Why leadership in higher education is like driving a nail through blancmange

A review of:
Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education
by Michael Fullan & Geoff Scott, Jossey-Bass, 2009

I have spent the better part of the last decade trying to understand, from the inside, what makes institutions of higher education change. We all purport to be in the midst of it – change, that is – with strategic visions and plans that call for us to “build on our strengths”  or “define our dreams.”  Let me guess, your institution’s plan says something about…increasing enrolment/graduate enrolment/international enrolment, improving your profile/reputation regionally/nationally/internationally, probably talks about some “pillars” and sets a lofty goal around “improving the overall student experience”, the part that gets us student affairs types all giddy.

And yet, despite all the effort – townhall meetings and consultation sessions, green papers and white papers, beautifully designed strategic plan websites and glossy brochures ­– the returns on investment are often ambiguous, marginal or incremental, and rarely transformative.

As Michael Fullan and Geoff Scott point out in this book:

“Universities, with all their brainpower, are much more resistant to change than many other institutions. Universities are great at studying and recommending change for others, but when it comes to themselves, that is another matter.”

And yet the pressures to change, the authors argue, have never been greater.

So what makes the difference between an institution that can change and one that cannot? Leadership.  Okay, so, duh. But what kind of leadership? And if the answer can be explained in 155 pages, why isn’t it working?

It’s an uphill battle. Fullan, professor emeritus at OISE-UT, and Scott, pro-vice chancellor at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, begin by painting a rather dismal picture, international in scope. One that sets up tremendous expectations of universities throughout the world, and yet points to the many flawed and change averse aspects of the traditional culture of higher education. Do any of these conditions sound familiar to you:

  • Meetings with no clear outcome?
  • Staff who are unclear how their work plays an important role in the success of the university?
  • Planning and decision making that tends to focus more on consensus around the table rather than consensus around the data?
  • Plans, produced in glossy form, launched at a large function, and then forgotten, with little tracking of their implementation or accountability for failure to deliver on the key targets and changes they contain?

If so, you’ll enjoy, at the very least, Fullan and Scott’s concise explanation of what’s wrong with the academy, if for no other reason than the realization that you are not insane. This stuff really is happening. Everywhere.

These are all symptoms of the change averse culture so prominent in most institutions. The good news, say Fullan and Scott, is that institutions of higher education can accomplish impressive breakthroughs when the put their minds and hearts to work on focused problems. And the bulk of Turnaround Leadership, is dedicated to explaining how to do just that.

While much of this book is focused on the very highest levels of academic leadership, there is much to be learned here for those of us in the professional or managerial ranks. The authors detail the competencies and capabilities that successful leaders in higher education need to develop (not necessarily be born with) in order to lead institutional change efforts. I particularly enjoyed the list of metaphors academic leaders provided to describe their role, including: “getting butterflies to fly in formation”, “having a Ferrari with no money for fuel”, and “trying to drive a nail into a wall of blancmange – little resistance but no result.”

I don’t know that all of you will find this book as compelling as I did. It is certainly a highly accessible read and resonated with me. But it makes no direct references to student services and, although highly focused around the role of teaching and learning in the academy, makes no mention of the development of the whole student as a measure of success in higher education. Nevertheless, several lightbulbs clicked on for me as the authors respectfully, though concretely, explained what needs to change in order for change to happen.

Deanne Fisher

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