Leadership in higher education is often about reaching out and listening to people

Published On: 23 November 2022|

Professor Jonathan Jansen says one important lesson he has learnt from his leadership experience at all levels in higher education – is that you have much less power than you would think. He has been a head of department, dean, and vice-chancellor.

This was not his original idea, he says. It was discovered by organisational theorists such as Jim Walsh (a professor at Michigan Ross business school in the US) but was “quite interesting to experience directly”, he says.

Jansen, a National Research Foundation A-rated scholar who is a Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University and President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, was speaking on the first day of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) summit. Held virtually from 15 to 17 November, the summit was attended by delegates from around the world.

Professor Jansen (right) was part of a panel discussing Leadership Stories at the virtual HELM Summit 2022 that took place from 15 to 17 November. He shared the platform with Dr Muki Moeng, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University, and Professor Vivienne Lawack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC): Academic at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). The session was hosted by Dr Phethiwe Matutu, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), which implements HELM, a Department of Higher Education and Training-funded programme supported from the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme.

Elaborating on a leader’s real versus perceived power, Jansen asked delegates to imagine a university with a very strong sense of its Dutch Calvinist theology, whose leader asks his colleagues to build a Muslim prayer room on the campus. Clearly speaking from his own experience, he said: “At first you get frustrated, and then you’re absolutely intrigued, intellectually, that they can slow walk that thing to death. And you will never see a Muslim prayer room, not because you don’t have power, but because of the ways in which universities can undermine even the most self-confident leader”.

Academics criticise their leaders – deal with it

His other lessons about being a leader were:

  • Egocentric vice-chancellors, deans or heads of department are fooling themselves if they think they are the university. They come and they go, he said, and are only as good as the quality of their second tier, which is why they must respect, nurture and love their team leaders;
  • Setting a personal example as a scholar leader is the most powerful influence over the academic community, not management decrees, such as announcing in Senate they would like to see research quality improve;
  • University leaders have a powerful platform and should use it to also communicate human values and to speak about issues in their troubled society and campuses. He said he had told his colleagues he had heard them talk about everything from climate change to big data and the oceans, but he had never seen them use the platforms of orientation, graduation, or alumni gatherings to talk about racism or xenophobia; and
  • “Your temperament as a leader is the single most important asset in your leadership backpack,” he said. A leader without control over their emotions is a danger to themselves and others. Being criticised by academics is part and parcel of university life. If leaders don’t understand that they shouldn’t work in a university because they could destroy their academic unit or even their whole university.

“It’s a humbling experience being a leader. It’s amazing how often you are found out to be wrong. But it is a wonderful opportunity to grow,” said Professor Jansen.

Giving people hope

He said now that he no longer has a high-profile position in higher education and spends a lot of time visiting schools and universities, he has noticed something about people’s emotions which has direct implications for leaders. Whether they are in corporates or shack schools, people have a heightened sense of stress and dismay because of Corona, crime, corruption, and the collapse of the electricity grid. “And how do you convince followers of the value of their work, the power of the local, and the importance of hope, when you are leading in such contexts, whether on campus or in the community?” he said.

In those circumstances, he said, he reverts to what he knows best – which is to remind himself of the power of his example as a scholar in the university community. “Your personal scholarship matters enormously, especially when you’re working with young academics, and your role as a mentor in empowering the next generation professors. This is more important in situations of distress.

“And I try in the work that I do, not just at Stellenbosch but across the country, with the 26 public universities, to play that role,” he said.

One example of that role is a recently published book he co-edited and contributed to. Published early in November by the open access, not-for-profit publisher, African Minds, On Becoming a Scholar: What Every New Academic Needs to Know, features about 20 chapters by leading academics from different disciplines around South Africa, providing advice on career steppingstones such as how to leverage the research office, to when and how to apply for promotion.

“This is about speaking through your scholarship to people that you serve, in order to give them a sense of hope in a very dismal situation,” Jansen said.

Picnics and phone calls

The other two panellists, Moeng and Lawack, spoke about their differing ways of reaching out to their staff during and immediately after the pandemic lockdown.

Dr Moeng (right) said a lot of people were feeling isolated. In 2021, she held virtual one-on-one meetings with every staff member, just to ask: “How are you? What are you doing? How can we improve your working conditions at home?”

She said it was not just to ensure people were being productive. “It was a way of saying ‘we are here as a university, and, as the Dean, I am here as a person’,” she said.

Once the harsh lockdown restrictions had lifted, she had arranged a picnic on the beach for staff members “to be able to breathe some fresh air, just to hang out and let our hair down. And a lot of staff members really appreciated that,” she said. They had felt trapped during lockdown.

Professor Lawack, who was both DVC: Academic and Acting Vice-Chancellor of UWC for six months when CoViD hit, said her phone account was “horrendous” during hard lockdown “because I kept on being on the phone and trying to reach out to people. One of my learnings was around communication and how people feel when you, as a leader, reach out to them, communicate, listen with empathy, and make that connection, even if it’s sometimes virtually”.

She said she couldn’t stress enough how important effective communication is.

Dancing with, around and against the flow

Dr Moeng said she had learnt during #FeesMustFall in 2015-2916 that she “needed to find the right step and the right rhythm” and “to dance with, around, and against the prevailing conditions, because at times you have to go with the flow, at times around things, and, at times, you have to push back a little”.

She said as a dean, she was mostly sandwiched between the polarities of what the students were saying and what the institution was saying, and she had to find synergy between the two.In management, one must realise there is not always congruence and alignment in what you are doing, she said, and you need to accept “that it is okay to live with the messiness and the contradictions and be able to forgive yourself, which is very difficult to do, for decisions that did not work out. We become so hard on ourselves”.

One positive outcome of the pandemic, especially in her faculty, was that it led to more reflective research as people sat back and reflected on their own practice.

Be careful of assuming student and staff needs

Professor Lawack (left) said UWC’s contextual reality as an historically disadvantaged institution, drawing its students from particularly disadvantaged communities, was striking because “there was almost an underestimation of the systemic inequalities that we have in the country”, she said. “At UWC, we had to be very creative”.

For their students, having data did not necessarily mean they had connectivity, and their remote students did not necessarily have a formal address. That impacted on the logistics of delivering study materials to them.

“One of the first learnings was to not assume that you know the institution in terms of where students are from. And we were making assumptions about our staff as well,” she said. To find out, they needed they conducted a readiness survey and surveyed 12 000 people within 48 hours, which gave them a very clear idea about who had smartphones, who had laptops, what people’s needs were. They had already adopted blended learning in 2016 with #FeesMustFall and that helped transition to an online format.

After the first semester they followed up with a huge survey on staff and student experiences, which informed their second semester. The data from these two surveys helped UWC’s decision-making for the next year.

Professor Lawack’s advice to other higher education leaders, drawn from the insights she had gained from performing two key leadership roles simultaneously during the pandemic, included:

  • Be agile. The situation can be so fluid that you might need to change tack while in the process of implementing plans;
  • Constantly evaluate what you do and if something is not working, change it;
  • Be attuned to people’s needs and health. Plans can look beautiful on paper but can be implemented only if people are mentally prepared to deliver on them, and have the mental strength to do so;
  • Listen to stakeholders, listen to your staff; and
  • It’s not about you and your personality but about what’s in the best interest of your institution, the staff, the students, and the broader community.

The Leadership Stories formed a pertinent session in the summit convened to explore innovative leadership development strategies in the context of disruption, complexity, change, and in the global pursuit of the Engaged University.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.