David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Lessons for Leaders Who Are ‘Not One of Us’

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Several jobs and campuses ago, I attended a public meeting where a new governing-board member was introduced. He was a successful farmer, and as the pleasantries proceeded, one of the professors sitting next to me grumbled, "I have no qualifications to milk a cow, but this guy is going to oversee a university? It’s an insult to every one of us." Another colleague chortled, "It could be worse; he could be our next president."

The exchange highlighted one of the gravest tensions in higher education today: what happens when someone who is "not one of us" — a politician, a corporate CEO, a prominent entrepreneur — becomes chief officer of a college or university.

That is no longer a rare phenomenon. The head of a major search firm recently told me that trustees are looking to recruit senior administrators who can "change academic culture — to disrupt a campus for the better. Trustees also assume that good leaders can lead well [even if] they are not experienced in a particular industry."

I am willing to bet that a large majority of faculty members believe the exact opposite. To succeed at running a math department, a small liberal-arts college, or a major research university, they would argue, it is of inestimable value to be "from the ranks" of the professoriate.

If you are an outsider entering the academic world, you can expect many people to be wary of you. Yet faculty-led plots and revolts are not inevitable, and neither is your downfall. To a great extent your fate is in your hands — or, more accurately, in your mind and manners. Here are some basic philosophical and practical steps you can take to avoid going down in flames as a campus leader.

Forgo "C-Suite" habits. I know a politician who became the chief officer of a university system, where most professors like and respect him. He is a diffident, modest man, without any of the airs of a big-shot CEO or pol. He consistently asks faculty members what they are working on and seems sincerely interested in their answers. He solicits ideas and comments. He has an encyclopedic memory for other people’s contributions.

In sum, he comes off as someone who actually likes and values academe and academics — rather than as a scourge imposed by foreign invaders.

It’s not that simple, of course, but a basic management lesson — true even at large organizations — is that we like a leader who "cares about me." As I tell students in the political-communication courses I teach, successful mass communication is that which best approximates successful personal communication. It’s the same winning factor that great teachers radiate. Who wouldn’t root for the success of such leaders, whatever their origins?

Get to know our world in depth. During my nearly 10 years in administration, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with "not us" people in the corporate, government, and nonprofit worlds. They are smart, accomplished people but, for most of them, their last real immersion in higher education was when they were 22 and sitting in class.

Since graduating, their interaction with a campus has most likely been limited to giving a guest lecture, attending a football game, or going to a board meeting. As a consequence, they: (a) always remember their best professor and their worst, and (b) have little understanding of what faculty members do beyond the classroom. They respect teaching (although they may not appreciate how much time goes into class prep) and value research (but only some of it).

My point: To be accepted inside academe — if you’ve spent the past 20 years working outside it — you must start by appreciating the complexities and nuances of what goes on each day behind the scenes, and not just in the classrooms. Don’t assume you know more than you do when you step onto a campus. Do a lot of fact-finding, immerse yourself in the culture, hang out, explore, study up. There is a whole world here you did not see from the back of the lecture hall.

Encourage everyone to be candid with you. And not just your direct lieutenants.

Inside hires fail all the time. Veteran CEOs drive companies into the red, career generals lose battles, and respected research professors stumble when trying to be university presidents. By the time you get to the top of a profession you have a long record of wins and smart decisions, often achieved despite opposition. At that point in your career, whether you’re in the corporate or college world, it’s easy to succumb to "winner’s bias" — tuning out "negative" back talk and choosing subordinates for their "team player" qualities (i.e., always agreeing with you).

Perhaps inevitably, the CEO or warlord ends up surrounded by sycophants and out of touch with reality. The same thing happens in academe, with the same unfortunate outcomes. Academic insiders, however, have the advantage of knowing a lot about how higher education operates. Outsiders don’t. So what you need most of all in your new gig in campus administration is truth, and lots of it.

If people are afraid to clue you in on reality, then you will remain clueless. The key is to have an open door and a discerning ear. Venture out among the assistant professors, graduate students, work-study undergrads, and facilities workers. Listen and learn. Only then can you act and reform.

Develop a "kitchen cabinet" of go-to honest, impartial advisers. As anyone who has held any position of power knows, not all sources of information and advice are equally valid or useful. There will be people who tell you only what serves their interests. Others will say what they think you want to hear. Still more will stay silent, because of their cultural mores or because they fear you. Some people are relentless optimists, in favor of everything, while their counterparts (more common in academe) constitute "the party of no," opposing anything that smacks of novelty or change.

All of those informants are people you will have to work with positively but not necessarily trust and welcome as confidants.

It will take time to figure out who on campus has the breadth of knowledge, situational awareness, and intellectual honesty to give you consistently good advice. Those people may be found among the students, the staff, the faculty, and certainly (one hopes) in your official inner circle.

Nevertheless, your informal advisers should never consist solely of people whose continued employment rests directly in your hands. What you want are folks who are comfortable offering you a picture from their perspective, one that is outside your direct view.

You are not "the boss." You are a coalition builder. A character in the Orson Welles movie Touch of Evil observes, "A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state." Likewise, the more hierarchical the organization, the easier it is to enact change — or at least surface compliance. Academic institutions may look hierarchical on an organizational chart but they have many centers of power.

So what can a leader new to academe do?

Be open to some academic mores. The term "buy in" is too often applied because it puts the onus for innovation on the few while the rest are asked to go along but make no real creative contribution. In academe, the key is to build a coalition for each change — including getting the right players involved from the start — so people are not just accepting your ideas but feel they are carrying out a joint project.

Bring in outside approaches, too. Take a page from a business manual and apply the principle of "invest and divest" to academic programs. In the business world, a corporate CEO might decide to cut back on failing products and services and increase spending on "what works."

The tradition in academe, however, is to spread the hurt around "fairly" — making an across-the-board budget cut. The outcome: Programs that are booming in student interest and research productivity will be slashed at the same level as ones that have seen steady declines. Even then, faculty members will suspect that any savings will go into a slush fund to which they will never have access.

Instead, what if we divested and invested in select parts of the university? And I don’t mean sports. Indeed, very early in my career I was at a university that did this. Instead of an across-the-board budget cut, the university announced that every department could submit a success plan, and the best ones would get an increase in funding. A key point was that all were eligible for the boost, not just the usual STEM suspects. My dean at the time — who was not an academic — mobilized us to put together an exciting, bold plan building on our enrollment and research success. I believe his helmsmanship was influenced by his experience in the military and the business world. In an era of heavy budget cuts our funding increased as a "priority program."

We need help ending things. On one campus where I worked, I was part of a task force examining the 300-plus centers that were sprinkled across the university. Many were attached to a single professor and were centers in name only. Others had charters never followed and missions never achieved. Some were zombies, doing nothing ever, doing nothing but taking up a line item in the budget. You would think holding centers accountable would be simple, but it wasn’t.

We need decisive leadership to end things that serve no purpose. It’s crucial for the decider to offer rewards (as in transfer of funds) to the high-performing centers, and not just ax the sluggards. Even in budget-neutral or flush times, we desperately need accountability and redistribution of wealth in higher education. But it must be done in a fair and transparent way, as our culture demands.

There are no sure things in leadership, whether in war, manufacturing, or education. The most beloved veteran insider who starts out with tremendous support can still fail. Some friends at a public university, for example, recently described the exit of their president, who had been a serving faculty member for decades. He began with universal acclaim as "someone who understands us." The university, however, suffered five years of decline on practically every measure, including funding, enrollment, and national reputation. The "one of us" was unable to make a tough, bold, or innovative decision.

So while someone who is experienced in our profession might have an advantage, an outsider can succeed — but only if she or he takes seriously the task of understanding the culture of academe, the political constituencies of the campus, and our often subtle and nuanced methods of persuasion and coalition building.

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