How To Leading The Right Way (Provided There Are Folks Who Want To Be Led)

Tournaround Leadership for Higher Education, by Michael Fullan and Geoff Scott, starts tartly with a barb: “it has been observed that elementary school teachers love their children, high school teachers love their subjects, and university professors love themselves.” Powerful words. If only the authors had maintained that critical distance the book would warrant an in-depth review. Instead, the authors’ tone modulates to educational consultant speak, offering a fairly basic primer on change management in academia.

Positing teaching and learning at the center of the academic exercise, Fullan and Scott want to explore the relationship between leadership capabilities and environments’ level of  comfort with change. They see a tremendous need for change within higher education and they see the cultures of colleges and universities,with a nod to Bergquist and Pawlak, as change averse. Not completely entrenched, they note, but unlikely to move without significant pressure and prodding.

The authors call for a new agenda, seeking institutions to prioritize “practical reasoning” and re-emphasizing the value of teaching and learning. Further, they want to see inquiry turned on itself to precipitate a culture of ongoing improvement with a new group of leaders propelling institutions accordingly. It rings with common sense, doesn’t it? After all, who does not want to see reason be practical? Is there a college president or faculty leader today who calls for impractical reasoning?

The key to all of this, Fullan and Scott opine, is finding and empowering the right sort academic leader, the leader who can manage the “distractors” and focus decision-making on evidence. Such a leader develops a culture of experimentation. The turnaround leader is a learner who models behavior and teaches, too, building teams and leading collaboratively. In fact, when considered in the brighter lights of academic searches, a turnaround leader is a very effective higher education leader.

A different question, one that Fullan and Scott do not ask, is why trustees and other key stakeholders are not so keen on locating such leaders. The key traits one often sees in presidential searches, for example, are candidates who can raise money, improve the institution’s reputation, or protect it from unfavorable external forces. These do not figure as prominently in the book. Furthermore, when academics play a large role in the search process, they often seek presidents who have the right scholarly background or credentials. More often that not the presidential search process is about satisfying stakeholders through the minimization of concerns, not about making a major cultural change in an institution. When committees want change, they often advertise for it discreetly.

Fullan and Scott accurately describe many of the skills and abilities necessary to facilitate and lead significant cultural and behavioral change at an institution of higher education. Unfortunately, they fall short in making the argument to any particular institution – as opposed to higher education in general – that such a leader is needed. In fact, without such a call I see little hope for a putative college president who might self-identify as a “turnaround leader.” And to be blunt, the very phrase more often than not would have a less than salutary effect on a search committee.

In a broader fashion, one of the really fascinating things about higher education is that there are precious few incentives for an institution to embrace the new kind of higher education advanced in this book. While America and higher education as a whole might be better for it, the risks facing any one college are quite high. The challenge is to figure out a way for the broader system to encourage such experimentation.

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