Plus ça change? Leadership and community in higher education

It takes time to build a great university. Centuries are not always necessary, but it certainly takes more than a few years. Leadership needs to take account of the nature of universities – with their special organisational structure and their consequent core strengths – so that these can be nurtured effectively over the long term.

In a climate where university leaders often face many decisions which seem to be a choice between bad and worse, one strategic ambition could be to be exactly the same in 2030 as in 2020. Holding back the tide against all of the many evils that beset universities these days, a Canute mindset could be forgiven. Universities are strangely resilient organisational forms and, despite our turbulent times, they display great stability over time. By contrast, the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 multinational organisation is 50 years and current indicators point to ever-more rapidly shrinking corporate lifespans. I am writing within a relatively modern university that is already 182 years old. This resilience is achieved not through highly visible change at the macro scale but by a constant underlying innovation and change in the communities of scholars and students that are at the heart of universities. This is the core strength and resilience of universities.

From a cold market-oriented point of view, the longevity and resilience of universities is a bit of a puzzle. The renowned marketing theorist, Henry Mintzberg, later in his career took an interest in non-traditional organisational structures and as part of this curiosity analysed his alma-mater, McGill University. He found that this was an organisation that over a period of 152 years enrolment grew at an average rate of 3.78% per year. He noted that the organisation was pretty good at growing, adding a programme here, a centre there as time went by, but was less good at pruning and very little was ever closed down. At the quantum level of people and academic units, there was a great frothing of innovation and change, but at the macroscopic organisational level very little could be seen as strategic. He concluded that McGill was a very postmodern organisation with constant micro-venturing, a very distributed decision-making structure, and great porosity with the outside world.

Absorbing change

In this age of disruptive innovation we have learnt that although organisations are capable of constant adaptive innovation in their core activities, they are locked into relationships with the value networks and stakeholder environments that they inhabit and are thus unable to absorb major change. This works against their survival in the face of such disruptive innovation. Large corporate organisations typically separate or spin off any significant innovation that is developed internally. They also often buy start-ups that threaten to disrupt their business models in order to try, often vainly, to control or shut down competing business models. In other words, it is difficult for commercial organisations to absorb significant amounts of change and in the long term this is a crucial weakness. How does this logic apply to universities? New ideas, innovation and change are part of the very essence of universities – albeit at the granular level of individuals, academic units or research centres. Is it paradoxical to imagine that the difficulty in being strategic in the development of universities contributes to their success and longevity?

The waves of disruption that have rippled through such industries as music, publishing and computing have left a large trail of disappearing organisations behind them. I am not aware of a single university that has closed as a result of the wave of disruption, for example, that started in 2012 with the “year of the MOOCs” which many argued would lead to the end of universities as we knew them. Why have universities survived? MOOCs have certainly affected universities. There has been a growth in online hybrid degrees with elements of MOOC structure to them and some universities, such as GeorgiaTech, have attempted to completely reinvent themselves using the stimulus of MOOCs as a major element within this reimagining. Many academics have experimented widely with the technology and this has undoubtedly affected their pedagogic approach. There is nothing new here, that’s what academics do, and indeed delivering education at a large scale and a distance has been part of my University’s mission for 160 years. The important point is that universities have absorbed this innovation and change in a way that more commercially oriented and faster paced organisations cannot. And they have done so because they are essentially communities of highly curious and intelligent people who are given the freedom to innovate and experiment in universities that aspire to being great.

What is a university for?

Nobody knows what a university is for. Newman, Humboldt, Willets or Collini all have different stories to tell. Almost everything that can be said about what a university is has an awkward counter example. That is part of the charm. But accepting that a university has multiple purposes and roles does nothing to handicap our search for greatness. And it is clear that universities offer a unique space where great things happen – the highest aspirations and ideals – that Collini refers to in his essay on the purpose of a university. For university leadership, a multiplicity of stakeholders, sponsors and the blur of social and academic purposes makes for complexity in decision-making, adding to the difficulties of leading where authority and accountability are widely distributed. Senior leadership typically spends the vast majority of its time focussed inwards in a constant struggle to build consensus and create coherent strategic action across the organisation. Here is the vital part of the equation, the essence of what a university is resists such marshalling. Strategy applied to universities needs to be longer scale and more aware of the very freedom to innovate that constitutes the core strength of universities and sets them apart from other organisations.

It is useful to think of universities not as city states but as a confederation of villages. There is no unified command and control, yet in times of need, villagers can unite to defeat an enemy, build an irrigation system and regulate the price of cattle. In order for this to work there is a great need for leadership, but history also matters. Where is the core strength of universities? And how can it be mobilised? Clearly, it’s not the buildings nor their equipment. People, is a big part of the answer, but there is also an invisible infrastructure and history of interlacing communities, conversations and processes (the culture) and of course the dark matter of brand and reputation gluing everything together. Understanding the interplay of these components is crucial to university leadership. There is a place for grand plan activity – the establishment of a new research centre, an overseas campus, or a new discipline. But these will be driven from the top and will require an enormous amount of a few core resources such as senior leadership ability and time. Few universities can take on more than a handful of such initiatives in any given leadership period. Meanwhile, village life will go on – well or poorly depending on local abilities and circumstances. Each village is a tight community with its own mix of specialisms, both academic and professional. The success of the university as a whole depends more on this than on the grand plans.

Vibrant communities

As Mary Stuart points out, it’s the health and vibrancy of these communities that needs to be understood and nurtured as the primary leadership goal for a university. This is not easy, it takes time and will go largely unrecognised. This is at the core of our leadership challenge. Every leader pays attention to these things, but they are not the ones that typically count in our assessment of effective leadership. This is because the results are in timescales that are longer than leadership spans, and because we have no effective way to measure progress apart from the visible outputs of these communities and these normally lag several years from the inputs.

So will the academic environment in 2030 look much different from today? I don’t think so. There will still be a core campus offering as the heart of an intellectual community with a variety of physical and distance activities taking place. Will a university in 2030 feel different from a university in 2020? I cannot answer this question as it depends on all of us. How will we stand on freedom of speech in a decade? How will we respond to the type of threats universities have faced in Budapest or Iraq? How will we deal with anti-intellectualism and the current existential crisis in the theory of knowledge? And how will we lead our disparate, often contradictory and unpredictable groups of academics and specialists to encourage them to grapple with these issues and work towards a better world? I hope that universities will feel pretty much the same in 2030 as they do now as places that are passionate about our human present and future and composed of strong and resilient communities of curious people devoted to problem solving and innovation.

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