Leadership from the Ranks

In the revised edition of Management, Peter Drucker (2008) draws attention to the overlay of multiple organizational structures vying for dominance, all with the shared aim of improving human productivity. The greater the crisis, Drucker argues, the greater the need for hierarchy; the more high-touch services, the more important becomes local autonomy (p. 68).

Higher education, of course, provides high-touch services. Faculty and staff serve as role models for cognitive skills, behaviors, and attitudes that can lead to success. Sustained employee-student interactions expose students to new frameworks for engaging themselves, each other, and the world. But these interactions require intentional design. Otherwise, they can crumble into lower-order thinking skills and low-value work for everyone — like what happens when academic advising deteriorates into merely course scheduling. In order to perpetually reassess, revitalize, or redesign intentional interactions, faculty and staff need a high degree of local autonomy.

Higher education also is in the midst of a crisis. Both citizenry and a growing number of work environments require the skills to navigate an increasingly rhetorical- and statistics-based world. But the social insistence on more college has expanded the number of student bodies with different needs, as well as redirected higher education’s focus to student retention and graduation rates. On one side, faculty now struggle not merely to deliver course content for diverse learning habits, but also to ensure diverse student engagement and in-depth content assimilation for an improved likelihood of continued student success. On the other side, academic professionals struggle to identify and resolve bottlenecks in the system and reach-out to previously ignored populations who could benefit from more education.

This re-imagining of higher education coincides with an economic crisis in which people need jobs and employers want higher-quality job candidates. In the face of rising student debt, students and their parents, legislators, and potential employers now question the value of higher education. Meanwhile, our computer-infused work environment demands greater technological and critical-thinking skills for even entry-level jobs — yes, even the jobs that can’t pay back the resulting debt. This conflict has resulted in new entrants in the market who then compete with at least the public colleges and universities, which have had to raise tuition to replace diminishing state funds.

Higher education is a high-touch service in crisis. On the one hand, the industry requires local autonomy. On the other, its crisis calls for strong leadership. Our university has worked to bridge the two by building campus capacity for leadership from the ranks. We have opted for professional development that pushes “thinking big” and interconnects the campus for collaborative autonomy.

Thus far, the process has worked well. Faculty and staff have created the Office of Undergraduate Research, Office of Service Learning, and Non-Traditional Student Support Center. On the organizational chart, they collaboratively relocated Career Services to improve its staffing and funding. They’re currently exploring ways of recruiting international students. They’re piloting redirect advising for students who are capable of earning degrees but who have encountered a brick wall in their current majors. They’re testing the preregistration of students before summer orientation. Faculty and staff investigate ways of designing a seamless learning environment.

No one merely has managed these changes or explorations. They result from collaborative leadership, an empowering of the ranks to determine when and how to move forward. That level of empowerment requires aggressive professional development. But it saves institutions from sacrificing their high-touch services to crisis management.

 

Drucker, Peter. (2008.) Management; Revised Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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