Developing Leadership Within the Academy: Mystery and Misunderstanding

Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in a workshop at the UNLV Academic Leadership Academy, a newly created initiative designed to fill a gaping hole in leadership training within academic institutions, most especially for women and minorities. It is structured to enable UNLV professors, department heads, and staff to climb the leadership ladder through seminars and mentoring. The idea is good; many people who aspire to these roles are experts in their fields but not necessarily in what makes extraordinary leaders.

I have written and spoken on the challenges of leadership and have emphasized the importance of leadership training for our graduates -- whether they become nurses, police officers or scientists. But, this workshop afforded me an opportunity to reflect on my own eight years as a college president. Listening to the Oprah-style questions from the participants, as well as the answers of my co-panelist President John Rudley from Texas Southern University, I was surprised by the level of misunderstanding about the day-to-day work of college administrators. That confusion makes progression to leadership even more difficult.

Leaders matter and training new leaders in higher education is an obligation those of us presently leading should take seriously. What follows are a few of the questions from UNLV and my written responses, reflective of what I answered "live." I hope these are helpful for those desiring to lead academic institutions.

Q. What most surprised you when you became a college president?

A. I had many surprises, some of them pleasant and others unpleasant. In my first year, I regularly commented on how each day, I would open a drawer and something unexpected would fall out. But, if I had to pick one thing for which I was least prepared it was how people on and off campus felt free to be critics, to say negative things to one's face and behind one's back. And, there was an assumption that I would not notice, care or feel badly. It was as if that was "part of the job."

The presidential role itself bothered some people; lots of folks dislike authority, me included. And, people are uncomfortable with change, even if a new president is explicitly hired to bring about change. I kept repeating the phrase my Board Chair shared with me, "This is not a popularity contest." But it was not easy. Even if one understands that people are responding to the title, not the person holding the title, the comments remain hurtful.

Q: How much time do you spend fundraising?

A. 100 percent. This answer came as a surprise to virtually everyone in the UNLV audience. I think they thought I meant it literally, raising dollars every day, all day. But fundraising is not just asking for money. It is about sharing the institution's story and encouraging others to believe in the mission and work of the college. It's about matching donor's passions with the needs of the institution. It's understanding that donors want to give to institutions that are fiscally secure and well run. No one wants to give when the money will be flushed down the proverbial toilet.

Asking for money in my private life was never easy. When our son came home from elementary school decades ago with raffle tickets that had to be sold, I would simply buy them all rather than ask relatives and friends to buy one. My alma mater asked us to sell pecans; they had to be kidding. I couldn't do it. But, asking for money for Southern Vermont College always felt different. I believe in what we do and I care deeply about our effort to enable vulnerable students to succeed. Most importantly, the money is needed for our remarkable students.

Q. Is the provost the person who does all the work within the institution while the president is always the external presence?

A. There is no answer to this question that applies to all campuses. The roles differ markedly from institution to institution and even within a single institution, depending on the circumstances.

For me, the presidency never was a totally "external" role; as I see it, a presidency has always reflected a balance between work outside the institution and work within. And, it is impossible to do the work outside the institution without truly understanding the work of the faculty and staff and the lives, challenges and successes of our students. One only learns that by listening, participating in meetings, walking the halls and attending campus-based student events.

And the provost? For me, the provost needs to spend time both within and outside the institution, providing the internal intellectual guidance that deeply informs the academic life of the institution and then sharing our work externally. Indeed, the capacity to replicate and scale what we do requires that a provost speak and write about our efforts. Also, the provost often is called upon to help with fundraising and grant-raising efforts.

Q. What prepares someone for a college presidency?

A. I don't think there is one single pathway to or unique preparation for a presidency. My background was certainly considered non-traditional, having previously been a law professor for more than two decades. In today's world, I do think that there is one increasing important skill set: fiscal acumen. Regardless of its noble mission, education is a business and understanding how to navigate that business' finances is critical.

I also know this: the issues all college and university presidents face are both similar and difficult, regardless of the size and nature of their institutions, their budgets, their endowments and their student populations. Yes, the number of zeros is different. Yes, student selectivity is different. But, every campus leader thinks about the costs of higher education, the quality of its educational offerings, the needs of students, faculty and staff, fundraising and the vast challenges confronting the world of higher education in the coming decades.