Leadership Not Just for Administrators

Colleges and universities need leadership at every level, but often faculty are reluctant to lend their leadership abilities because the notion of them as leaders is often at odds with their perception of themselves as academics. “It’s not who we are. We’re people who challenge and question all the time. When we associate leaders with authority, most faculty shy away from that,” says Marlene Moore, dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Portland.

To encourage faculty members to embrace leadership roles, Moore frames the concept of leadership to suit the academic environment, relying heavily on Ronald Heifetz’s concept of adaptive leadership, which states that a leader is someone who engages people to make progress on the challenges facing them. “When you look at it that way, the leader’s role is to orchestrate the learning experience, and then suddenly you have faculty who are interested because that’s what they do every day,” Moore says. “In the classroom, you may know what you want to accomplish. You know your learning goals for that day, but you have to go in and figure out who your students are, where they are, what they understand about what you say and what they don’t, and you’re constantly monitoring and adjusting so you can take another tack when the first one doesn’t quite work. I see academic leadership the same way. People ask me if I miss teaching, and I say, ‘No, I’m teaching all the time. I have a different group that I teach. I’m teaching faculty how to accomplish things instead of teaching students how to master a particular discipline.’ And I think seeing it that way makes faculty much more interested in doing it.”

As a dean, Moore finds it very useful to have faculty members apply their time and energy to a variety of adaptive challenges, such as assessment. “There’s a lot of resistance to the whole assessment movement. It challenges autonomy and respect for their positions and knowledge base. So how do you lead faculty to make this change? You can do it as an authority and say we’re not going to get accreditation if we don’t and we’re going to do this the top-down way, or you can start to talk about the real issue and the benefits of mobilizing people at different levels,” Moore says.

Faculty involvement in leading change also helps to overcome the limitations that leaders with formal authority have. “One of the interesting things about being a leader with authority-a dean or a provost-is that in some ways you’re constrained; you can’t focus too much on one issue. If I go in as a dean and just focus on assessment, then I’m neglecting a large area of my tasks,” Moore says.

In addition to providing appropriate focus on the pertinent issues, having a faculty member leading an initiative lends credibility among the faculty. “As a person in power, you can’t be pushing your people too hard, but you can let someone else push from the side,” Moore says.

Giving faculty the opportunity to lead also helps to develop the next group of leaders who may one day take on positions of formal authority.

“Faculty can learn to be leaders by being involved at all levels from an early stage of their careers,” says Mark Hofmann, associate dean of faculty at Skidmore College. “In my own background, I learned a great deal from serving on different committees-all-college committees, the promotion and tenure committee, the presidential search committee, and the dean search committee. That range of experience really taught me a lot about what the institution was all about, what leadership in the institution meant, and just seeing what occurred at all different levels.”

One of the difficulties for untenured faculty serving on committees and lending their leadership abilities beyond their scholarship and teaching is that this will inevitably distract them from the things that count most toward tenure. “I think the advice that we have given faculty has in a sense hurt [the institution]. A department chair will tell untenured faculty that they need to concentrate on teaching and research. That’s true. To a certain extent, that’s good advice, but it’s not necessarily good advice for the rest of the institution. I think this is something that is difficult to balance. To a certain extent we’re developing this culture for ourselves, and we’re hurting ourselves by doing it,” Hofmann says.

One solution to this dilemma is to encourage faculty members to serve on task forces of limited scope and duration. “I like the task force approach. It gets away from endless conversation,” Moore says.

The University of Portland recently revised its general education curriculum with the help of small task forces. “I’ve seen institutions where committees worked for five years, and the whole [general education revision] got shot down. There are horror stories out there. Ours went unanimously through senate and curriculum committee in two years by getting people to lead task forces. There was so much buy-in at each step of the way that it was actually much more efficient than if we had just put something together for people to shoot down,” Moore says.

Contact Marlene Moore at moore@up.edu and Mark Hofmann at mhofmann@skidmore.edu.