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A new approach to evaluating higher education leadership

Why don't evaluations of institutional leaders take account of the feelings of those affected by their decisions? For Charles Prince, this single change could greatly improve leadership.
This article is more than 3 years old

Charles B. W. Prince is Chief Higher Education Officer at the Global Education Executives, LLC.

Over the last couple of years, it has been evident that an evaluation of higher education leaders and their leadership styles is necessary.

But unfortunately, that evaluation system will be very much top-down. The board will evaluate the VC, the VC will evaluate his or her leadership team, and then it trickles down from one line manager to the next. It will be a typical hierarchical evaluation approach that will provide menial insight that is only in hindsight. We all know that vision is better in hindsight anyway.

This Covid-19 crisis will change and reshape higher education for the better. I believe that new ideas will be needed and should be explored with an inquisitive approach to see if institutions can change and have the capacity to change more rapidly. Therefore, one of those ideas would be to reverse the way we evaluate leadership from a bottom-up approach.


This is a different perspective because it asks different questions. It requires the line manager to ask the subordinate what they think they accomplished and how they did it, it asks the subordinate to evaluate their line manager’s effectiveness in supporting them to meet the goals and objectives that were set. This approach would require that a true and accurate evaluation of success would be portrayed through a non-hierarchical mechanism.

This approach isn’t new to the business industry, but it isn’t used frequently. The reason is that the approaches have gained the name “Servant Leadership”. Many will dismiss the idea because leaders do not see themselves as “servants” to their staff and they think its connotation would be abused by staff. However, many leaders miss this point entirely. Servant leadership is clearly about the need to understand how you are perceived by staff through meaningful and impactful ways. It also has to challenge the current system of the top-down approach and embolden the bottom-up approach to give voice to students and staff.

It is also different because it can evaluate leaders, VCs, and executive groups’ leadership as perceived by the people that are affected by their decisions. The only time staff are asked about leadership is through a staff survey or some award recognition process that requires this kind of dialogue. However, these approaches very seldom have an impact – because leadership can be far removed from that process, or see it as a stretched objective rather than a strategic and mandatory priority.

Bottoms up

My proposed approach means such bottom-up appraisal directly affects their evaluation records because it takes into account 1-2-1 or 1-2-6 evaluations of one person. It eliminates the top-down evaluation of only one person assessing the impact of another person without a clear reflection of success and failures. Imagine if VCs’ payouts, bonuses, and other benefits were contingent upon the evaluation of a leadership team or the university? That would change and shake-up how VCs are supported and challenged in their roles to do more than just develop a strategy.

This could also play out through a cross-evaluation process. For example, if someone has responsibility for cross-institutional responsibilities, then why aren’t those other affects individuals asked to provide an evaluation of their work as well. Most will say that if the affected party writes to the line manager, then that should be handled there. But how good would that be if nothing ever changes or if it doesn’t get reflected in the evaluation of performance?

For example, an HR advisor or business partner has institutional responsibility. They are assigned to manage and support other departments. However, when has HR ever asked those parties about the performance of the HR business partner? Or does it happen when the bubble burst and all issues come out? Where is this cross-evaluation of the service that makes sense and supports the development of staff in meaningful ways? The same could be used for finance, professional support services, estates, and others.

Mind the gap

I always approach my ideas with this gap analysis of why this won’t work:

  • Knowledge and skills: There is a lack of knowledge to understand the theory and impact of servant leadership. Leaders also do not have the skills to make the whole system changes to the way they engage with staff because training isn’t available and it’s always an HR problem.
  • Motivation: Many leaders aren’t motivated to motivate staff or see the value in this change management process. It also turns the lens from the traditional top down approach to a bottom-up approach.
  • Organisation: I don’t believe there is a gap here because this is taking current performance evaluation processes and procedures (if the university has one) and including a new direction of assessment.

The road to improvement is through effective evaluations of performance. But, too many times, that evaluation is done without a clear contextual picture that informs decision making – from the board of governors to the further reaches of the organisational chart. There are too many conversations taking place in universities where information is not freely shared in a way that helps dialogue and conversations for improvement. Instead, effective management, efficiency, and ‘inspirational’ leadership is nothing more than strategy and metrics.

Real dialogue must be jolted at the heart of where it matters, and that is through an evaluation of the impact system that starts bottom-up. Who will take on this challenge and which leaders will embolden organisations to rethink their policies, practices, and procedures in ways that are innovative and creative?

2 responses to “A new approach to evaluating higher education leadership

  1. A thought-provoking take. Bottom-up feedback does happen (think 360s) but from my experience it can be like polyfilla, filling a gap once it’s there, or starting to appear. This kind of approach would require a lot of trust and bravery on everyone’s part, including those giving feedback upwards.

  2. What leadership? I mean rather than a direct chain of command, there are countless levels and offices of leadership competing to run the university today. Not joined up. I would be hard pressed to think whom I might evaluate with everyone in charge and no one in charge. Covid has actually exposed the poor decision making structure and lack of true leadership. Dilution/Diffusion of responsibility.

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