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Higher Education: Identifying the Senior Team

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by Brian C. Mitchell


Brian C. MitchellThere are big changes coming in American higher education. College and university governance must accommodate these changes and shape rather than be shaped by them. The changes reflect both the simple reality that the financing structure doesn’t work and that external forces will impose new challenges and opportunities upon senior leadership.

What steps can college administrators take to prepare for these changes?

The first step is to understand who governs the university. In a system of shared governance, it is simplistic to believe that a president and senior staff “manage” and, therefore, “run” a university. That’s not the way it works. And, happily, American colleges and universities are often more thoughtful, conciliatory, and consensus-oriented when establishing policy than their corporate counterparts. The trick is to figure out a way also to make them as nimble and entrepreneurial as the best in global business.

There are three central players: trustees, faculty and senior administration.

As I have argued repeatedly, the trustees are the least prepared to govern well. They are part-time volunteers dropped episodically into board meetings. Trustees must take great care to learn their job, especially at a time when American colleges and universities are becoming more complex and nuanced in their policies, governance, and assessment practices.

Beware of the trustee armed with the latest case study. Rather than impose the latest human resources or financial modeling tactical approach, the best trustees look at how innovative business practices might have applicability to higher education institutions. Success is in the translation of the practice. While higher education must relate at many levels as a business, it is a nonprofit operating under shared governance. Higher education is not a widget factory.

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Presidents should also take care to prepare board members well. The senior staff should be particularly careful on how they use and convey data. The purpose of data is not to make the president’s case; indeed, the numbers must speak for themselves. Good data informs policy but policy comes from the vision found in strategy. That’s why it’s critical to follow and assess a strategic plan.

How faculty participates in governance varies widely across America’s colleges and universities. In some cases, the faculty is involved at many levels and has representation at trustee meetings, although their presence varies widely by type of institution and faculty influence. Whatever accommodation exists, the faculty needs a seat at the table.

If shared governance is to survive in 21st Century college management, the faculty has a decision to make about their role. At a minimum, faculty leadership should adopt the principle that less is more. They cannot be involved in everything.

It is the faculty’s principal responsibility to work with the provost to manage the academic program. This includes the residential learning experience because there are a thousand teachable moments outside the classroom that shape the education of each student.

Their focus should be on academics, and related activities, to be certain that the education offered is vital, alive and growing.

This requires a continuous conversation. The faculty chosen to represent their colleagues will have a major impact on how effectively they can lead. Colleges and universities must recognize that the faculty requires time release in a twelve-month business rather than a nine-month academic cycle. Further, the faculty must deliberate fully but their process must parallel the time line imposed by business cycles and board meetings.

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Obviously, the president and the senior team have a role to play in the management of the college. The best presidents understand even before they take the job that they are typically unprepared to assume it. Gone are the days when presidents function as super provosts or as supplicants traveling the world with tin cups. Presidents must recognize and accept their limitations, beginning with what they do not know.

To be effective, they presumably bring a set of experiences, skills, and common sense to the job. But most presidents rely on their senior staff to round out their thinking. And, this is where many presidents can become increasingly frustrated.

Let’s be clear at the outset. There are highly competent skilled professionals among the senior administrative managers. But these individuals normally come to the senior team as prisoners of their own experiences. CFOs typically know nothing about student residential life or athletics. Marketing and communications officers don’t face the pressures in the daily life of a provost. The president comes into the job appropriately skeptical about inherited staff members. Many have long-established relationships with trustees and each other.

Perhaps the most important ingredients to make the mix work are loyalty and truthfulness among senior team members. There can be little room for posturing in senior staff settings. Presidents live or die based on the quality of data, policy arguments, work ethic, and common sense that senior team members bring to the table. Topping this list is loyalty. Boards must be prepared to address this issue, especially if they define their job as board members as advocates for the president.

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There are as many challenges as opportunities currently facing American higher education. But at the top of the list is how shared governance works. When done right, governance can create a sense of momentum and possibility. The alternative is a hodgepodge of bickering clannish skirmishes where everyone loses.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. He is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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