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Higher Education: The Problem with Priorities

It’s been interesting to watch over the years how priorities emerge on college and university campuses.

Some develop organically, whether in service of an academic program, to meet a perceived need, or at their best, to fulfill an institution’s strategic plan. They are part of the business of evolution, matching and balancing people, programs and facilities to available resources and aspirations. In these cases, colleges and universities differ little from other growing enterprises offering a quality product in a competitive marketplace.

The good news is tempered somewhat by the fact that these same strengths breed at best an incremental mindset that limits the potential of a college to be nimble, entrepreneurial and creative. For many internal constituencies — notably mid-level staff — creativity is a strange new world that threatens turf that many feel compelled to defend. For these administrators, it’s a “cat-and-mouse” game, in which the staff waits out the administration until the game resumes with new players.

For others, the game is all about process. It may be that the best outcome emerges, but the complaint can be that the perpetrators of change violated “standards,” “process,” and “protocol,” especially if the inherited guidelines and the roles assigned are unclear. It’s difficult to defend an institutional standard in the end if you can’t explain what it is exactly to those who violated it.

In this respect, some college and university staff behave more like bureaucrats, and sadly, discussions with them focus more on motivation than aspiration.

Yet you can claim that protecting an institutional standard is more important than advancing a common vision, participating as a team player, and being loyal to the vision developed by a college community and sanctioned by its board — especially if the vision might change your role as the chess pieces move. For long-serving mid-level staff whose members sometimes behave like tenured faculty without actually having comparable tenure, the problem can be addressed but seldom solved.

Most staff does not fall into this category, of course, and are hopeful, supportive and entirely professional, particularly if the institutional strategic vision has legs. But for those who defend turf, location and longevity offer a unique advantage. The rest of the college community may fear or admire them, but their colleagues will seldom confront entrenched, turf-oriented staff. Why make enemies among neighbors, colleagues and friends who you see at the community pool each summer and at church service every weekend?

There are some who might argue that this is no different than corporate politics played out at all levels. But colleges and universities are not corporations. They operate more like closed, inbred, full-service, 24-hour villages where the politics may be similar but the approach has ramifications that impact relationships. You see your colleagues who are also your neighbors.

Depending upon institutional type and location, college administrators live more or less over the shop.

There are at least three ways to offset inertia in which creating quality with intellectual capital cannot be compared to widget making.

The first is to support a mature, nurturing environment in which the duties, responsibilities and protocol are clear. In effect, it may be wise to fight process with better process.

The second is to have senior managers who have real authority and a common sense of direction. It presumes, obviously, that the senior managers support the common vision and are not themselves part of the inertia. They cannot participate in the cat-and-mouse game of “wait and see,” although a number of them do.

There must be institutional support — beginning with the Board — for senior managers who are change agents or these managers risk flame out or being themselves co-opted by the culture they were hired to nurture, change and strengthen.

And finally, it also assumes that the Board behaves responsibly, creating a climate of accountability and transparency, supporting a best practice environment without violating the process designed to create it. Beware of the Board member whose social relationships or special knowledge of the community defines their private conversations with executive sessions of the Board.

To find good staff, executive search firms must also adapt their virtual Rolodex to incorporate a new type of better-prepared administrator. To do so, they must present more broadly prepared candidates, especially emerging from within faculty and staff who have outstanding facilitator skills, a fire in the belly and an ability to translate issues to where higher education will head. For those outside the academy, the lessons will be different, beginning with an appreciation for the value of process.

These firms must also work to force boards to state their intentions clearly. Does the Board understand its role in setting priorities? Has it sought out candidates in good faith that take an institution forward? Will it be consistent in its approach and even-handed in its application?

There may still be some institutions whose leadership seeks senior administrators to provide the institution with an opportunity to “take a breath.” And there is also great danger in hiring portfolio builders. But for most colleges, the best hires typically come today with individuals who understand that the problem with priorities is how to find the courage — and backing — to address them.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. He is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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