Best college heads listen, build trust
March 11th, 2006
By Nathan O. Hatch
As a new university president, I have watched with interest the flurry of reactions in the press to the recent resignation of President Larry Summers at Harvard. In the mainstream press, I have seen Harvard dons characterized as insular, vain, ingrown and intellectually arrogant and intolerant. An op-ed piece in The New York Times this week drips with sarcasm about the faculty: “Will its members acknowledge their own insularity and excesses, or will they continue down the path of smug self-congratulation and vanity?”
Dramatic resignations grab headlines and trigger hand-wringing. Easily overlooked is the number of presidents who have engaged in serious change and reform while enjoying enthusiastic support from their faculty. I have watched with admiration the dynamic leadership of Steven Sample at the University of Southern California, Donna Shalala at Miami University, John Sexton at New York University, Martin Jischke at Purdue University, and Richard Brodhead at Duke University. At home, we take note of the transformation leadership of Harold Martin at Winston-Salem State University.
What kind of leadership is effective in the modern university? Under what conditions do administrators and faculty collaborate in building better communities of learning? My own view — drawn from 30 years on the other side of the presidential desk, as faculty member, dean and provost — is that the quality of university leadership is far more important than any perceived deficiency in the faculty. Let me note five virtues that I have noticed among strong and effective university presidents:
Listening. Successful leadership in higher education is more closely correlated to listening skills than to sheer brilliance. University faculties, recruited for their intellectual prowess and expertise, properly expect their leaders to understand what they do and what most concerns them. They are suspicious of snap judgments, however inspired. The most talented administrator I have ever known stumbled because faculty doubted that he stopped long enough to hear them. University administrators must listen — and give clues to faculty that they have been heard.
Trust. Presidential authority in a university relies on trust — and little else. Most faculties are delighted to pursue their pivotal roles as scholars and teachers in their respective disciplines. Most are happy to accept difficult decisions if they are convinced that the central aims for which they were hired are being carried out and enhanced. What they find more difficult to accept is a wide divergence between rhetoric and day-to-day experience. Do stated priorities square with reality? Can administrators be trusted to give the same answers to diverse audiences? Are they willing to admit problems as well as to trumpet success? Is the good of the whole being kept in mind? In short, can the administration be trusted?
Understanding the DNA. Universities are organic communities, distinct cultures whose values, customs and traditions have built up over time and form the basis of loyalty to alma mater. Reason and rational analysis have pride of place in the university, but the real identity evolves from loyalty, friendship and ritual, traditions that may seem curious, even exotic, to outsiders. Leaders will never be embraced who do not understand, and learn to espouse, the distinct elements of a university’s DNA.
Revitalizing tradition. Change in higher education is most appropriate, and most readily accepted, when it reinforces and extends core traditions that have defined an institution. More than most other professions, faculty have committed themselves to an ideal — learning and teaching in an academic community. They rightfully are suspicious of a leader who seems tone deaf to the music that has inspired them. By the same token, they can readily embrace a renewal of those ideals of learning to which they have devoted their lives.
Delegating leadership. University presidents today are most effective when they delegate authority and build teams of talented professionals. Shared leadership is not only consonant with the finest traditions of academe; it is also necessary to encompass the growing complexity of the modern university.
Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, has recently made this point about leadership within the not-for-profit sector. Great leaders manifest ambition first and foremost for the institution, and not for themselves. It is this compelling combination of personal humility, reliance on others and passion about the mission that will create legitimacy and influence.
Presidents have important and powerful roles to play in the modern university. They can have enormous influence for good and for change. Yet before issuing a clarion call for reform, they need to go back to the basics: to learn and value the distinct culture of their own academic home; to take seriously and honor the faculty; and to rejoice when the right kind of change emanates from offices far beyond that of the president.
By Nathan O. Hatch