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Managing the Academic Leadership Pipeline

Leadership and Management

Managing the Academic Leadership Pipeline

When few faculty members are willing to serve as department chair, two questions come to mind: why, and what can we do about it?

These are the questions that Deborah DeZure, assistant provost for faculty and organizational development at Michigan State University, and her colleagues sought to answer as preparing the next generation of leaders becomes a growing concern with the inevitable departure of the large cohort of leaders from the baby boom generation.

“I was hearing from department chairs that they were really struggling to get faculty who would be willing to step into the role of department chair, and I was pretty surprised by that,” DeZure says. “I thought, where are all these aspiring leaders? I needed to understand what was happening here.”

To understand the issue and to identify effective ways to cultivate new leaders, DeZure and colleagues Allyn Shaw and Julie Rojeweski interviewed 19 unit administrators identified by associate provosts and deans as “academic leaders who are highly effective in identifying, cultivating, and nurturing faculty to pursue academic leadership” and 16 faculty members identified by deans as “tenure-system midcareer faculty who have indicated an interest in academic leadership and/or have agreed to take on informal leadership roles.” (The findings of the study are highlighted in the January/February issue of Change magazine.)

In an interview with Academic Leader, DeZure talked about factors that keep faculty from pursuing leadership roles and offered recommendations based on this research.


There were several factors that faculty cited for their reluctance to become leaders, including the perceived difficulty of leadership positions, the negative effects it might have on their careers, and a lack of understanding of what leaders, such as department chairs, do.

DeZure says that leadership roles are getting more difficult due to increased regulation and financial cutbacks. “People are being asked to do a lot more varieties of administrative and regulatory tasks, so there’s less time for ‘intellectual leadership.’ … The financial piece we heard loud and clear: in a period in which there are more funds and you can hire more faculty and grow a program, it’s very exciting to take on leadership roles. But in the past five years, which was when this study took place, it was the opposite. You could hire, but only minimally. In times of cutbacks, you might need to downsize or even eliminate some programs. People don’t want their legacy to be that under their leadership the program got smaller.”

Tighter finances also make being a leader more difficult. “When people have to reorganize in order to accommodate cutbacks or get smaller where there are fewer resources to share, there’s inevitable tension, and you have to be a really skilled leader to deal with the tension and conflict that inevitably go with cutting resources. It does require more refined skill sets to deal in a time of constraint rather than a time of plenty.

“When people think about going into leadership, it’s rarely a one-year commitment. It may be the rest of one’s career, so people have to be very careful and thoughtful about whether they want to deal with those things,” DeZure says.

Another top concern among faculty in the study was that serving in a leadership position may distract them from activities that they need to do in order to advance their careers. The issue is not whether early-career faculty should serve in leadership positions—most would agree that early-career faculty should develop their teaching and research skills so that they will be successful in their tenure bids. But what about midcareer faculty? Is it productive to “protect” them from leadership activities that may serve them and the institution well?

One respondent wrote the following.

“I don’t think that protecting junior faculty is doing any good, and it certainly isn’t helping the university. Part of being a faculty member is more than doing research. People who were brought up in a culture where research is most important, if they get thrown on a committee, they don’t do it well, don’t take it seriously.”

Lack of understanding about what leaders do also contributes to this reluctance that some faculty feel about becoming a leader. In addition, this lack of understanding can lead to negative feelings that some faculty have about leaders. And this was evident in this study. Asked whether they had heard of the phrase “going into administration is going to the dark side” and if so, what it means, faculty respondents indicated that it referred to the adversarial relationship between faculty and administrators as well as questionable motives for their actions. The leaders who responded in the study painted a very different picture of their roles. People in leadership positions see their roles as trying to make things better and helping and empowering others. “It’s not about them; it’s about the people they serve and support,” DeZure says.


 Stepping-stone roles

The primary motivation for this research was to find practical solutions to the leadership pipeline issue. And the one theme that seemed to come up frequently in this study was to create opportunities for midcareer faculty to serve in “stepping stone” leadership roles—offering low-stakes experiences that can help them explore leadership roles, identify their strengths, determine whether they wish to pursue leadership roles, and develop their skills.

One respondent in the study said that the steepest learning curve is going from faculty member to one’s first leadership position, and the move into subsequent leader roles is easier. “If you’ve had more opportunities for these stepping-stone roles, it’s much easier,” DeZure says.

Stepping-stone roles can include modest positions such as serving on or leading a search committee or service in academic governance.  These roles enable faculty members to develop their leadership skills in areas such as consensus building, communication, and running effective meetings.

“There were people who said, ‘I discovered some things about myself. I’m very good at getting people to reach consensus, but I’m not organized.’ Or ‘If I took a leadership role, I would need an administrative assistant who is super organized.’ It helps future leaders identify their strengths, areas to develop, and strengths they will need from colleagues when they build their leadership team,” DeZure says.

One of DeZure’s favorite suggestions from the study was to rotate the associate chair position among many faculty so that each faculty member gets a chance to see how the department runs while preparing many people in the department for possible leadership positions in the future.

Talk to faculty about leadership
One of the suggestions to encourage faculty to consider low-stakes leadership roles that came out of this study was to ask them during their annual performance reviews, “Are you interested in leadership or leadership development?” Asking this simple question “legitimizes the discussion” about leadership, making faculty members more willing to consider taking on leadership roles. “Historically, particularly at a research university, most faculty would not express their interest in leadership to their chairs, assuming that the chair just wants them to do research and teach. But if a chair invites it, [faculty members] think, ‘I guess it’s safe and OK for me to express my interest in leadership.’”

As a follow-up to this question, DeZure recommends adding, “What kinds of committee work and service work could you do that would develop some of the skills that you’re interested in developing?”

Offer timely leadership development
Leadership development programming has become quite common throughout higher education; however, these opportunities are often for people who already have been selected for leadership positions. One of the most important findings for us in our work was that we need to offer leadership development for faculty who are not yet in leadership roles,” DeZure says.

To this end, Michigan State University offers a leadership development series called Workshops for Faculty on Leadership in Academic Life “to enable faculty to hone a whole variety of skills and to envision what a leadership role is. We try to take the veil away to help them understand what leaders do. For example, we run panels with department chairs who talk about why they went into leadership, what skills they needed, what they wish they had learned before becoming chair, and what they negotiated for to enable them to continue to do research and/or teaching,” DeZure says.

Support faculty as they take on leadership roles
Midcareer faculty have legitimate concerns about how a leadership position could affect their ability to perform their other duties, so it’s important to provide adequate support to prevent them from getting sidetracked. This might include providing extra support staff, post docs, or research or teaching assistants or taking other measures to reduce obstacles to taking on leadership roles. “We need to rethink how we can enable people to take on leadership and administrative roles, while continuing to be productive in other ways. If we don’t, then I think it’s unfair to ask midcareer associate professors to take on these roles, because they may not attain their goal of reaching the rank of full professor,” DeZure says.


DeZure, Deborah; Shaw, Allyn; and Rojewski, Julie. 2014. “Cultivating the Next Generation of Academic Leaders: Implications for Administrators and Faculty.” Change. January/February, pp. 6-12.


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