Where Advocacy and Sound Leadership Must Part Company
The world of higher education is one where advocacy plays out on a daily basis. We see it at the lowest professional levels of our institutions, where faculty are advocates for students, academic programs, policy, colleagues, and curricula as well as for themselves. At the highest level, our presidents are overall advocates for the institution, using public means such as speeches and appearances. They speak of the excellence of the institution and its faculty and the value of the degrees earned by its graduates in the hopes of boosting student recruitment and generating political and monetary support by convincing influential people to carry the message and to donate respectively. They also function as advocates when they appear before legislatures and boards when budgetary issues are on the agenda.
Between the faculty and president there are layers of leadership in which advocacy exists as a high-stakes dynamic. This is because virtually everything we do and value has a resource requirement (time, space, people, money), and there are never enough resources to satisfy all requests. As a result, tensions can develop between deans and provosts and between chairs and deans.
Despite the fact that advocacy takes place at all levels, it is listed most frequently as a defined role of department chairs. Faculty expect chairs to be strong advocates for their departments, and the dean does as well. In spite of the potential of having to say “no,” the dean wants to learn about the department and its values, needs, and aspirations. Possessing the insight that such information provides helps the dean make the best decisions regarding requests from the departments. Thus, honest, eloquent, and compelling advocacy is a good thing, providing that the entire process, from request to post-response, is handled appropriately.
Two components of good leadership are the ability to look beyond the issue at hand and see the big picture and the courage to act on that insight. This requires recognizing the difference between what is best for the part (department) and the whole (school and/or beyond). Below is an example of how the two positive chair characteristics—advocacy and leadership—may move in opposite directions of acceptability.
State University has seen an overall decline in enrollment that has damaged its fiscal position and restricted its ability to invest in areas that may turn the situation around. An exception to the decline is the School of Engineering (SoE), which continues to enjoy growth. The SoE has five departments—Mechanical Engineering (ME), Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Civil Engineering, Chemical and Biomedical Engineering (BME)—with ME being the strongest and BME, at three years old, being the newest. The dean and campus administration would like to grow BME because of its potential to tap the NIH (a new funding source for the SoE) for grant funding and because of the state’s emphasis on recruiting and generating related industries.
There is one large medical device company nearby, and several smaller ones have recently emerged. The state has been active in recruiting such entities and has announced another large company will move to the area, with several others in the negotiation stage. The opportunities presented for internships, faculty and student recruitment, grants, collaborations, and the like seem boundless. While there is financial support from school and campus sources for expanding BME, there had been no suitable space for the necessary laboratories until a SoE alumnus donated a nearby building with 15,000 square feet of usable space along with funding to renovate the facility. The donation has no strings attached and can be used for any purpose that advances the reputation and excellence of the SoE.
In short order, the dean receives two requests for the new space. One is from the BME chair outlining all the advantages listed above while reminding the dean that the lack of space has restricted faculty hiring, which is jeopardizing the department’s ability to satisfy student coursework demand and is limiting research activity. The second request comes from the ME chair who reminds the dean that ME is the premier department in the SoE if not on the entire campus. He refers to a recent program review that recommended that the space allocation for faculty be raised from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet to maximize productivity, including external funding, and to potentially move the department into the top 10 nationally. The dean has two strong proposals from which to choose.
Citing the interests of the campus and state along with student demand and the opportunities associated with the BME proposal, the dean chooses that option. How does the ME chair respond? If he has strong leadership skills, he will express both disappointment in the outcome and an understanding of why the decision was made. He may promise to seek other avenues for his project and to generate a more compelling proposal in the future.
Unfortunately, some chairs will take the route of continuing to plead their cases, sometimes with increased volume and rancor. This can be the result of faculty expectations and pressure or their own belief that advocacy is appropriate at any and all times and that there is no responsibility beyond that to the department. The inability of some administrators to see the institutional big picture or to consider the impact of decisions beyond the local environment can lead to escalation that results in permanent fractures in the chair–dean relationship.
While the extreme advocacy exhibited by the ME chair might be understandable if found in an inexperienced faculty member, it is certainly not acceptable behavior for someone in a leadership role. There are several recommendations that should steer chairs away from the unpleasant scenario just visited. First, when presented with the opportunity to gain something of significant value (faculty lines, space, program support, graduate student lines) in a true competition, chairs should spend the necessary time crafting the best possible proposal. Justifications should be others-focused and should address the campus mission when possible. Hard data (e.g., wait lists, class sizes, number of labs, inter-institutional comparative data, or accrediting body guidelines on square footage per faculty member) and projections (credit hours, research success) are often helpful. Statements and positions like “we are good and this resource will make us better” are unlikely to win the day.
The second recommendation is to carefully review the proposals of competitors and conduct an objective merit test. This should include an assessment of the proposal’s impact from local to systemic. The third recommendation is to be prepared to support proposals clearly superior to the one you have presented. How one does this depends on the mechanism used to select the winning proposal. If it is a school committee that makes a recommendation to the dean, this could be done through the department representative. The fourth and final recommendation is that the chair should pay close attention to the dean when he or she provides a rationale for the decision. In it will likely be some things he or she particularly values or is persuaded by. This information can be used to craft subsequent requests in ways to better position them for success.
To support a competitor’s proposal will take courage, a characteristic of sound administrative leadership. Seeing the big picture or understanding the part–whole relationship will be something that the dean will remember.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.