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Crisis and Challenges in Academic Leadership and Strategies for Training and Development - By: Henry Oh, PhD, MPM, CLC, FAAPM, FRSB, FACSc

Posted By George Mentz, Monday, September 10, 2018

Crisis and Challenges in Academic Leadership and Strategies for

Training and Development



The effectiveness of an academic leader greatly influences the quality of education, which directly impacts the learning outcomes of the students. Universities, colleges, high schools and elementary schools are led and managed by different ranks of academic leaders.  The success of an education institution depends upon qualified and adequately trained academic leaders who have the qualities, knowledge and skills to provide guidance to their people, and to motivate them to work towards attaining the mission, vision and goals of the college or university (Cohen and Brawer, 2008, p. 151).


Education institutions are expected to produce graduates whose skills and competencies can meet the needs of the communities that they served.  This expectation is confirmed by this statement, “The relationship between effective leadership and the ability of higher education to meet the needs of business and industry successfully has never been more clearly understood [or discussed] than it is today (as cited in Smith and Hughey, 2006, p. 162). People in the community observe how these education institutions are operated by these academic leaders, and how competent the “finished products” or graduates are, once they join the workforce.


An organization needs effective leadership and good management to survive—that is, people who can deal with the day-to-day functions, activities, and routines.  Otherwise, an organization may start falling apart from its structure without being noticed or observed early in its course by its people.  It’s only after a year or two that poor leadership takes a toll on the organization when trends or events catch up with the organization.


In academia, the effectiveness and success of leadership in education have been affected by various factors for a long time.  This is a major issue that the education community has not been able to adequately address as it should have.  Studies show that many colleges and universities don’t have adequate or effective leadership training programs, while others assume that individuals, who are being considered for promotion to the next higher position, can learn academic leadership on-the-job. This section will present the different categories of crisis and challenges in academic leadership that include: inadequate leadership preparation and training, ineffective leadership, lack of interest and motivation, overwhelming workload, increased responsibilities, resignation, and retirement. All these factors can severely affect the organizational structure of an education institution.


An essay on “What are the most important issues confronting higher ed?” specifically mentioned the need for improving the training of academic administrative leadership. It stated that, “We take smart academics who know virtually nothing about administration and put them in charge of multimillion-dollar operations with almost no preparation.  We should be able to do better than learning by making mistakes” (Strikwerda, 2015).


When the leadership position requires dealing with management of resources especially allocating funds, the seriousness of the responsibility is a critical issue that can cause the organization to fail because of poor preparation and training. 


A survey conducted in April 2010, that was participated by over 150 managers and senior officers in higher education stated the following:


“The findings emphasize the extent to which higher education is under-prepared for                    replacing a rapidly retiring leadership. Perhaps the starkest finding from our survey, 48                     percent of respondents graded their institution very poorly when assessing the level of                  commitment they felt their institution has toward their development as a leader”              (Academic Impressions, 2011).


Organizations or institutions have a greater responsibility in providing adequate leadership preparation and training if they are to maintain stability, continuity and improvement in their operations. The survey shows how private and public institutions failed in their commitment to develop or nurture their next generation of leaders (Academic Impressions, 2011).

Some colleges have employed academic leaders whose background or experience was not in academia as noted in the following:


“Still, we should be concerned that a growing number of colleges are being led by people who have never had direct experience in the heart of the enterprise as faculty members, department chairs, deans, or provosts. If the number continues to increase, the risk is that higher education will become an industry that is led by people who do not truly understand it, who view it as a commodity to be traded, a production problem to be solved efficiently, or a brand to be marketed” (Ekman, 2010, p. 2).


            Education institutions that provide the foundations of learning such as elementary and high schools have not been spared of the challenges affecting leadership, as noted in the following:


“Among the reasons cited for a lack of proficiency and emphasis on instructional                                     leadership in schools is a lack of comprehensive training.  A deficit of time for                              executing instructional activities, unrealistic community expectations and a glut of               paperwork were also cited as reasons for the shortfall” (Mauricio, 2013).


            Another leadership crisis that has been affecting education has been the poor preparation for replacements of academic leaders when they resign or retire, or when their goals, priorities and situations changed. The education community has not properly addressed this issue, as stated in the article, “The Leadership Vacuum in Higher Education,” published by The Washington Post:


“While succession planning is a cornerstone of business leadership, it is anathema in                   academia. It is rare indeed for department heads, deans, provosts or university                                  presidents to groom potential successors. When someone does step down, either                       expectedly or unexpectedly, an outside search is usually conducted and it is often at                        least a year before a permanent successor is in place” (Portney, 2011).


In the article, “Producing Academic Leaders,” published by Inside Higher Ed, it indicated that “21 percent of CAOs (Chief Academic Officers) leave their position within the first year and 47 percent within their second-fifth year…But the even more important implication of this trend is that many colleges and universities may soon be hard pressed to attract talented faculty members to positions of academic leadership” (Pierce, 2011).


In another study, it stated that the average tenure is just 2.8 years for community college presidents, as reported by the League for Innovation in the Community College Trends Report in 2015 (Amit Mrig 2017).


According to Ekman (2010), “College leadership is nearing a tipping point. Recent reports by the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Council of Education indicate that fewer chief academic officers- the traditional pools of future college presidents- are now willing to be candidates for presidencies than in the past.”


A very important element that has been affecting the crisis in academic leadership is the lack of “calling” or vocation.  The motivation to serve as an academic leader must be a burning desire coming primarily from the individual.  No amount of training, preparation or external influence by peers or senior administration, could “create” a true academic leader unless it comes from within the individual.  According to Ben Cook (2012), “A study by Exeter University has highlighted the phenomenon of the ‘reluctant leader’ in higher education where academics take over the leadership of a faculty, for example, out of a sense of obligation, rather than because they think they are the ‘right person for the job or have a desire to do it.” (emphasis added).


Education institutions face challenges in attracting talented faculty members to become academic leaders (Pierce, 2011). Many Chief Academic Officers are not interested in becoming presidents (Pierce, 2011).  Ekman (2010) reported that “Service as department chair or as an assistant dean is seen as an additional chore, to be rotated among reluctant (emphasis added) department colleagues. A specific example of inadequate leadership preparation and training has also been emphasized in the following:


“The challenge of being a new, inexperienced chair is further exacerbated by the lack                 of training available once one finds him/herself in this role…Academic department                chairs are often unprepared for the complexity and diversity of the roles and                                    responsibilities of the position.  While there is literature that identifies the needs                and issues facing department chairs in general, there is minimal literature that                                     explores these issues for the field of occupational therapy” (Kearney, 2014).


Health professionals hired to teach in health science programs are usually expected to have sufficient clinical experience in their specialty.  However, those promoted into senior leadership positions such as program directors or department chairs assume the position without management and leadership training or prior administrative experience. 


In her research study on “A Study of Leadership Behaviors among Chairpersons in Allied Health Programs,” Deborah Firestone (2009) commented that “Chairpersons in the various allied health programs find themselves operating in an environment in which they face tremendous challenges and demands.  These surroundings call for leadership that is capable of responding to an external environment that is constantly changing.”


A research study on the “Perspectives on Healthcare Leader and Leadership Development” expressed the following:


“While mandates for outcome improvements have arisen from government, regulatory              and accrediting bodies, no comprehensive restructure of leadership systems and                                processes within healthcare have been developed.  Much like industry, leadership is                        still seen as a role rather than a process that can be facilitated and extended                                    beyond the administrative hierarchy” (Scott, 2010).


Slavkin (2010) reiterated that leadership is “urgently needed to envision the future, to reallocate resources, to monitor progress using information technology, and to engender both evidence-based as well as outcome-based health care for all Americans.” He further stressed the importance of incorporating leadership and management training in the academic health science programs:


“Academic medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, and allied health professions will                   be required to meet the rapidly changing needs of the larger culturally diverse                                    society through major revisions of their academic programs, as well as the design                        and implementation of integrated education, research, and clinical research and                                 services” (Slavkin, 2010).


Strategies for Leadership Training and Development

            The crises and challenges affecting academic leadership have become more pronounced in recent years.  Many organizations and education institutions have started to address these issues.  Several recommendations or strategies on academic leadership preparation, training and development are discussed below.


A very important characteristic brought about by James Pence (2003) in his article, “Dean’s Dilemmas: Practicing Academic Leadership” is the commitment, vocation or “calling” that a potential academic leader must possess. Organizations or education institutions must be able to identify true calling for leadership from among its candidates for deanship, department chairs, program directors, chief academic officers, and other leadership positions.


            Once a true calling or commitment is identified from a potential leader, the next step is to explore what major skills or competencies would be required for the specific position.  Every organization or education institution has different needs or priorities that they require from the different ranks of leadership.  Recommendations from experts have been based on research studies. 


Amit Mrig (2017) in “Four Stats That Will Impact Higher Ed in 2017,” emphasized that:


“Developing your next generation of leaders requires a strategic approach and is essential to the future health and competitiveness of your institution. To build an effective talent bench             and ensure adequate leadership capacity to meet future challenges, every institution will need to address four questions: What skill sets will our future leaders need? How do we identify the staff within our organization who already exemplify these skills? What programs and practices will assist us in developing these leadership skills in our staff? How do we systematize our leadership development efforts across all divisions and at all levels of our institution?”


David Mauricio (2016) identified a list of skills for principals that can be useful as a guideline or starting point when considering creating a leadership development program for instructional effectiveness:

1.      Effective use of resources- the principal must be ready to provide specific resources to benefit the staff; they should also clearly recognize that teachers thrive on being appreciated and acknowledged for good performance.

2.      Communication skills- must be able to communicate their beliefs pertaining to education, the conviction that every student  is capable of learning; an inspire trust, spark motivation, and empower teachers and students

3.      Serving as an instructional resource- principals are sources of current trends in education, issues and current events related to curriculum, effective assessment, and pedagogical strategies.

4.      Being visible and accessible- visible presence in the school; modeling behaviors of learning, focusing on learning objectives, and leading by example.


In higher education, Puzziferro (2012) provided the following recommendations on the future role of leadership:

1.      Leaders must focus on the interdisciplinary nature of learning and create integrated, authentic learning experiences that aren’t narrow in scope and skill.  Receiving a higher education that prepares a well-rounded mind and training for a successful career go hand in hand- they are not mutually exclusive.

2.      Today’s leaders must have the skills not only to motivate change, but also to eloquently articulate it for diverse audiences.  This requires that leaders have an authentic and consistent relationship with stakeholders.

3.      Today’s leaders must be fluent in many technologies- specifically, the application of these technologies to learning, but don’t let technology be a distraction from learning.

4.      Today’s leaders must maintain the focus on creativity. Creativity and innovation are the foundation of higher education. This means confronting tradition, but maintaining the synergistic connections between knowledge, experience, creativity and careers.

5.      Today’s educational leaders must be fluent in regulatory rules, legal interpretations and compliance (Puzziferro, 2012)


The academic leaders must have an interdisciplinary approach, be able to motivate change, be innovative, be competent in learning technology, and have a sound knowledge of regulations in education, compliance with accreditation and legal aspects of education and employment practices.


A list of job knowledge for department chairs that could be covered in an academic leadership orientation is provided below as recommended by Pierce (2011):

1.      The institution’s mission and its strategic priorities.

2.      The budgeting process (including the major drivers on the budget) and the role department chairs in the budgeting process. Chairs often need to make cuts rather than to ask for new resources and to do so in the context of institutional rather than departmental needs and priorities.

3.      The current state of admissions and retention, including information about how chairs and their faculty colleagues can assist in these two critical areas.

4.      Ways that the institution seeks to integrate the curriculum and co-curricular programs.

5.      How the student affairs staff can provide support to the chairs, members of the faculty and students

6.      Information about fund-raising goals, particularly those that relate to the academic programs.


Another specific example of an academic leadership training program would be the one employed in occupational therapy:


“As a profession, the occupational therapy community may want to consider issues related to academic leadership and ways in which the professional community could work with new department chairs and interested faculty in order to provide development and mentorship.  This could be accomplished through workshops and trainings, research to both identify and address needs, mentoring relationships, inclusion of relevant content in post professional occupational doctoral programs, and other strategies.” (Kearny, 2014).


With the growing number of academic leadership training and development programs, the broader range of responsibilities need to be carefully considered when developing the structure or content of these programs (Pate and Angell, 2013).  Many new academic leaders or managers learn on-the-job from other academic leaders, or directly from the leader whom one is replacing. However, one important aspect of the learning process must also consider engaging the faculty when developing a leadership training program.  According to Pate and Angell (2013), “Allowing faculty to have a role, or at least a voice, in the preparation of our future academic leaders could provide valuable insight for an academic leader’s efforts to align the work of the institution with the work of faculty.”


Some of these new leaders may already have the skills and experience from their previous position.  However, they may face new issues and challenges where their previous leadership competencies and experience would not be adequate to deal with the magnitude or complexity of the problems, and their inability to handle or manage an increase in workload and responsibilities.


Individuals who move a step higher in their position experience new responsibilities that can put them in a complicated situation, especially when making critical decisions.  Some of them may become overwhelmed with their new responsibilities while at the same time are expected to continue some of their old tasks. Many faculty members, who move to a higher position of responsibility, continue their research work in addition to their teaching load (Gmelch, 2013).  Similarly, Pierce (2011) made the following comments:


“Most chief academic officers come from the faculty, having come up through the                      faculty ranks, only to discover that their new roles require them not only to make                        judgments about their colleagues in terms of tenure and promotion but often to make                 difficult budgetary decisions, including perhaps laying off faculty and staff members           alike.” (2011, p. 3).


Whether the cause is inadequate preparation, lack of training and experience, or an increase in workload that can compromise leadership effectiveness, one extremely important element that needs to be considered is the interest, desire or motivation of the individual to serve in a leadership capacity.  Does the individual have a “calling” or a vocation to serve as an academic leader?  Is the individual aware of the complexities and demands of the role as an academic leader?

            Having a true “calling” or vocation is an important quality or trait that an academic leader must possess. Self-reflection of one’s personal goals, abilities and traits, and the desire to serve in academic leadership could be a strong motivator for an individual to seriously and effectively learn the practice of academic leadership through training and development, and be committed to pursue such role later on.




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