Case Studies and Higher Education Leadership

Bill Rezak, former president of Alfred University, offers a different kind of case study in The Best Dang Job in the World. The book tracks the imagined career of Rick Nedic, a made up ambitious dean with a facility with numbers and blessed with a supportive wife. Nedic’s professional life is played out in the broad middle of higher education in America: state colleges. We see him rise, fall, and eventually triumph. Rezak does not imagine Nedic’s institutions vividly. Faculty are faculty, administrators are administrators, and of course students will be students. The focus is on Nedic. Implicit is faith in the impact of the wise chief executive, regardless of campus history or culture.

A tenured faculty member then chair, Nedic at the book’s opening becomes dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. A novice administrator, he pushes too hard without listening or support from below or above. Nedic receives a no confidence vote from the faculty and loses his position. Depressed, he retreats to a tenured faculty position, gathers himself, and then ascends to a presidency at a different institution. Optimists would see Nedic as learning from his mistakes. As it takes a bit of effort to energize the faculty into coming together to voice no confidence, those more cynically inclined might see him as falling up.

Best Dang JobThe bulk of the book is the life of President Nedic at “Black Rock State College.” Days are busy, filled with meetings, planning, and activities from morning to night. Nedic reorganizes his leadership team, institutes strategic planning to give the college a renewed sense of direction and priorities, tweaks this and adjusts that, and struggles with inevitable budget cuts. Interspersed with the grind of fiscal pressures, Nedic deals with student high jinks, balky faculty and idiosyncratic alumni. He enjoys the challenges immensely. He retires after ten engaging and fulfilling years – gratifying and satisfied. It has been a job well done.

Rezik’s book is strangely hollow. Even though he covers many of the major points of effective college leadership, and his college president does all that a college president is supposed to do, something important is missing. As I mulled what and why, two observations came to mind. The first concerns case studies and how we use them. The second reason stems from how we tend to think about academic leadership.

Many professions – law, medicine, business – use case studies as teaching tools. But we rarely do when training college administrators, who admittedly are rarely educated as administrators. In fact, case studies in higher education are uncommon. My perspective is shaped by many years of reading of Harvard Business Review. HBR has instructed me on the value of a well-developed case study. Their cases do not have one right answer. Like life, they are complicated and about conflict: information is sketchy, personalities and non-business factors intrude, and the experts who respond disagree. They also are short, relevant, and topical.

Rezick’s case study is none of the above. Instead, his main character is an abstraction – as is his larger narrative. It is unfortunate, for Nedick’s imagined professional life has innumerable conflicts that are worthy of more systemic exploration. Scenarios for any college president come easily to mind. How to handle a 5% budget cut coming from the state legislature? A 10% budget cut? A generous donor who wants to endow a chair and be involved in the selection of the professor? A cheating scandal in the basketball team? A charge of rape and institutional indifference by a student a year after the event took place? A college-wide committee selecting a common reading that angers the board of trustees? One of the appeals of a college presidency rests in the very variety of the challenges. How these play out is affected tremendously by circumstances and culture. Accordingly, leadership is often situational. Culture, as one wag sagely put it, eats strategy for breakfast. Higher education leaders, current and aspiring, would benefit from sustained discussions sparked by good case studies.

There is no definitive litmus test for leadership. Social scientists, though, have identified a few basic leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, task-oriented, paternalistic, laissez-faire, and transformational. These styles make common sense. They are recognizable and most leadership involves some combination of these strands. Military generals are often thought of autocratic and heroic. Democratic leadership requires balancing competing agendas from stakeholders. Task-oriented or transactional leaders manage through exchange. Paternalistic leaders take care of the needs of their followers in return for loyalty. Laissez-faire leaders stand apart from the decisions of the group or groups. Transformational leaders reshape organizations and invite external study.

Within academia, different stakeholders often have different views of what makes for effective leadership styles. I would wager that most faculty seek democratic or laissez-faire leadership from their executives. Students, however, would often characterize presidential leadership from a paternalistic perspective. I have seen boards and external stakeholders call for more autocratic leadership from college presidents. As for transactional leaders, they are rarely considered leaders in higher education, and instead are labeled as managers or bureaucrats. In fact, there is little agreement about what makes for outstanding leadership in higher education.

A century ago, the nation’s top academic leaders were public intellectuals and institution builders. Love them or hate them, men such as William Rainey Harper (University of Chicago), Daniel Coit Gilman (Johns Hopkins),  David Starr Jordan (Stanford University), and Nicholas Murray Butler (Columbia) sought to reshape their environments and higher education. They were transformational. We do not have college presidents with that sort of profile today.

And it is this, I believe, that lies as the shortcoming with Rezik’s book and higher education leadership. We want democracy and autocracy, managerial effectiveness and vision. We want paternal and maternal figures. In fact, we seem to want it all from academic leaders. So while we may agree about little, we do find consensus in that we expect more from higher education leadership. Just as we have great expectations for institutions of higher education, we want more from their leaders. We want it to be a calling, not a job – and that is something that Rekiz seems to have missed.

David Potash

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