Thinking of Entering Higher Education Leadership from the Outside?

I am often asked to advise candidates pursuing higher education leadership roles, merely by virtue of having held such positions. From time to time, "non-traditional" candidates are referred to me for a bit of coaching. Successful professionals from the private sector and the highest level of the public sector have abilities that could be used to transform institutions that are facing serious challenges. They should be considered in searches, and they can be successful transitioning into academe.

"You aren't qualified to be a professor, but you probably could become a law school dean," I told a long-time friend who was interested in a career change. At fifty years old, with a resume (or, to use the fancy term, "curriculum vitae") that would impress even those unfamiliar with the specifics of each entry, this fellow was surprised by my statement.

I explained that the criteria by which faculty members are hired, at least for tenure-track roles at the more elite schools he himself had attended, was their research agenda. The selection process favored individuals who had a Big Idea and were likely to produce original publications presenting their thesis, enhancing intellectual reputation, their own no less than their peers. Since he had not written anything that would meet the standard, and, I inferred (correctly), was not especially interested in doing so, that meant he would not make a good professor. (I am omitting the possibility, thank goodness increasingly common on campuses, of bringing in more practically-oriented teachers who are not researchers, albeit in a status not quite the same as the tenured folks who pass judgment on what is meritorious.)

Yet he also was confused by the notion that the person heading the place, with a more grand title and somewhat better salary, could be someone deemed not worthy of the lower-ranking office. He was accustomed to the hierarchy everywhere else. The dean appears to be the boss, the professors, the subordinates.

That isn't so. Other than the newly hired, who will be disabused of their deference by peers leery of the example, I am aware of no professor who regards herself as "reporting to" the dean. Some of them won't even turn their grades in on time, despite demands from a dean (who is looking out for student interests).

There are many challenges for a non-academic entering this new culture. It has rituals dating back centuries: look at the velvet robes with colorful insignia and proprietary crests, donned for commencement exercises every spring or worn at a few schools more regularly than that.

More than a few academics take umbrage, and secretly scoff, at the conceit of professionals in their field, that the latter can "retire" from practice into the classroom. The scholars note that the opposite is true too. A lawyer would be no more polite responding to a professor who wished to "retire" from the classroom into practice. Distinct skills are needed for effective teaching.

Beyond that, the primary problem for even the best leader is embracing the concept of "shared governance" (or in its strongest form, dubbed "faculty governance"). Derived from the era when a college was synonymous with its faculty (still true in much of the world, where a school of law is called "the faculty of law"), it is a set of principles whereby the nominal leader is first among equals -- if she is lucky to be granted even that. The faculty are a democratic community that set their own policies. They decide, among other things, who to hire, who to make a permanent member of the body, what counts as serious research, which classes will be given credit, and how to accord honors among themselves as well as students. They expect to provide input on budgets, buildings, fundraising, and day-to-day operations.

Many an administrator has run afoul of these rules, some of which are written, many of which are conventions being tested constantly -- including by governing boards and public officials, who doubt the wisdom of professors being allowed to run their place of employment. Like the norm of academic freedom, to which it is related, "shared governance" is meant to protect the production of knowledge and its open sharing. It is not supposed to be a bulwark of self-interest for the intellectual class.

"Shared governance" is what makes the job of a president of a college or dean of a school different than that of the CEO of a company or chief of a government agency. It also distinguishes the job of the higher education leader from those whom she serves, and the relationship will be characterized with that direction rather than its opposite.

That is likely why, of the conversations I have had over the years, very few of the people who are surveying options for their next move end up pursuing the academic route. They decide there are more suitable alternatives.

My friend, however, entered searches. I nominated him. (That's another secret. A person who simply applies when a vacancy is announced reveals that she is not aware of how to pursue it.)

He received an offer. It was perfect for him. He has been thriving.

He has done well, I believe, because he has that rare combination of talents. He understands how to lead. But he also has adapted to academe rather than insisting to his new colleagues that it be the other way around. He has the political competence that is crucial. That likely is for any leader the single most important aptitude.

For the right person and the right institution, a higher education leader from outside academe may be the best choice.