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Toward a Caring University: An Interview with Kevin McClure, Part 2

Institutional Culture

Toward a Caring University: An Interview with Kevin McClure, Part 2

Kevin McClure, PhD, is an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and codirector of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. He regularly publishes about leadership and higher education structures in publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education and EdSurge. He sat down with contributing editor Rebecca Pope-Ruark to discuss the book he is working on about the caring university and his views on preparing future leaders for work in higher education. Part 2 of the interview is presented here, edited lightly for clarity. You can read Part 1 here.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: You’ve talked elsewhere about the morale and the well-being of leaders being important as well, that often we talk about leaders in very negative terms after they move into administration. So, what are you thinking lately around leadership and morale and well-being?

Kevin McClure: Basically, leadership is central to the employee experience. Data indicates that. But I think we often think of that as a unidirectional relationship, that leaders are the cause of whether or not an employee stays or leaves. And we don’t always do a very good job of then stopping and thinking about, “Well, what is the experience of being a leader at this place, and who is it that is being tapped to step into those roles, and what ways are they being supported?” What’s really interesting is I when I wrote that piece and proposed this idea that we ought to be paying attention to leaders’ morale, I was surprised at the sometimes callous responses that I would receive from individuals. One of the most common responses was along the lines of because of what they are compensated, we ought not really care as much about their working conditions. Although I see some logic in that, they signed up for this role, they are compensated in some cases well for it, and there is a certain piece of me that says, “Well, how’s that working out for us?” This doesn’t seem like a particularly good way of approaching it. If we are to create an institution that’s predicated on this notion of care, it seems like if it’s going to be most effective, it has to apply to the entire organization.

I think we’ll see leaders themselves be better at designing working conditions and cultures if they themselves are also part of the process of constructing them and benefit from them. That doesn’t mean that I think that we ought to be directing all or most of our attention at the experiences of executive leaders, but I think to pursue some of these changes as if they don’t experience burnout or don’t experience morale issues would be a real misstep. If we want them to be in a position to create change and to buy into the importance of some of these changes, they themselves have to have capacity and bandwidth to be able to listen and to pause and to be creative. I think it gets really hard to envision and to carry out change if you yourself feel like you are running a really intense race day after day after day and don’t have a chance to pause and catch your breath. Where does that opportunity to reflect and think about a different course come into play?

So, it’s about it is about training leaders certainly, but it’s also about trying to shift the mindsets of faculty and staff—faculty in particular—to be honest. For reasons that I can understand, faculty have a really antagonistic view of folks that have stepped into leadership roles. I think there’s a place for that kind of questioning and conflict, but there are also ways in which it can be counterproductive when it comes to the types of changes that I’m trying to advocate.

I’m thinking about leadership generations that are coming up, like the next people to come into these positions and what kind of preparation and training they deserve. How do we prepare people to want to take on these roles? And in this kind of climate?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s becoming tougher to sell the value proposition of leadership roles in higher education, partially because of the working conditions that we have in some cases created or come to expect of people who step into those roles. Interestingly, as I read about things like ideal worker norms, I can’t think of a place where ideal worker norms are more prevalent than in leadership and executive-level positions in higher education. We talk about folks that are expected to be constantly available and unfailingly loyal to the institution. And there are zero affordances for people who have disabilities or chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, I think that’s the nature of our expectations of leadership these days. And so, as we think about cultivating a next generation, we need to push back against some of those expectations. If we are going to create opportunities for a more diverse set of leaders, but also leaders who want to bring their talent to those positions but don’t want to sacrifice themselves in the process, we’ve got to restructure the working conditions themselves. It’s not just about preparing the next generation of leaders for crappy jobs. It’s about fixing the crappy jobs so that more people want to lead.

Convincing the “tempered radicals” to take on leadership roles and come out of the shadows.

Exactly. I think that’s one dimension of the training. We have a lot of room for improvement around internal training of leaders. We do a lot of outsourcing where we send folks to leadership development programs. And I think there can be a lot of value to those programs, and there’s only so much that a given institution might be able to do. But I do think that we could do a better job preparing people who step into that next level with more accountability around supervision and what good supervision looks like. Figuring out how we differentiate someone who is a successful faculty member and someone who’s going to be a good leader is important because sometimes those characteristics can get conflated. One’s ability to manage a lab could be really good leadership preparation, but it may not be in all instances. We’ve got to tease out some of those differences.

Ultimately, I’d like to see us think about how we reward individuals who start to establish a track record around supporting faculty and staff and to not necessarily elevate, reward, and tap for leadership individuals whose ascendance into those positions has been premised on pushing people really hard and pushing organizations really hard. Because that’s what gets the outcomes that are maybe going to be on the radar of a board of trustees, for example. One of the things that concerns me sometimes in the realm of higher education leadership is that we tend to reward people whose entire pathway into and through leadership has been on the basis of overworking themselves and overworking others. And I would like us, as an alternative vision, to consider some folks who say, “That’s not my approach to leadership.” Some of their outcomes might look a little bit different, or it might take us a little bit longer to get there, but I ultimately think that we’re going to see positive organizational ripple effects from having someone in this position who does it differently.

I wonder what role coaching might ultimately play in some of this as well. Some institutions have coaching programs in their centers for teaching and learning or centers for faculty excellence and are training folks to coach as well as to offer leadership development training.

Yes, I could see value in that 100 percent. You’re probably better versed in this than I am, but I intrinsically believe in the value of coaching. At my institution, we’re trying to stand up some coaching, particularly for mid-level faculty, to help them think about what a next chapter for them could look like in terms of contribution. They are known at the institution, but having someone who’s got just a different lens on things that they could bring to issues is valuable. Someone who’s trained to do that. I think that could be a really powerful way of support. One of the issues, of course, that we’re seeing now is people who are stepping into leadership roles in some cases sooner than they expected, sooner than the institution may have expected, because they’ve got turnover, and they may be on an interim status stepping into a new leadership role. And so those types of scenarios, in particular, I think are ones where coaching could really come in handy.

I think we need to be very careful about the kind of people we’re putting in those roles and the training that they have. I’ve seen a huge move in the last few years for folks from higher ed being trained as coaches, people who are already understand things that just don’t translate in other contexts, like shared governance. You need coaches in that role to have some of that background knowledge to be effective in understanding what a leader, or even a faculty member who might be interested in leadership later, goes through day to day.

I could see that. We need good people with the right coaching training doing it well.

Our thanks to Dr. McClure for his time chatting with us about these important topics. To learn more about Dr. McClure’s work and thoughts, follow him on LinkedIn.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, 2022).


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