This week, I spoke to an orientation meeting of Arts & Sciences department chairs and program directors. Plucked from the faculty ranks, they are creatively taking on the immense and complex challenges of the College while helping to redefine what it means to be an academic leader in the twenty-first century.
The orientation for department chairs and program directors is the last event of the summer, and the first event of the academic year, the cockcrow heralding a new day, a new season, a new year. So at this time I always find myself excited, and full of hope.
I have good reason to feel excited, and not just because a new beginning is always exciting—but because of the caliber of the academic leadership you represent. All of you have been appointed or reappointed within the last three years, to work seamlessly with your faculty and with the dean’s office.
I doff my cap to those of you who have been stewarding your departments and programs with such rare good cheer, wisdom and frugality. There is no question that the last three years were extraordinary for public institutions, demanding patience, fortitude and creativity. For those of you about to begin your duties as chair, you have invaluable resources in your more experienced colleagues. I hope the next three years will be a rewarding and enlightening period in your professional career.
There is something unusual about the academic leadership that you have assumed. One measure of that unusualness is that so little has been written about it—except perhaps in David Lodge’s satires. A large portion of airport bookstore revenue derives from books on management and leadership, of everything from how to be a Boy Scout leader to running a pet shop to leading a global Fortune 500 company. But university leadership below the presidential level is seemingly an esoteric art, important to those belonging to an academic guild, but with little relevance for the “real world.”
Most of us weren’t born or trained as leaders; instead, leadership is often thrust upon us—and at midlife, after we have moved up to the rank of full professor. I was in my mid-forties when I was appointed a center director—a job with no manual; the training was on-the-job. I had never really collaborated with a team, preferring the freedom and autonomy of single-author scholarship. Feeling inadequate, I wondered if “academic leadership” was not an oxymoron.
I wasn’t the only one to ponder that issue. In “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber dwelt at length on the inadequacy of scholars and teachers as leaders. Football coaches are leaders, he said, but the qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities that make him a leader; if a teacher proves to be a good leader, it is purely accidental.
Regardless of that Teutonic disparagement, the reality is that American universities are not corporate hierarchies. Rather, the leadership you are called upon to exercise is a collegial one—you are a leader in the sense of primus inter pares. This requires both thought and creativity—if not a redefinition of what it means to be a leader. We all know how hard it is to get people to do what they ought to do, without being asked or told. It is harder when the incentives for non-cooperation are stacked against administrators. Of the triad we expect of the faculty—teaching, service and scholarship—it is often the last that is more intellectually compelling and rewarding.
This managerial relationship, combined with a culture that is inherent to academic settings of inquisitiveness and openness, requires that chairs navigate relationships horizontally and not vertically. In many ways, however, that makes “academic leadership” less an oxymoron than a harbinger of the future in workplace organization. Collegial leadership is the modal form of leadership in a democracy, here and in our relationship with the world—even if the current Congress missed that memo. It is leadership through persuasion and example, not by hierarchy or threat.
The best skills of your collegial leadership are in demand as never before. The decade ahead will see the College grow and be transformed in ways rarely seen before. As you know, the College anticipates absorbing the majority of the undergraduate enrollment planned by the University through 2018-2019, and with it, there will be a corresponding growth in faculty size; we estimate it will produce 63 new faculty lines. Add to that the reality of the retirement surge of eminent faculty, especially in the sciences, and the normal turnover associated with departures, and we anticipate mounting more than 200 faculty searches in the next five to seven years. To give you some sense of this magnitude, this is over one third of the total tenured and tenure-track faculty in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
There are stupendous challenges ahead of us, not the least of which is the sharp erosion in the competitiveness of our salary structure, as the University enters its fourth year of no salary increase for faculty and staff. The static compensation issue is very much at the forefront of our thinking at the moment, because it is absolutely critical for recruiting and maintaining excellent faculty as well as their morale. On top of this, we must also initiate a program to create more faculty positions over and beyond the 63 mentioned above, in order to bring down the ratio of students per faculty. The success of this program—a new campaign we expect to launch for the College in the fall—would mean that the total number of searches for the next seven years could be as high as 265.
A year ago, I delivered a vision statement for the College entitled “Something New Under the Sun,” which was a paraphrase of Mr. Jefferson, who was in turn paraphrasing Ecclesiastes to describe the utter uniqueness of the American Republic. In the coming decade we have an opportunity, through faculty turnover and expansion, curriculum reform and new scholarly research, to reinvent the College and create something truly new under the sun in American higher education.
This new reality dictates that the most important role of chairs is to recruit top scholars and promote excellence. This often means being hard-nosed in maintaining high standards, but it also means being creative in finding diamonds in the rough, budding scholars whose promising futures lie ahead. Facing such a large turnover in the next decade, the importance of your role, and your firm guiding hands, is immense.
Max Weber, who was so (self-) critical of scholars as leaders, had also written a companion and better-known piece called “Politics as a Vocation.” In that essay he argued that the three eminent qualities in political leadership are passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. By passion he meant the devotion to a cause—to take a stance—ira et studium. By responsibility he meant a “romanticism of the intellectually interesting,” rather than the easy path of routine bureaucratic duty. And by a sense of proportion, he meant an ability to remain realistic and dispassionate, to retain a sense of distance while getting things done. The forging of passion and dispassion in the soul of the modern politician was the vexing question that he sought to understand. Had he lived another hundred years, however, he would have seen that the question is no less germane for the academic leaders of the twenty-first century.
In 1911 Weber wrote that German students hated intellectualism as the worst devil. Not despairing, Weber exhorted them to greater effort: “Mind you, the devil is old; grow old to understand him.” Most of us were in midlife before embarking on our path of academic leadership, and that is a strength; we are fortunate to have gotten old enough to know a little of the devil in life. Watching years come and go, having experience, learning from our own and others’ mistakes, makes us better leaders. It helps us regard life with a certain dispassion, having known the twists and turns, understanding the possibilities and limits. It is another way of saying that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk—or in our case, let us hope, at mid-career.