Thursday, 23 June 2022

Capability Deficit in Leadership of HEIs


Being a Vice-Chancellor or Head of an Institution of Higher Education is not a bed of roses as lot of people and aspirants for such jobs may be thinking. These positions are extremely difficult, and not a lot of bright people want that kind of job. It is an unfortunate situation that the system we have set up in higher education seems to recruit for such positions from a pool of candidates that have neither been trained nor have they been given any incentives to develop the skills necessary for academic leadership. With the rise of alternative education options, crises in financial outlays and devaluation of formal college degrees, HEIs face challenging times in the decades to come and there is more need than ever before to hire the right leaders with the right experiences and the right skill sets.

Repeatedly, media has been flagging the issue about leadership-crisis in HEIs, for public attention, which has always been known to people in academics and the government. News18 had done a story ( ) in 2012, “Unfit dozens in the Vice Chancellor, Pro Vice Chancellor race.” The Hindu had done a story titled - ‘Public inquiry’ by JNUTA finds V-C unfit for position - on JNU V-C Jagadesh Kumar in October 2017 ( ). Times of India had also reported it prominently. It cannot be a mere accident that Prof. Jagadesh Kumar now heads the UGC. Times News Network, in 2019 had published a research finding that 75% of Vice Chancellors in the country were unfit for the job they held.

In academic institutions, faculty begin their careers in the role of entry-level assistant professors usually after their Ph.D. They are appointed based on their prior peer-reviewed publications and teaching skills but rarely because of their leadership and administrative skills. Few years later, the assistant professor applies for promotion presenting a docket of more than 100 pages of documentation consisting almost entirely of research publications, teaching evaluations, letters of recommendation, and grants and awards received. Particularly in top institutions, most of the weight is placed on research publications, then teaching, then service and once again, leadership and administrative experience are rarely given strong weight in promotion decisions. Without strong research publications, faculty cannot be promoted regardless of their teaching and leadership excellence. Sure, some faculty stay where they are as purely a research and teaching faculty member, but the upward career mobility is usually possible only after one has achieved a full Professor’s rank.

Faculty positions such as Professor of Psychology require people who love analysing data, investigating phenomena, and communicating results through writing or in the classroom. On the other hand, educational administrator positions like a Dean, Provost, or a Vice Chancellor require people who love problem solving, making difficult decisions, managing teams and projects, and evaluating and taking risks. Yet, it is very rare for a college or university to hire a principal or a Vice chancellor who has not been a lifelong academic.

Academics sometimes have a bit of an unfortunate reputation of being big picture thinkers, with their heads in the clouds (or ivory tower) and disconnected from the realities of everyday life. They start a research project, and then get excited by another new idea several days later, only to end up after several months with a dozen great ideas yet none close to being completed.

Faculty do not learn how to make decisions as an Assistant Professor, where their main concern is to complete the research project and get it published in some top journal that only a handful of other academics in their field will read. Research publications take months if not years to go through the peer review and editing process. Decisions in higher education leadership, especially in the face of crises such as a pandemic, need to be made within days if not hours. The work context is completely different as well, even though both the jobs are in academia.

One reason why leadership in HEIs has been losing its credibility is that so many academic leaders are not good at making long-run decisions for the health of their institutions. The most obvious example is where they fail protect the integrity of the curriculum in the face of faculty desires to teach whatever the faculty finds interesting. Higher education is quickly losing its value proposition, becoming out-of-date, inefficient, and losing credibility in the workplace, due to mindless tactical tinkering with the curriculum and the processes. We may have been so focused on hiring high-quality researchers and teachers, that we forgot they need to also be high-quality leaders and administrators.

So what is the solution?

First and foremost, early career faculty, regardless of their core field of study, must receive training on leadership, team development, risk management and related skills required for higher education administration.

Second, there is a need to change the tenure and promotion criteria for faculty to pursue such trainings. Unless one wants to remain a research or teaching professor for rest of one’s career, tenure and promotion should be granted only that faculty, who can also lead and administer.

Third and finally, academia should consider outside leaders and businessmen who have the necessary skill sets to lead large complex organizations. There are a whole community of people who got their PhD but decided against traditional research and teaching careers. They may be qualified and exceptional in academic leadership positions.


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Friday, 3 June 2022

The Fall of the Faculty Driven B-Schools


Over the past forty years in many different institutions (Indian and foreign), I have personally observed how the heads of institutions have used their positions to advance their individual interests, essentially turning the institution into a political arena and a personal fiefdom. The rise of such administrative corps and the fall of the faculty has resulted in:

  • steadily increasing fees to keep the administrative bloat going,
  • loss of faculty autonomy as casual labour (ad hoc and guest faculty) becomes increasingly prevalent, concepts of academic freedom, tenure and shared governance pass into relics of the past; and
  • Educational institutions classified as non-profit enterprises using non-taxable income to facilitate the creation of material wealth rather than funding teaching and research.

In the contemporary scenario, the governing boards have distorted the core goals of traditional business and values of management education. The self-promotion and fluff associated with 'governors' or 'board-members' not to mention their dutiful and mindless staff, who actually carry out their tasks by applying rhetoric of excellence and diversity while protecting administrative interests (not to mention waste, embezzlement, insider trading and fraud, typifying the corporate world), mock the core academic mission.

Increasing administrative expansion in the once-faculty-driven institutional governance has nothing to do with amplified regulation or changing legislation. Personal glorification and professional advancement, rather than commitment to the institution, faculty and students, appears to be the focus of the heads of institutions. A continuous process of jockeying and self-promotion has become the norm, with many directors and heads of institutions using their current positions to advance to a higher ranked school. Heads of Institutions go through the motions, mouth platitudes about how great the institution is, and grease the right palms.

The heads of most institutions are not particularly qualified to hold their positions. Of course, this indictment does not apply to all heads of institutions, but one does not have to be at an institution long before learning that the mention of the names of certain administrators brings with it a certain amount of faculty eye rolling and groans. Why do we expect people who excel at being an academic to turn around later in their careers and lead the ‘business’ side of the institution? It seems like quite the bait-and-switch: faculty are hired for their skills in research and/or teaching, only to be expected later to shift gears entirely and employ a completely different set of skills — ones that they may not actually possess — in leading the institution.

Typically, heads of institutions identify the faculty members they wish to entrust with administrative leadership positions. These faculty members are "uncontroversial" and are seen as "team players". Being a "team player" and "uncontroversial" in this context means not criticizing, shaming or opposing the head of the institution. This entails shutting down one's superior instincts and common sense and never (heaven forbid) acting on principle.

Because of this tendency to select those who will not rock the boat, the heads of institutions are careful to exclude out those faculties who may expose their incompetence and real agenda. So there is no question of genuine discussion on serious issues with the administrators. Often, administrators see faculty who are constantly engaged in research on issues of shared governance as well as processes related to the functioning of the institution as very active threats to their heightened sense of authority. For example, the heads of some institutions are unaware of the contents of their institutional handbooks (the place where one finds out the detailed procedures for operating an organization), but do not care that they are unfamiliar with it because they are rule by executive fiat. In this strange world, the only rule that matters is who serves the head of the institution at a particular moment, enabling a creative interpretation of what the handbook actually says; or outright rejects that the booklet is incorrect or out of date.

Faculty members, who directly confront heads of institutions about how messy a particular administrative decision is, will face dire consequences. Even when such oppositions are well meaning and in the best interest of the institution, the head of the institution reacts defensively, insisting that they know best or are privy to confidential information that are beyond the comprehension skills of the faculty.

Heads of institutions are smart enough to know that they should avoid forums where probing arguments, debate and presentation of convincing evidence will be required. When all ducking fails, heads of institutions have used the allegation of "harassment" against faculty and students, who raise troubling questions about problematic administrative practices such as embezzlement, fraud and theft. At the end of the day, however, heads of institutions have many weapons they can deploy to avoid being held accountable for their words and actions.

It is not hard to figure out what this means for the advancement of innovative leadership. For example, in the context of searches for positions of heads of institutions, search committees choose the most boring and conventional candidates, making a point to stay away from those who appear a bit edgy or controversial. Search committees quickly identify preferred candidates based on traditional credentials and experience. Search committees know next to nothing about the world of higher education and are easily deceived by candidates who use the essential jargon of corporate buzzwords—"best practices," "accountability," "evaluation," and "benchmarking."

The move to rely increasingly on casual labour gives heads of institutions another way to control faculty. Since non-tenure-track faculty can be dismissed at a moment's notice, heads of institutions do not have to worry about resistance from faculty when it comes to changing curriculum, eliminating meritorious research, or stopping successful programmes. Pretending to mentor faculty, heads of institutions will do what they believe is best. Financial necessities provide a simple way for heads of institutions to undermine the due process to dismantle academic programmes. When all else fails, the head of the institution may insist that an emergency has forced him to forego consulting with anyone in the faculty because time is of the essence.

The cunning heads of institutions understand that they can form alliances with minority activist groups on campus, by posturing as fans of multi-functional agenda being advanced by cliques of these concerns and perspectives in return for support of these activists for their own agenda. As part of this trade-off, heads of institutions look on the other hand to evaluate the low enrolment of some elective courses in certain functional domains, preferring to keep these courses afloat rather than appearing insensitive to the multifunctional agenda, which would result in withdrawal of political support from these politically active advocates on campus.

There is a reign of administrative terror which most of the faculties passively accept as unbreakable. The grip of this terror is ensured by the upper administration, especially the Board of Governors/Trustees who prefer to leave the institutional business to the heads of institutions. The Board of Governors works diligently to prevent faculty from communicating with them, clearly keeping a pleasant vision of the campus at the top of the minds of external stakeholders. Of course, some boards already have some faculty representation (perhaps a slot), but the jury is still out on how effective this representation is in combating administrative power.

Heads of institutions control the institution's PR organs and, in turn, control public perceptions about their role in the institution. This administrative control over public perceptions of the institution's functioning facilitates the covering up of administrative misconduct, except in the most serious cases when serious fraud is uncovered on the part of the institution's head or financial officer. Why rely on the Office of Media Relations to tell where the organization is headed, when employees in that office have zero incentive to tell the truth about the administrative shirking, sabotage and theft affecting the long-term health of the institution?

There can come a particular watershed moment when some of the faculty members realise that it is becoming too unhealthy for them to constantly be managing their response to their head of institution. Such miserable set of people may be left with no choice but to leave the institution or to unionise and litigate to survive. The irony of such development lies in the fact that an institution, which boasts of its proficiency in teaching and researching organisational and human resource management fails in practising what it teaches. 

Those who aspire to become heads of institutions must abstain from any political controversy in their scholarship and public statements. They will have to excise even any evidence of past strong commitments to unpalatable causes and charged statements about relevant issues. They may even go so far as to discard these past allegiances as youthful errors. Then, they have to stay away from any critical assessment of the educational institution. In other words, they will stop criticizing the institution, as well as their place within it. In order to promote themselves as appropriate administrative material, they would portray their faculty colleagues as pampered, lazy and irresponsible, while praising the heads of their institutions as visionary and committed leaders. Of course, they will start talking the latest about "benchmarking," "best practices," and "accountability" while expressing their strong desire to attend an endless stream of meetings and retreats. They will dislike tenure, academic freedom and shared governance as irrelevances that stand in the way of smooth managerial control. Lastly, they will express interest in offering life skills courses on event planning and meditation, while imposing shadow courses on the faculty and disciplining those opposing them with appropriate civility training. One can predict with confidence that their rise to the status of heads of institutions is quite likely.

Those few, who are willing to take the battle to the enemy, must commit to do battle with administrators as administrators. This is however, the most difficult choice. One will need to be prepared to face, no wages, measly standards of living, years of darkness, success doubtful; but honour and recognition if successful.


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