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Academic leadership for a time of change

The higher education sector is going through significant changes. Universities are facing financial losses and shifts in their teaching and research funding. The changes are so significant that some in the sector suggest that the purpose of higher education needs to be revisited and reviewed.

The changes will have considerable impacts on academics. They are asked to respond to the new funding regime, to engage more with the community, to deal with the extra workload, to respond to the movement in the job market, to redesign the course deliveries, and to work across disciplines, schools, universities, and perhaps geographic boundaries.

Although academics are the ones who will need to adjust and rethink their practice, the current commentary in the sector is more focused on either the senior leadership or anecdotal stories of successful online deliveries.

But we have already been through rapid changes in the past few months. Thousands of courses went online overnight and thousands of academics went through professional development and rethought their course deliveries.

This was all done by agile decision making and top-down leadership. Perhaps because it has worked well, it is tempting to continue on the same path by designing new processes, coming up with new checklists, and prescribing what needs to be done.

This approach worked well because of the urgency of the situation. Command and control is necessary in the crisis. Everyone was eager to receive direction from the top and everyone understood that there was no best decision.

All decisions were made quickly and based on limited information. However, universities and society will eventually be out of the crisis. Calm will return.

To make the changes sustainable and the reform more effective, universities need to find better ways of implementing change that fits their complex organisations. They need to have a close look at their organisation and set the change agenda in line with the right organisational culture and structure.

Universities are complex organisations. They involve a large number of interacting elements and most of these interactions are non-linear. The academics are independent thinkers that act in silos and most of the time, independent from their team and their Schools.

The relationship between academics and their managers is not hierarchical. The relationship is collegial, and, in most cases, the management role is seen as a necessity for making decisions and not a role instrumental to the quality of teaching or research.

Academics need autonomy within clear boundaries. Therefore, it will be paramount for universities to send a clear message to their academic community about what the new changes mean and where the boundaries are. If academics know their boundaries they will find creative ways for delivering outcomes.

Universities are also dynamic. Different faculties and schools may have different organisational structures. In this setting, a solution to a common problem may emerge from any of the schools and departments.

Universities need to develop the capability to set up the starting conditions, to monitor for the emergence of new solutions, and to capture these solutions and roll them out across the organisation.

Academics come from different contexts and have been trained and shaped to develop specific skills, understanding, and attitude that is applicable across the sector.

They have multiple identities. They are members of the university, they belong to a global discipline, and they are closely related to a profession or industry. These identities impose various demands on the academic works that are not necessarily aligned. These complex and competing identities make the rollout of change more complex, however, it provides opportunities for learning from a global community.

In the corporate environment, the flow of information between organisations is constrained. They have to make extra effort to connect people across organisations and learning is confined within the organisation as a competitive advantage.

However, universities are built on the premise of free flow of information. Academics are expected to share their experiences and the collegial culture is a strong foundation for sharing that information. In this environment, academics will be a source of learning from their colleagues in other universities and bringing that solution to their own organisations.

Finally, academics need to show leadership to enact their autonomy, to take advantage of their dynamic organisation and to initiate new solutions: a leadership that is far from the common understanding of leadership as a title.

This leadership is a rare find. The universities’ role will be to support their academic community to develop their leadership capacities and to encourage leadership actions. With this support, they will have an academic community that leads the change that they want to see rather than being the subject of the change.

Ehsan Gharaie is an associate professor of project management and a member of the Academic Board at RMIT University.

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