We need leaders that can link local citizens with our universities

Paul Gentle examines the kind of leadership required to discharge universities' increasingly civic responsibilities effectively.

Across the world, universities are being tasked with playing their part as leaders in their communities.

This includes embracing responsibility for actions their students and staff might take that affect people’s lives: in sharper focus than ever now that university accommodation appears to play a part in amplifying the Covid pandemic.

But the challenging implications of such responsibility don’t stop at being good neighbours. A different kind of leadership is required.

There are strong expectations out there. Universities cast a long shadow in what they do and how they go about it. We’re familiar with many of the associated risks: being seen as defenders of privilege, or as preservers of business interests. Or, to look at some examples of recent media coverage, as potential threats to public health.

Universities as facilitators and role models

Yet when they get it right, universities are compelling role models for a different kind of civic behaviour.

Take UCLAN’s Preston model of fostering new start-up businesses as worker-owned co-operatives, with its evidence of positive impact on prosperity and social inclusion. In 2018, Preston became the “most-improved city in the UK”.

Or, on the other side of the planet is Victoria University of Wellington’s Green Impact change and engagement programme, part of an Australasia-wide network which demonstrates how “universities can build a better world”.

At Singapore Management University, the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship hosts a world-wide Social Impact Prize, aimed at incentivising business ideas to “make cities of the future more inclusive, healthier and greener.”

Behind all these initiatives is a quality of leadership which is successful in influencing purposeful change. Although other preoccupations are more urgent for the university sector this week, the challenge of responsible civic leadership is equally important right now.

How universities genuinely enhance the positive impact they make on their city or region requires creative thinking. It challenges our imaginations to apply knowledge to devise practical solutions with others. It enables us to lead ethically and influentially in our communities.

Being the change we want to see

Universities have all the skills needed to innovate in their processes, position and products. The last 30 years have shaped a very different landscape for higher education than existed prior to present levels of mass participation and internationalisation.

What is called for now, and which we’ve seen in spades over the last 6 months, is paradigm innovation: deep changes in the thinking, aspirations and purpose that drive institutions. A focus on civic engagement needs to be core to institutional strategy.

To become pioneers of the new kinds of living environments we might help create in our cities and regions, universities should prioritise leading in partnership in ways that sets aside concerns about dominance. A step change in civic leadership can only happen through giving our full attention to strengthening the quality of working relationships.

Leadership capabilities

So what does the new civic engagement leadership skill set look like?

It emphasises high-order influencing abilities, capability in spanning boundaries, embracing complexity and tolerating ambiguity. This becomes compelling when it really feels as though leaders can model building trust and engagement that support collaboration.

I’ve seen many examples of this in recent months in universities. When I heard a Pro Vice-Chancellor sharing with colleagues that “Sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing” in trying to engage with local external stakeholders, you could have heard a pin drop.

Immediately afterwards, the same colleagues became energised as a team around building support for the PVC. The next morning, we invited a group of business leaders to challenge the university on how to up its game in engaging with small and medium-sized companies. The group rose to the occasion and asked highly effective questions that led to real insights and learning.

Leaders who can broker effective partnership dialogue from the level of faculties and departments are at a premium. They are able to link local citizens and organisations with those in the university who can make dynamic civic engagement happen: both the innovators and those who oversee operational processes.

They’re great at facilitating learning dialogue which leads to energised action, often through surfacing rather than suppressing conflict. They make this happen in a rich variety of contexts: cross-cutting, large scale strategic conversations linking multiple layers of an institution; thematic inquiries where teams tackle a problem together, proving the power of collaborating around a shared issue.

At the heart of what motivates these collaborative leaders, in my experience, is always care and compassion, and a strong sense of values.

Preparing for the long hail to the peak

This is not a short-term venture. It’s about taking stock of what can seem like a mountain in front of us, then preparing mentally and emotionally for the climb ahead. At times the peak will seem elusive, seeming invisible or unattainable, yet always there.

When we show conviction that what we’re doing creates value for all civic stakeholders, not just the university, we’re more likely to succeed. And if we can show how good we are at including other universities in the same city or region within our partnerships, we create something compelling that makes people take notice.

When how we behave is consistent with the goals we declare, we establish our legitimacy to lead in the places we value most.

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy is preparing to unveil its Research and Development Place Strategy, in partnership with UKRI. This is expected to outline how universities will contribute to cultural, economic and social levelling-up.

Now is the time for us to approach our communities with questions that enable us to achieve two crucial outcomes – to provide reassurance that we are pro-active citizens who care about tackling the Covid crisis, and open up new routes to collaboration which will enhance the places we cohabit.

3 responses to “We need leaders that can link local citizens with our universities

  1. It would be good if University leaders were actually on campus, not exclusively working from home, and during Covid having access to top tier levels of management quickly has been all but impossible, and now it’s half term all of them here have foxtrot oscar’d, making all the campus covid safety information impossible to access. When the “300 grannies” die due to s-TOO-DENSE ignoring symptoms and not reporting confirmed infection so they don’t get locked down and can continuing partying, going to local shops to buy booze, and maybe some food it’ll be the few ‘real workers’ on campus who get the backlash…

  2. Well said Paul; as American philosopher of science, JD Bernal stated: “the scientist is citizen first, scientist second”. In other words – regardless of our job/ role, we should all recognise what we can contribute to and within our communities

  3. All good stuff Paul, but I believe its all been said a thousand times before, and there are many examples of new start-ups stimulated and supported by universities. Throughout the piece, your focus always seems to be on universities helping to create new businesses or stimulating new products – a very old “civic university” model, which I had hoped was dying out.
    The real challenge is for leadership which finds ways to engage people in local communities to work with departments/faculties in delivering courses and even designing them, and in this way to feel joint ownership of what their sons or daughters might study. It might even mean that universities invite members of local communities into lectures and/or to participate in on-line learning, or both. “Goodness, where will it end?” I hear the sceptics say. Of course, maybe this brings no fears if you are thinking of genuine partnership with selective Trusts and work in selective universities. I admit it can be a much greater challenge when working in such a university but with schools in poor and deprived areas.
    It is time for leadership which brings widening participation in its widest sense and in this way builds embedded relationships which survive changes of leaders whether in the university or the community – and strategically plan to, thereby, be able to meet community-wide challenges like Covid-19 “head-on” together.

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