Monday, November 5, 2012

Fast Forward to Leadership in Higher Education

Ok. So as is to be expected from online courses, I missed two weeks.  In all fairness, though, I did read the course outcomes and glance through the prescribed articles.  The Big Data stuff was fascinating.
I will be returning to the two missed weeks in due course, but there's no point in catching them up now. I will jump ahead and concentrate on this week's topic - Academic Leadership. I must preamble this discussion by pointing out that I find it very exposing. Here I am writing about academic leadership. By virtue of my appointment as a Dean, I am an academic leader. But am I a good one? Am I an average one? Am I a bad one? I don't know. I have no real way of knowing. What is the benchmark? I do well in my performance reviews with my line head. Much of what I suggest gets done. Some people call me a charismatic leader, others call me an autocratic leader, others call me weak. Yet as a Faculty we are progressing beyond what could be expected of us, given the constraints of sitting across five buildings after the merger, and being unable to consolidate at the speed which we would like to see.  What progress have we made, if any? How do we even know it is progress?
I will take as the starting point of my discussion the article by Paul Portney in the Washington Post entitled "The leadership vacuum in higher education" (31 Oct 2011).  Portney had been a dean for almost six years, and I am now entering the sixt year of my deanship. Written exactly a year ago the article resonates very strongly with me.
A number of elements come to mind - resistance to change, lack of leadership training, lack of succession planning, and the nature of the beast.
I really like the response given to Portney when he complained of resistance to change “Duh. You’re in a profession in which you and your colleagues celebrate graduation by putting on the same silly hats and robes that were worn a thousand years ago. What the hell did you expect?”
That and the fact that we tend to continue teaching the way we were taught, are two of the key problems.  Interestingly enough, though many of us want to change - we just don't know how.  We have to teach the way we were taught because we have not experienced any other way.  The second key driver to this inertia is fear - and particularly fear of failure.  Except, the nice word for this is "risk aversion".  So here's the thing.  We expect students to learn from their mistakes, but we penalise them for their mistakes.  So they parrot us, and they don't learn, and they do well.  So obviously we ourselves don't want to make mistakes, because, since we don't forgive our students, they won't forgive us...  And the madness continues, yet we all email one another links to the over-exposed Ted-talk by Sir Ken Robinson, "Bring on the learning revolution". But we all expect the other ones to lead the change.
On the other hand.  In the Faculty I have noticed some really cool inititatives of cross-curricular teaching, interdepartmental collaboration and even inter-institutional collaboration. What is needed now is one great push to see how we can integrate these pilot studies into the main stream.  The initiatives of the department of Applied Design to investigate ways to have a unified first-year is most encouraging.  But I believe we are not moving fast enough.  Then on Sunday I saw this amazing TED talk by Shimon Schocken: The self-organizing computer course. It is premised on the concept that academics should not be teaching. We should be creating an environment in which learners learn. This, coupled by the term I learnt in Cyprus last month, Heutagogy has my head spinning.  I want to create a landslide.  I have already identified a number of key innovators in the Faculty. I am going to call them up and we are going to start a hugely disruptive set of interventions to create not just an environment in which students can learn, but to create a culture of individually-directed learning.  So here's where popular culture comes in. I have to work according to Malcolm Gladwell's The tipping pointI already have mavens, connectors and salespeople. I just have to align them and make things happen.
So then, on to the lack of training.  I must say that I would guess that at the level of a dean or a vice Chancellor one should be selected based on leadership skills, rather than be trained for it. Nevertheless, the only training that I have had since becoming a dean was a session billed as managing performance, which ended up being a training session in labour legislation, concentrating on how to fire people.  Sad, deeply sad.  Having done half an MBA as well as a "Junior Leaders'" course in the defence force, as well as an education diploma, I would say that, at least at the level of soft skills training for leadership, I have had enough. But what I lack most in training is systems training - training in how the University works. No such training exists. I have to learn all these things by accident.  Here is a matter of immersive learning - learning from my mistakes. Of course, what makes it more difficult is that the university itself is still learning.  Many of the systems that I would like to understand have not been developed yet - or are in the process of being changed.  What has been very useful for me was to develop a series of "Faculty training days" where the whole faculty, including the dean, get briefed on the systems inside and outside of the university.  We ask the key people in administrative positions to tell us how their systems work, and then we try to follow these procedures.  Finally, I am a dedicated autodidact - I teach myself, which, after all, is why I joined this mooc.
Of course I have lack of succession planning to thank for my appointment.  As a result of the merger there was no clear successor tot he previous dean, but even more, there was a feeling that the university specifically wanted an impartial outsider to take charge.  I have, however, in the past five years identified at least four people who might well be the next dean. And I have worked closely with them to ensure that they gain institutional, national and international exposure so that they would be able to take over seamlessly from me.  But this succession planning goes further throughout the faculty. I have also begun to find shadow heads of departments to ensure smooth transisions there as well.
When I speak of the nature of the beast I refer to Fred Mulder's recent keynote at the ICEL conference in Groningen, Netherlands, where he pointed out that there are three competing forces in higher education, these are access, efficiency and quality assurance.  As you concentrate on the one, the other two necessarily miss out.  At our Institution this quandary leads to a schitzophrenic beast.  While we strongly want to be one of the most accessible institutions in the Western Cape, nevertheless we have to do so on a very strained budget, and at the same time a relentless sequence of quality assurance interventions by the Department of Higher Education is sapping our energy.  The leadership challenge in this case lies in aliging these things.  How can we streamline or processes to ensure efficiency, while at the same time improving quality so that we can increase access.  And it is here where, once again, Heutagogy becomes exciting.  We must create a multi-faceted learning environment that will enable a culture of learning so that students can take charge of their own learning.
And that will require mega change.

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