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Leadership

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  • November 2012
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Austerity is now the norm for higher education. Even esteemed ivory institutions are making cuts. States like California have transformed their higher education systems through draconian budget cuts. Small, marginal colleges are laying off staff and closing departments. We are clearly facing many challenges, fiscal as well as existential. Most institutions are like Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz: they have been picked up by uncontrollable forces, are flying through the air and know not where they will land.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, writing in May, reminds us of the huge paradigm shift we are currently witnessing in American business: "[W]e are leaving an era of some 50 years' duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we're entering an era -- no one knows for how long -- in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take away things from people."

How can a college president, provost or dean truly lead in an era such as ours when old methods and styles don't seem to work? I would suggest that for today's educational leaders, the requirement is to develop a completely new model of leadership, one that borrows from the tech industry. In his piece, Friedman quotes Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos, that today's leaders must "think of yourself not as a designer but a gardener..." He is, of course, referring to corporate leaders, but his advice applies equally to university leaders.

Higher education is and has always been filled with visionary leaders. Everyone who has ever applied for the position of dean or higher has been asked to describe their vision. Strong-willed personalities have been prized and rewarded. Decisive, gut-level decision making has been the norm. But, might this new era of higher education (one with limited resources and a wary public, low morale and a Fordist speed-up) require a...

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