University leaders could benefit from a global perspective

21-11-22 USAf 0 comment

It is imperative that leaders in higher education have a global perspective beyond their national borders and building networks and communities of leaders is one of numerous ways to achieve this.

‘’We need to engender in our leadership, a global perspective and discover that we have a lot more in common with our global peers, than we have differences,” says Dr Oliver Seale, Director of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at Universities South Africa (USAf).

Dr Seale (left) was in conversation with Professor Dolores Guerrero – President of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) and Dean at the Texas A&M University at Kingsville in the United States. This was at the HELM Summit, held from 15-17 November 2022, whose aim was to explore developing leadership for sustainability and change in higher education in South Africa, on the African continent and globally. 

“One of the great benefits about technology is how it has levelled the playing field in terms of how we connect and the opportunities we now have to interact with each other, from across the globe, simultaneously.”

Dr Seale began by providing a background to USAf, and HELM, which was conceptualised to offer Vice-Chancellors (VCs) and senior management strategic insight into the specific challenges confronting higher education in South Africa. The programme was launched in 2002. Since its revitalisation in 2017, HELM continues to offer valuable perspectives on the contemporary leadership and management context, complexities and challenges facing universities. 

He then focused on challenges facing higher education in the Global South, and the effect of the worldwide CoViD-19 pandemic.

“We have found that people don’t know what the ‘new normal’ is post-CoViD, while things continue to change dramatically. I can’t remember a time longer than three years where universities in South Africa were not dealing with some form of crisis. Our universities were put under even more pressure during the pandemic and had to react swiftly and switch from face-to-face learning to online learning through embracing technology. We are still finding our feet and are massively challenged from access and sustainability to infrastructure and support,” Dr Seale told the international audience.

“When it comes to leadership, some of our universities run very good in-house programmes for their heads of departments and senior professors. However, many universities don’t have these programmes.  HELM attempts to fill this gap.”

He gave details of one of its flagship programmes, Women in Leadership, launched in 2020, which was introduced after a series of HELM’s research projects revealed that significant stereotyping of women persisted within the sector. At least 35% of women leaders noted gender bias, isolation and lack of support for women in middle management positions. He also spoke of the Universities Learning Futures (ULeFu) project which prioritises digital skills development at eight Historically Disadvantaged Institutions (HDIs). 

“Fortunately, at HELM, and at universities, many of the executives or managers we deploy, are experts in their fields and come from within the public university system. A decade ago, universities were forced to employ private providers for leadership/management development interventions. There was often a mismatch, as the latter did not understand the institution or the context specificities. It is imperative that we develop programmes that speak to our unique environments.

Leadership development cannot be left to chance

“However, many university leaders in South Africa and on the continent are seldom adequately prepared and supported in their leadership role, and yet they are expected to be the bridge holding the academic project and administration together. Our universities need to address this urgently, with leadership being addressed much earlier, even from a lecturer level.”

What should be celebrated, he said, is the international partnerships undertaken by USAf and HELM including the partnership with CCAS which came into being a year ago.

Professor Dolores Guerrero (left), President of CCAS, gave a background to her association, which, founded in 1965, is a facility for deans of arts & sciences and represents more than 500 universities and 1900 deans and assistant deans. It is hosted at the Texas A&M University, Kingsville, in the US.

The body is governed by a board of 12 directors, drawn from the membership and are elected on a three-year tenure.

She listed the four goals of the CCAS 2023-to-2028 plan:

  • Provide professional development, resources, best practices and networking opportunities.
  • Foster inclusive excellence and respond to current issues.
  • Advocate for liberal learning and encourage academic innovation.
  • Build organisational infrastructure for sustained success.

“At the end of the day, we want to help achieve success — for the individual as a professional and then for the institution and the organisation that they’re part of. We have seminars for deans, we also provide training for department chairs. We want to deliver the tools for deans and chairs to be successful as academics, as administrators and as leaders.

“We moved to Zoom during CoViD, which allows for weekly discussions with deans. These virtual meetings have been added to our in-person seminars. We now do a mix of online virtual gatherings and in-person seminars. It has allowed us to reach a broader audience as some of our institutions couldn’t afford to travel to the in-person events. What was a challenge has become an excellent opportunity for us.”

Everyone has the potential for leadership 

Dr Seale: “We don’t advocate for a deficit assumption. We don’t see that we have to ‘fix people’ or their ‘weaknesses’. We talk about a developmental orientation in HELM which advances the idea that everyone has the potential for leadership, and we should identify and develop this. One major problem in South Africa, relates to the leadership pipeline, when we get to our highest level of leadership, the pool becomes smaller and smaller. We need to grow the leadership pool substantially. 

“We decided to start with Heads of Departments (HoDs) because we just don’t have resources and capacity for all levels of leadership. By creating a good pool of HoDs, we are growing the number of people who can advance in leadership at the institution. I think there is still a very strong focus on the individual because that’s where the starting point is, but we are shifting our focus at HELM to working with executive leaderships teams in our higher education institutions.”

Professor Guerrero: “In our seminars for new deans and new department chairs, we introduce the conversation of creating a new pipeline and succession planning. At our university, within the last three years, we have created leadership and emerging leadership academies on campus, which involve both staff and faculty. It’s a holistic team of multiple parts.”

How can institutions collaborate when they are inevitably competing with each other? 

Professor Guerrero: “I think that we can enhance each other as we bring different kinds of structures and perspectives to the table. Each of us can learn from the other about how we provide and support the leadership network.”

Dr Seale: “The work that we do at HELM is a national project in the national interest. So, when we have universities that would normally be competitors for students, staff, research projects and funding, we come together in a safe space where we can support each other and share our experiences while building mutually beneficial leadership networks. There is a peer-to-peer connection.”

How lonely is the dean?

Professor Guerrero: “The word ‘lonely’ doesn’t resonate with me. It all depends on the individual and how one frames their role within their department. Where I work, I am the dean but I have a team. Nowadays, when we talk about leadership, it is much more collaborative and not a top-structure hierarchy. Deans have to make the final decisions, but they can still allow input.” 

Dr Seale: “In South Africa, my research shows that the dean experience is different at the well-established and well-endowed universities, compared to those at the lower end where the role of the dean is more of an administrator. Loneliness may come in if you lose your disciplinary or scholarship identity and peer networks while in management.”

How important is coaching in education leadership in the US, and in South Africa? 

Professor Guerrero: “Coaching is imperative as is mentorship and sponsorship. We need to create a clear structure of how we make it available to our members. At different points in our careers, we need to connect to those individuals who can help us.”

Dr Seale: “We introduced coaches for the first time in our Women in Leadership programme. Coaching is a process and methodology, and you have to ensure that both parties have similar expectations. Mentoring is also vital.”

In summary

Professor Guerrero: We are looking to grow our partnerships both within the US and globally and share the data that we are currently collecting regarding our leadership development programmes and our continued commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. We need to ensure that we are sustainable and adaptive to the larger issues facing us. We need ongoing evaluation and review and self-reflection. We cannot do the same things over and over and assume that they are working because things change at a rapid speed.”

Dr Seale: “Leaders have to have a global perspective and frame. I think that’s often where we trip ourselves up. We have to establish trusted networks with others. When you’re thinking about partnerships, I think it goes beyond just the collaboration. We’ve moved into what I refer to as strategic alliances. Hopefully, with this partnership, we’ve started a global movement.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa