge impact on South African universities and their leadership as many of students rely on subsidies from government and the universities themselves to pursue their academic studies.”

Another critical issue is the fact that most leaders and managers at universities are former academics who are then catapulted into a largely executive or management role. “It’s a major problem that you suddenly shift from where you were in academia and where you were measured by your own success in your field of study, into a management space with its focus on others and their collective achievements. ”

The reality for academic leaders is that they have to try to balance the demands of both the academe from which they emerge and the administration to whom they now need to account. Their lack of preparation and inadequate support points to the need for a more strategic, integrated approach to leadership development within their critical bridging roles between the academe and administration, he said.

“There’s also inadequate succession planning and mentorship and coaching given in the leadership pipeline, especially at middle management level. Another problem is that women are not represented enough in Vice-Chancellor (VC) and President roles in universities. Institutions are still a man’s world when it comes to opportunities — with less than 30 percent of women in executive management roles in universities.”

Attributes of academic leadership

He then asked the global participants in the leadership session to characterise in three words, academic leadership in universities today. Many had the same answers but some were critical. Words used included weak, overwhelming, challenging, complex, reactive, no accountability, lack of empathy and committee based.

Dr Seale said the takeout was similar to what was said by Gmelch & Buller (2015): “To put it bluntly, academic leadership is one of the few professions one can enter today with absolutely no training in, credentials for, or knowledge about the central duties of the position. As a result, while institutions of higher education become increasingly complex, many academic leaders come to their jobs woefully unprepared for the challenges awaiting them.”

He shared leadership models that have been produced by HELM.

“However, there is still inadequate robust research on leadership development in the developing world with no tailor-made interventions for leadership roles like those of dean or head of school. South African higher education institutions must become nurturing organisations which are both enabling and empowering. Leadership development should be events based rather than systemic interventions driven by strategy and performance. There needs to be strategic and integrated leadership development with a focus on leadership context, leadership capacity and leadership capital.”

Professor Mc Lennan (left) agreed that there had been major shifts in university leadership and management in the past few years: “One of the biggest skills university leaders need is the ability to ‘read your context’ and respond to the situations they find themselves in. An important factor about academia is that it’s hierarchical, but at the same time it claims to be collegial. So, there’s this constant tension.”

The introduction of managerialism comes with its own style and processes which relate to issues of performance.

“Professionalism often gets eroded as those in charge have to constantly prove where they are in terms of outcomes. This can undermine the freedom to be an academic,” she said.

“Just how do we maintain the image of the academe in the face of managerialism and complexity? The idea is that academic leaders and managers have to be innovative and look at entrepreneurial sustainability. So, there are a whole range of new roles that get taken on. What gets lost in the process, particularly if you are very senior in academic management or leadership, is the sense of what it actually means to be an academic leader and not just a manager. How do you balance these roles?”

Dr Seale was in agreement: “My own research shows that academic leaders often feel that they have lost their intellectual or scholarly identity. Given its size and capacity in the university systems in the Global North, there are the resources where you can be a top scholar in your field and there’s no need to divert from the management/administration track to advance your carrer. The South African system is not big enough to allow senior academics to do that. The one avenue here for promotion is by taking a managerial role but that can come at a cost of your academic pursuits and scholarship.”

Professor Mc Lennan says other factors are at play in the Global South: “In the South African context, people are promoted before they’ve managed to properly establish their academic credentials. They might already be a professor but they haven’t achieved the kind of gravitas that would have existed in the academic bureaucracy of old, with the wise person leading in a sense.”

So, what of the debate that universities should have managers in charge of the institutions?

Professor Mc Lennan: “It is a solution that has been used elsewhere where they let academics be academics with managers in charge of running the institution but I believe that this separates the academic project from the process, which is highly problematic for me.”

Final thoughts

Professor Mc Lennan: “Leaders need a safe space they can talk to their colleagues without being judged. They have to have peers or colleagues that they can engage with. You need to enable people to understand that they’ve actually got the necessary tools when it comes to leadership management; they just need to know how to deploy them in a thoughtful and considerate way.”

Dr Seale: “Sometimes these top heavy executive structures drain our limited resources at the expense of the academe. Universities must advance the academic project; nothing more, nothing less. Often, when a dean comes to the end of their term, unless they are moving up, they go back into academia but they have such a rich knowledge and skills set, that they have developed, which can be lost. We need to continue supporting them in making meaningful contributions to the academic project. Academic leaders also need to invest in themselves and try and set aside a few days each year for their own time of pausing, reflection and learning”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa