Best Practices in Preparing Academic Leaders
It’s increasingly common for colleges and universities to offer programs designed to help chairs, deans, and other academic administrators become more effective. Sometimes falling under a center for teaching and learning, at other times existing as an independent office for leadership and professional development, these programs reflect the recognition that college administrators often come to their jobs woefully underprepared for their responsibilities. These leadership development programs are well-intentioned efforts to “backfill” the skills needed by academic leaders who, although they may be experts in their disciplines, know very little about how to make an academic unit function effectively.
How can institutions know whether their academic leadership initiatives are worth the resources they require? Here are five practices commonly followed by successful leadership training programs.
1.Include training in both highly specialized day-to-day responsibilities and more global administrative issues. Administrators need to know how to develop and implement budgets, conduct effective meetings, write evaluation reports, submit equipment requests, and engage in a wide variety of other activities that are basic to their jobs. If they don’t know how to mediate a personnel conflict, they’re not likely to have the skills they need to make their programs run smoothly. But their programs won’t run smoothly if these specific tasks are all they know. Academic leaders also have to reflect on their leadership philosophy, know where management ends and leadership begins, handle stress, think about the future in creative and visionary ways, and understand how they fit into the global picture of higher education. Effective academic leadership programs cover all points on this spectrum. They include sessions on how to write effective résumés also on the strategies of servant leadership. They don’t ignore programs on developing effective notices for position vacancies, but neither do they limit their programs to explaining policies and software. Good academic leadership programs address both the forest and the trees because an effective administrator cannot afford to ignore either one.
2.Programs should be both scaffolded and continuous. Although the types of workshops we just considered are essential to any academic leadership program, workshops alone do not make a program. A series of workshops, no matter how excellent the topics may be, rarely change behavior. Academic leaders begin to see their administrative processes improve when programs are scaffolded (introductory sessions lead to intermediate sessions, which lead to advanced sessions) and continuous (there is follow-up, either in person or electronically, between sessions so that progress doesn’t stop at the end of the workshop). Just as an academic course is more than a number of discrete lessons on isolated topics, so are effective leadership programs carefully structured sequences that build on one another and reinforce the ideas that have been covered.
3.Include projects. Another way in which leadership programs should be like courses is that they need to require homework. If you’ve ever audited a course, you know that your level of understanding the material is far less than if you actually enroll and complete all the assignments, papers, and tests. Academic leadership programs are similar. Participants need to apply the information they cover and the skills they develop in activities that benefit their institutions. Projects serve as a way of evaluating the degree to which the participants have mastered the material and of continuing the scaffolded and continuous nature of the program described earlier. If people don’t apply what they’ve learned in the program by engaging in a meaningful project, much of the content remains theoretical and has little effect on administrative practices.
4.Include discussion and support groups. All academic leaders face challenges from time to time. They need an opportunity to discuss these challenges with people who may be having similar experiences and who aren’t their supervisors. Many participants in academic leadership programs say that the networking opportunities these programs provide are their most valuable feature. They help the participants realize that they’re not alone in the problems they’re having and that they’re not necessarily doing anything wrong when things don’t work out according to plan. Even experienced academic leaders may be reluctant to talk about problems with their bosses for fear of admitting weakness or failure. Discussion and support groups alleviate that fear because they offer peer-to-peer consolation and consultation.
5.Include appropriate forms of assessment. A series of workshops that merely provide administrators a chance to get together from time to time, venting and discussing interesting ideas, may be pleasant, but doesn’t achieve the fundamental goal: improving administrative performance. Assessment activities should include self-reflection (what have I done differently as a result of this program?), supervisor evaluation (how has the participant’s performance improved as a result of this program?), and stakeholder insight (how has your colleague or supervisor’s performance changed as a result of this program?). Assessment helps those in charge of the program monitor the effectiveness of their activities and alerts them to changes that need to be made.
For more on how to organize and implement an effective academic leadership training program, see Walter H. Gmelch and Jeffrey L. Buller, Building Academic Leadership Capacity: A Guide to Best Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2015.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLA: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.
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