Home Business Insights & Advice Jason W. Osborne: Eight questions to ask before seeking new academic leaders

Jason W. Osborne: Eight questions to ask before seeking new academic leaders

by Sarah Dunsby
18th Apr 23 6:02 pm

Jason W. Osborne advises investing in leader development to bolster the institution’s overall success rather than questioning leadership decisions or perpetuating turnover.

Post-pandemic higher education is a stressful place for everyone. That includes faculty and staff, students, and society, but it also includes academic and institutional leaders. Such positions were already stressful. However, today’s scholarly communities seem almost eager to oust leadership for various reasons: crime in the city, fundraising venue complaints, affordability, ethics concerns, or a perceived lack of shared governance.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 of the past eight have recorded the highest number of no-confidence votes. Often, leaders leave (or get pushed out) without formal proceedings. Average tenure time is diminishing and looks to get worse.

Not all leaders are well-suited to all positions; sometimes, dismissing them is the right call. But effective leadership matters to the success and growth of educational institutions, and the entire institution can benefit when stakeholders instead choose a leadership development path. Replacing knee-jerk reactions with conversations and bridge-building often has the desired effects and reduces the cost of replacing leaders.

Many campus stakeholders feel torn between responding to public opinion and protecting their schools. Accordingly, here are some questions to ask before making a decision.

1. Does the leader have control over circumstances?

It’s tempting to blame leaders for anything that happens, yet with so many things, leaders often don’t have specific control over upsetting events. They are legally required to comply with local, regional, state, and federal regulations, and many circumstances are outside administrator control. They are often unable to act, even when behaviors are repugnant or reprehensible as policy and law often protects even upsetting behaviors and speech.

Points to consider include:

  • Did the leaver have specific control over the situation?
  • Were they working in good faith?
  • Did they consult avenues of shared governance before acting?

In many cases, starting a conversation is likely a better option than killing the messenger, as there are often many aspects to decisions to act or not to act, and understanding the perspective of the person sitting in the leaders seat can help.

2. Does the leader share the institution’s interests and concerns?

In general, leaders share interests with their campus communities. Everyone’s goal is a thriving, successful institution. Despite talk of the “corporatization of higher education,” only about 15 percent of presidents come from outside the academy. Even then, leaders are usually closely aligned with the goals of their universities.

Therefore, it might be good to begin with an assumption of leaders working in good faith.  If an academic leader advocates budget cuts, they might have good reasons that include the long-term benefit of the institution- and the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the institution. Generally speaking, they have no incentive to take adverse actions unless truly necessary, so always look for the underlying factors before making judgments.

3. Does frequent turnover affect institutional standing?

Turnover lowers the quality and functionality of any institution, higher education included. Without stable leadership and direction over the years, the college or university will spend much of its time adrift or in transition. This can lead to reputational harm.  It can also limit the institution’s ability to attract experienced leaders in the future. If presidents, provosts, or deans fear losing their jobs, they’re less likely to sign on.

4. Does the institution invest in leadership support?

Another question is whether the institution provides adequate support and leadership development. Good leadership is crucial to a thriving institution, and investing in developing your leaders can provide long-term dividends.  Rather than continually updating leadership and waiting for them to learn the new position, investing in an already onboarded individual can be beneficial.

On average, it takes 6-9 months to fill a senior level vacancy and roughly as long for the new leader to learn the ropes. That’s 18 months, and the nation’s provosts currently average only about three years. Fully half the time, in other words, the school must deal with the transition.  This might argue for working to retain and develop institutional leadership.

5. Who takes over if a leader steps down?

Interim leadership is an excellent resource, and they can help guide their institutions through less troublesome transitions. However, their placement is too often short and limiting. Schools that put succession plans in place to maximize the potential success of temporary interim staff will see benefits and support ongoing vital initiatives.

6. What’s the cost of replacing senior leadership?

It’s essential to consider the cost of replacing senior leadership. The college or university will inevitably lose resources when knowledge and momentum walk out the door. Add in the price of searches and onboarding, and there may be a high price to pay indeed, leaving students, faculty, staff, and ongoing priorities to languish.  When considering a vote of no confidence, innovative institutions will look at the costs and benefits of displacing leadership. Only you can decide whether the benefits will outweigh the costs given your circumstances.

7. How long does it take new leaders to become effective?

Whatever a faculty’s or administration’s hopes and dreams for a new leader, those will take time to achieve. However well they perform in the long run, the time it takes to ramp up and form the necessary relationships can hamper the objectives of alums, corporate leaders, donors, and government partners. Similarly, building internal relationships takes time and energy.  Few institutions can gladly forego years of donations and support, unfortunately. Replacing key leaders may adversely impact fundraising, reducing potential support for faculty, students, and academic priorities. As more institutions rely more heavily on resources such as donations to meet mission goals, this must be a consideration when considering any leadership transition.

8. Will a new leader support existing goals?

New perspectives and energy have real value, if that is what an institution needs.  However, executing real change takes years in higher education (sometimes decades). For that reason, it’s worth asking:

  • Will a new leader amplify existing strategic goals and efforts?
  • Or will they want to bring entirely new priorities and agendas?

An institution must consider new leadership to avoid getting stuck in the push-me-pull-you of competing objectives and abandoned projects. The current leader – usually just a human doing their best – will often benefit from the frank conversation and support resources to learn, grow, and support the institution’s interests.

There are other reasons to support leadership development at all levels of institutional leadership, one of the focus areas of Professor Jason W. Osborne, past Provost at Miami University and former Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School at Clemson University.  He has written and spoken internationally on topics ranging from higher education leadership to statistics and educational psychology.

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