Grassroots Leadership

In many respects, the core functions of our universities remain the same as they have for centuries – the preservation, development and transfer of knowledge. Yet society is expecting more and more of universities and their leaders.  Signs point to  increasing expectations  and the standards by which universities are held to account will likely become even more stringent.

Fifty years ago, the dominant model was that universities took in students and acted in loco parentis – in essence, caring for students through the imposition of rules for “appropriate” conduct on campus – usually defined in terms of visitation restrictions between the sexes in university residences. That idea, much to the delight of many, was thrown out the window. But today, confronted by behaviour that is sometimes socially offensive, dangerous or illegal, as well as by students (and  parents) whose needs and anxieties seem increasingly complex, universities find themselves drawn into the difficult challenges of trying to define “institutional culture” and, in some notable cases, modify it.

Leadership challenges at universities do not end there. Government and tuition primarily fund Canadian universities. Government funders are increasingly exacting about program mandates they are willing to support and the financial accountability they expect. The recently concluded Strategic Mandate Agreements between the Ontario Government and each university in the province are a case in point.

Students and their parents seem increasingly fond of the “student as customer” idea. The phrase elicits the same reaction from many university faculty as chalk screeching on a board. Nonetheless it’s having an impact as universities think more explicitly about the learning outcomes of their programs and how to articulate the true value of programs that seem under threat – most notably the venerable BA.

So, what about leadership in this new normal? It is typically and appropriately university administrators who find themselves at centre stage when public controversy erupts. But universities are complex institutions. Even the smallest ones are characterized by three clusters of people who make the university what it is – faculty, student services staff and professional/administrative staff. In the most extreme situations, these are like three planets in independent orbit. There is a tension among the three groups, often borne from isolation and ignorance.

As complex institutions with challenging accountabilities, one would think  universities would invest in development of leaders, but this has traditionally not been the case. Academic leadership (department heads, deans and others) could be described as gifted amateurs. No preparation required. The professionalization of student and professional services is a relatively recent phenomenon and development of these people generally focuses on their technical responsibilities. There are programs in Canada (and elsewhere) that university leaders can attend. If universities participate at all, they may send one or two individuals a year.

So, we have university administrators in the spotlight and somewhat randomized leadership expertise behind the scenes in our universities. What about something different? What about focusing on developing collective leadership within these important institutions? Carleton University is attempting to do this. It has now completed the first year of a multi-year commitment to the Carleton Leader initiative, a key element of the organizational excellence theme in the university’s Strategic Integrated Plan.

Carleton Leader is not about sending a few people away to learn about leadership. It is about bringing together people from all three sectors of the university to think about leadership and practice leadership collaboratively. It is premised on the view that we do best when we collaborate on the challenges we face and that leadership can be found throughout the university. It is not restricted to those with big titles. It is inclusive, focuses on building on the strengths the institution already has, what needs to be done to achieve excellence and on the tangible outcomes of our efforts.

The word university is derived from the Latin universitas, meaning “the whole.” This approach to fostering leadership holds promise for returning Canadian universities to that core concept as they face the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Katherine A.H. Graham is Professor Emerita at Carleton University. She was the academic co-lead for development of Carleton Leader.

(This opinion piece appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Feb. 17, 2015.)

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