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Career Advice

The satisfaction of academic leadership

An experienced administrator reflects on the realities and rewards of his role


I was rushing down the front stairs of the Fletcher Argue building on my way to another meeting over in “Central,” the President’s Office. As usual, I ran into a faculty member. “You must be awfully anxious to get out of that job,” he opined with self-assurance. “Well, I’m ready to leave it,” I offered. “But, overall, I have really enjoyed these years.” He let it be known that my view was simply incredulous. We had reached the front doors. In the 30 seconds that we would devote to bring closure to this conversation, I simply made a comment prompted by the purpose of my next meeting. “When you think about the quality of the new scholars that we are bringing into the Faculty you can understand some of my sense of satisfaction.” Off we went our separate ways, but he left me with a frustrated feeling. Why should I have to defend and explain how I thoroughly enjoyed the previous eight years as Dean of the Faculty of Arts? Were would I get such satisfaction? Did he think I was simply a power hungry administrator who liked some limited limelight? Had I abandoned scholarship in order to seek satisfaction in chairing endless meetings?

In my own mind I don’t think the answer is that complicated. I want to reflect upon the sources of enjoyment of leadership in the academic community, both as a Chair of Department and later as a Dean of a large Faculty.

Empowering scholars and scholarship

Successful life at any level in the university requires a passion for learning and for teaching, for research, in a word, for scholarship. The breakthroughs in knowledge often improve our society significantly. We have an astounding ability to address medical problems and conquer them. The treatments of leprosy, tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis are all wonderful medical triumphs. Advances in the treatment of HIV/Aids, Alzheimer’s, and cancer are occurring regularly. Building safer bridges and improving the safety of the food chain are conceptualized in laboratories side by side on campuses. Writing skills, research skills, critical thinking skills and citizenship skills emerge as students progress in their education, Creating music, a sculpture or a play that makes the human spirit soar, as well as reflecting on the importance of ideas in history are all essential to the vitality of a society. A university is a bedrock of society, a great civilizing force.

To be asked by one’s colleagues to assume a leadership position, in my view is an honour and a chance to foster this passion for scholarship and promote its impact.

The character of academic leadership

I have been impressed with Jim Collin’s study of successful leaders in the business community. (Level 5 Leadership; The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve”, Harvard Business Review, 2001, Vol. 79, No. 1, pp 67-76) Collins found that successful leaders in the business world had two essential characteristics which took them to the top levels of leadership; a great deal of humility and a unflinching sense of purpose, a fierce resolve. The importance of humility was an unexpected finding for him. He felt the need to insist it came out of the data. He suggests it is counter-intuitive, even counter cultural, in a society where we idolize larger than life leaders. Yet without this humility, the business did not reach the heights of success achieved by other businesses that had leaders who put personal ambitions and pursuit of personal glory aside to focus on the goals of the company.

Without question, in my view successful academic leadership is a service to others. The successful academic leader is one who derives great satisfaction in promoting and celebrating the successes of colleagues. That is both easy and difficult. The easy part perhaps depends somewhat on personality. It is significant that Collins’ research could not answer the question as to whether Level 5 leadership could be learned.

Administrating the advancement of knowledge: scholarship by other means

The difficult part derives from two factors. First, academic leaders are individuals who are developing a body of knowledge in a specific area of research. Their leadership responsibilities require that they sacrifice some of that single minded search to work for the good of the department, the faculty, the university. To do that well leaders must have, or develop, a clear vision of where their unit needs to go in order to be the best it can be. This requires a different kind of scholarship, the scholarship of administration. It requires that one reflect and then be able to act upon, among other things, the impact of the changing nature of scholarship, the shift to multi-disciplinary research, the rise of eLearning, the globalization of the economy and of learning, the shift from discipline based to problem based research, the demand for policy relevant outcomes. Most academics don’t have the time or the interest to reflect on many of these issues.

The reason for that is, in fact, the second factor that makes this type of leadership difficult. The rewards for being an academic are primarily individual; specifically tenure and promotion. The recognition by colleagues that academic administrators are engaged in a legitimate, indeed essential form of scholarship is far too often denied. Until we are willing to acknowledge and reward the scholarship involved in enlightened administration, the difficulties in recruiting chairs and deans will remain. Personally I don’t think financial rewards are as important as academic recognition.

This view does not presuppose that academic administrators must give up their personal scholarship when they agree to take on an administrative position. The problem they face is one of balance. Most will return to the ranks after a term as Chair or Dean. They cannot afford a three or a five year hiatus from their personal realm of scholarship. Nor do most want to do that. How can they find the time to carry out their own scholarship and yet be, or become, informed in higher education issues, ready to lead? Departments and Faculties don’t want caretakers, they want leaders with vision.

It is not an easy balance to find. The passion for the task is essential. The rewards can be satisfying. To welcome new academics and mentor them toward tenure, to create or maintain a supportive climate where all members of the unit feel their efforts and accomplishments are appreciated, to engage students in the learning enterprise, to move a unit forward in its teaching and research responsibilities and its willingness to address contemporary issues, these are some of the rewards I would not have wanted to miss.

Raymond F. Currie is a Dean Emeritus and retired professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba. As an Associate at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development (CHERD), he leads national and local workshops on academic leadership for chairs of departments. He also chairs the Research Data Centre National Coordinating Committee, a network of 19 Centres at universities across the country.

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