Training Tomorrow’s Leaders in Higher Education

What happens when you get the job?

The best college and university presidents start out with an understanding of what they do not know. As candidates, they presented the Search Committee whose members screened them with impressive credentials, demonstrating an ability to communicate and persuade. They seemed to have grasped the need for a vision, came equipped with management experience, and had stellar references.

By the time the offer is made, the Screening Committee has assured itself that they have managed to attract a uniquely qualified candidate who represents the very best of the search firm’s virtual rolodex.

The problem is that every presidency is as different as each candidate’s credentials. A president might be described as someone who holds the corporate title of “president” while acting as a 19th Century ward boss dispensing political favors and rationing resources, empowered to work with faculty who behave as independently as members of a medieval craft guild.

The problem of preparing for a presidency extends throughout to include the training for the senior staff and faculty leadership. Typically, there is no MBA or similar management degree that puts individuals within collegiate-shared governance in positions of great influence and real authority. And yet they are expected to be as wise as Solomon while playing well together. It’s an ambitious expectation at best.

To offset this difficulty, a number of universities and many of the national higher education associations offer “on the job” training. It’s not really continuing education but these programs – many of them in existence for over twenty years – offer an important “heads up” opportunity for higher education leaders. They are one of the few places where senior leaders can have a “deer with eyes caught in the headlight” look without paying the penalty for not displaying the confidence and wisdom of King Solomon.

With appreciation for the good work done, American higher education should take its lead from the professional associations formed by its own alumni. Groups like the American Medical Association, American Bar Association and in other fields ranging from nursing to accounting, run robust, credit- or certificate-granting programs that keep participants fresh, current, and in many cases, certified.

It’s not that there is a corresponding need to certify presidents and their senior staffs. That having been said there are at least three reasons why senior higher education leaders should have more training and programming opportunities made available. And, these training and “reset” courses must be developed in as time-friendly and efficient a manner as possible.

First, those programs that exist are episodic and uncoordinated at best. They are “point in time,” programming such as “new presidents” institutes. In other cases, like the ACE Fellows Program or the Harvard Management Summer sessions, they may train and prepare for jobs that are “next stage” leaps. Or, they may be “buddy” sessions like those that support dialogue between presidents and board chairs.

By and large, however, these programs do not train leaders in how to be better at their jobs. Where they do, there is not enough programming to describe how senior teams work together. This is particularly troublesome for faculty leadership, especially at the level of department chairs and deans for whom the responsibility for management of an institution has understandably not extended beyond their school or discipline.

Second, time constrains training for higher education leaders. National annual meetings can be grouped reasonably effectively with regional conferences and symposia but leaders feeling schedule pressure like presidents and provosts recognize how time determines work load. Professional training is among the first activities to fall by the wayside. What time is available cannot be taken in travel.

Third, one leader’s strength is another’s weakness. What matters to these conference attendants is how a conference is organized and the topics that its outline covers. If they are not looking to “train up” at a summer institute or to bond with other colleagues, a conference must appeal based upon what its attendants can learn.

That’s why that it is time for American higher education to pursue a dynamic continuing education program that deals with perceived weaknesses, real challenges, and current and trending topics.

To develop this series efficiently, the series must also look across shared governance at how best to incorporate faculty, trustees and administrators. It’s not enough to improve the quality and depth of understanding of key administrators. Shared governance is a team sport. The team members must become better players but they must also ultimately learn how to play together well.

Happily, technology advances should make better leaders possible. Interactive webinars, offered regularly with participants opting in from their desk, can produce better leaders and a broader framework of understanding across the various public and private higher education sectors. To start, these webinars should focus by asking what do you need to know, what’s trending that you need to hear, and how can what you know make you a better member of the leadership team in shared governance?

Maybe one of the reasons that a president’s tenure is so short these days is that no one told the candidate what to expect or the other leaders in shared governance how to behave to support one another, beginning with the president.

One thought on “Training Tomorrow’s Leaders in Higher Education

  1. So, I have two honest questions about the argument this post poses, which are mirror images of each other:

    1. Can we have a specific example of something a university president needs this kind of training *for*? I’m having a hard time reconciling the experience/qualifications a candidate should have with the need for so much advanced training; this isn’t the same as hiring a first-time faculty member with no experience with what distinguishes faculty life from grad student life. Obviously a new president needs to learn her/his way around the institution, but that’s a somewhat different claim. An example would be interesting.

    2. Is this problem becoming more acute as institutions hire more senior management with decreasing academic experience? If so, maybe the solution isn’t more training for people who don’t know the first thing about the job….

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