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Mentoring for academic leadership

Chair Mari Ostendorf, University of Washington
Panel Andrea Lawrence, CS Chair, Spelman University
David Notkin, CS Chair, University of Washington
Mark Smith, EE Head, Purdue University
Kristina Johnson, Dean of Engineering, Duke
Denice Denton, Dean of Engineering, University of Washington

The goals of this panel were both to encourage younger faculty to consider leadership career paths and to educate more senior faculty about issues in mentoring for leadership, in particular. This chapter thus includes discussion of options for leadership and reasons to consider leadership (or not), as well as mentoring needs and methods, both from the mentor and the mentee perspective. The workshop presentations and discussions fulfilled a dual purpose: first, the speakers were all academic leaders so that the entire workshop received some mentoring on the subject; second, the presentations and discussions provided sound information even for those not themselves interested in leadership roles -- they provided good advice to pass on to mentees and colleagues for consideration. It is to everyone's benefit to instill interest in leadership in our best colleagues and students. The future depends on it. Even the older cynics and curmudgeons usually recognize that it is in their interest to lure the most competent, smart, sympathetic, diplomatic, and effective junior and mid-career faculty into paths that will ensure sound and successful future operation of the institution.

Academic leadership

A small minority of faculty devote significant time to leadership activities in the department, school, and university. Academic leadership can be divided into the three primary types of research, educational, and administrative, with some positions combining two or all three types.

Leadership in research is extremely important and should be on everyone's radar. Three important attributes come to mind: the ability to do good research work; having a vision of what could be accomplished through a strong team effort; and having good interpersonal skills to motivate and bring colleagues together. A research leader seeks out and promotes talent, in addition to facilitating collaboration. Inviting colleagues to work on a proposal can be a good way of stimulating collaboration.

Leadership in education generally receives less attention in our community than it should and in some universities it is not strongly valued in the reward system. Nonetheless, we as faculty have a responsibility for quality education, and education can be scholarly work. Further, there are many opportunities for innovation. The use of high tech classrooms, distance learning, PC simulations and courseware are just a few examples of non-traditional approaches to learning that are currently being explored. Educational symposiums run by professional societies like the ASEE and IEEE provide excellent venues for disseminating innovations in learning. Educational leaders face additional challenges in documentation and assessing performance.

Administrative leadership includes a variety of positions that involve managing groups of various sizes and compositions such as department chairs and associate chairs, academic deans and associate deans, deans of undergraduate and graduate schools, the chair of the faculty senate, directors of research centers, the vice president for research, the provost and associate provosts, and the president. In some cases leadership positions can include multiple universities as with multiuniversity research centers. At most levels, administration typically involves hiring (and sometimes firing), resource allocation, alumni engagement and managing the changing and complex roles of faculty, staff and students. Administrative leadership is critically important because of the impact it has on academic program, faculty, staff, and student body. In many universities, many of these roles are truly full time administrative positions. Thus, when starting down an administrative path, it is worth planning your career stages. It can be difficult to return to a research career if you've been research inactive for 5 or more years.

Irrespective of whether the leadership role is in research, education, administration or some combination, there are responsibilities related to strategic planning, team building, fundraising and budgeting. A key aspect of leadership is vision: seeing and seizing opportunities and planning for long-term growth. A leader identifies and puts in place the foundation needed for success. People are a vital part of the success of an organization, and hence good leaders must be team builders, both within their organization and with other groups both inside and outside the university. Leaders need to seek recognition for their team, motivate individuals, and get members to take pride in the team. In team building, leaders must also address issues of diversity. Many people think that women and minorities can only be recruited by lowering standards and that there are no women and minorities available to hire. As a leader, you must be prepared to respond to this misperception. For example, consider that Catalyst, a nonprofit organization working to advance women in business, recently found that of 353 Fortune 500 companies, the companies with the highest numbers of women on their top management teams have 35.1% higher return on equity and 34% higher total return to shareholders. Healthy funding is also vital to the success of an organization; hence, all leaders spend a substantial amount of time on fundraising and budgeting.

Two obvious aspects of assuming a leadership role leap to mind when considering a career path that includes administration and leadership. The negative side is the enormous amount of time required, time that must be taken from other professional responsibilities including research and teaching, not to mention family time. Usually the higher the position, the greater the required commitment. Energetic deans sometimes brag how they are actually able to maintain a few students and teach an occasional course in spite of their workload, but presidents are rarely seen in the halls of a department. Another negative is that you often need to be willing to move (change institutions) in order to take on a leadership role. The positive side is precisely the potential for a major impact on many levels, including academic programs, student welfare and success, educational quality and innovation, community and national outreach programs, relations with industry and government, diversity, and quality of life issues.
Often, but not always, participation in leadership begins quite early in a career with the modest responsibilities of leading a small group of peers within a department. A typical path is to move from such initial positions to junior departmental positions such as associate chairs, to chair, to associate dean or dean and so on. But not all paths are so linear. Some faculty find a level they like and stay there; others drop off the leadership path; others move sidewise to directing centers or major university responsibilities; and others get drafted later in their career without low level experience, which can make getting up to steam on budgeting and planning particularly tough. Women, in particular, frequently take non-traditional routes. For example, none of the first 4 women deans of research universities in the US had previously been department chairs. This multipath entry adds to the difficulty of mentoring for leadership; there is no standard route.

Choosing Leadership

Leadership is not for everyone, of course. In this section, we explore in more detail various views of both the costs and the rewards of leadership, to help individuals come to a personal decision about whether a leadership role is the right choice for them.

Why refuse to lead?

Most faculty are familiar with all of the shortcomings of going into leadership roles. Junior faculty in particular are justifiably concerned about the possible negative impact on their long term career of getting bogged down in administration. It is easy to list many of the potential drawbacks. Specifically, a list of reasons to refuse leadership positions include:

Research and teaching

The first item is a genuine drawback, at least for most of us -- something has to go. Happily not everything has to go; people typically cut back on some aspects and not others. Department chairs and deans often give up most classroom teaching, but keep on with research and graduate advising. Some chairs cut back on research responsibilities and continue teaching. It is usually not difficult to return to teaching after a break, but it can be difficult to start a new pipeline of grad students and write grant proposals from scratch.


Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying that
"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."
C.P. Snow's The Masters provides a fascinating study of just how tortured the politics of a small academic group can be. However, politics arise where there are people, and to be effective one must deal effectively with people, whether in industry or academia. The stakes in academia are not small at all -- if one believes that, one shouldn't be an academic.

Raising money

It's a reality that chairs (and deans and others) spend much of their time doing fundraising, but fundraising is not in any way inconsistent with our traditional missions of education, research and service. Indeed, the opposite is true -- it provides an opportunity where we must, in a highly effective way, articulate why we do what we do, and this seems to be a wonderful obligation. Universities have a simple pair of goals -- produce extraordinary people and fantastic ideas. Our people are students, post-docs, faculty, and staff. We are judged more by the success of the people that leave the university than by those of us who remain here. Our ideas are conveyed in a broad set of ways -- by papers, books, company formation, technology transfer, artwork and performances, and many others. Conveying the excitement and the value of our people and our ideas is the core of fundraising -- and it's fun! However, it frequently means that there are more demands on evenings and weekends to attend dinners and receptions.

Lack of training

The required skill set for administrative leadership is awesome. It typically involves:

Few of us receive genuine training in these skills, but then most of us were never trained to be an educator or mentor either. If you have good staff, you can rely on them to do some (much) of this, and you can learn some on-the-fly, too.

Why lead?

So given all of the shortcomings, why agree to lead? The question is not rhetorical, it has an answer: to have an impact. If you have a commitment to the broader community and if you care passionately about it, leadership gives you a chance to have a significant positive and lasting impact on that community.

A leader can make a significant impact on the product of the organization. You can improve the educational and research infrastructure, and thereby improve the products of these efforts. You can foster development of faculty, staff and students to improve the quality of work as well as morale. Improving the quality of education and student mentoring can result in higher student retention and more successful graduates, which is a key factor in how we are judged, as mentioned earlier. Further, the success of their students is a reward in itself for many educators.

As a leader, whether in research or education, there are rewards associated with pioneering a new direction in education and seeing the trend adopted elsewhere. A leader can also be a catalyst for organizational change. If you have something special to bring to your unit including improving diversity, increasing the focus on teaching and learning, developing centers, or increasing interdisciplinary work, leadership provides an opportunity and resources for effecting such changes.

Finally, leadership offers an opportunity for you to grow professionally, providing new experiences and new contacts. In a leadership role, you often see colleagues in a different light, which can lead to adjusting of priorities. Leadership also helps one to develop a greater appreciation for the broader needs of the organization.

Who should lead, and when?

Leadership is not for the faint-hearted. You need lots of energy and passion. You have to be a self-starter and a good juggler. Academic administrators often have multiple roles, as leaders in research or education as well as managers of complex organizations.

It is important to assess impact in making decisions, and a talent for reflection is invaluable. Be responsive and decisive, but don't jump to conclusions. Follow through on commitments. Time management and delegation skills are essential, but choosing what to delegate or give up will depend on the individual.

People skills are a must: people need to know that you care, and you need to establish trust. Forgiveness and acknowledging your own mistakes can go a long way. Good communication skills are also an important part of this, both in terms of keeping people informed, dealing with difficult people, and selling your organization.

In any leadership role, you need to maintain the respect of colleagues both above and below you. In academia, this means that you need to have a strong track record in teaching and research. It is frequently the case that the best leaders were also excellent teachers.

Other attributes of a good leader include focus, integrity, thick skin (don't take things personally!), and a positive outlook. Leaders need to appreciate that academic roles are changing. For example, more faculty are involved in outside start-up companies or licensing technology, and intellectual property and ethics concerns are now important issues for academic administrators.

Particularly at higher levels, a good leader is usually generous in giving others the credit, understanding that others recognize your leadership contribution. This point is a bit controversial for many women, however, since women don't always get credit for their contributions. For that reason, it is important to make sure that other women, in particular, are promoted and receive credit for their accomplishments.

Other issues to consider relate to timing. Other responsibilities impact the choice to take on a leadership role. In many universities, the department chair is a rotating position, and taking on this role need not mean a career switch away from research. It is relatively easy to move back and forth between some administrative roles and a regular faculty position, but it becomes less so as one moves higher up the ladder in administrative roles. As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to return to a research career if you've not been active in research for several years.

Is leadership the right career path for you? Prof. Mark's Smith's advice is: "Follow your heart and pursue your dreams." Is the timing right? Prof. Notkin suggests that if you think that someone else could do the job, then maybe now isn't the right time for you to be a leader. You need to feel that you are bringing something special to the organization.

Mentoring for academic leadership

Finding mentors and training

Many of the skills required for academic administrative leadership must be acquired along the way or on the job. For example, department chairs typically are not trained for things like managing a budget when someone else is spending it; writing a 5-year strategic plan; gaining consensus from a faculty; or fundraising. Leaders need to develop excellent people skills and learn human resources policies and practices. Becoming a good leader is a slow process. Most learn through first serving in assistant or associate positions or by shadowing the person whom they will assist or succeed. Some have the extraordinary good luck to be at an institution which actually has effective leadership programs or workshops for its faculty.

Academic leadership training programs can be very helpful. An example of such a program is the Academic Leadership Program provided by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (an academic consortium of the Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago). In the past year, topics in the program agenda included: working with faculty, raises and incentives, sources of funding for higher education, models of university budgeting, budgeting in tough times, facilities planning, demands of changing technology, and the changing role of faculty. Other opportunities are available through professional organizations and some NSF ADVANCE programs. For example, the University of Washington's ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change held a National Leadership Workshop, open to outsiders as well as UW faculty, in July 2004. It covered topics such as "a year in the life of a department chair," leadership skills, leveraging dual career hiring opportunities, family leave and tenure clock extensions, faculty development and recruiting/retention for diversity and excellence.2 Reading books on leadership can be useful, and mentoring programs also have a role to play here (see below). Other roles may provide opportunities for growth and a broader perspective, for example, Prof. Smith gained valuable administrative experience when serving as special executive to the president at Georgia Tech.

As a leader, particularly if you are a woman or in a minority group, you may find a lack of more senior people to serve as mentors, and we know that having multiple mentors can be quite valuable. Group mentoring programs, described below, provide one mechanism for addressing this problem. Many women in leadership roles also find peer mentoring to be invaluable, i.e. consulting with those in similar positions in other institutions. In addition, you may find yourself in the position of "mentoring up," i.e. educating those above you, such as in issues related to diversity or special needs of your organization. For example, science and engineering education costs are typically higher than liberal arts because of the importance of training students with state-of-the-art software and equipment.

Mentoring others

Mentoring for academic leadership is, in many ways, like other forms of mentoring - the mentor is an adviser, a consultant, a role model and a colleague. At the same time, it is perhaps more difficult than ordinary faculty mentoring. Often the mentor is part of the majority of faculty who have not been an academic leader, and as a result the mentor's view of leadership may differ markedly from the views of those who have had experience with leadership. In mentoring, rewards come when your protégé succeeds, but in leadership roles this can mean that they take on positions of authority over you.

As a mentor, you can help individuals grow into leadership roles by identifying service activities that they could be in charge of and providing advice about campus politics. You can also make them aware of any leadership training workshops.

It is generally the case that there are fewer leaders than potential leaders, and leaders can get spread fairly thin serving as mentors. It is sometimes possible to address this problem and have a broader impact on a more diverse group through "group mentoring" activities. Some universities, like the University of Washington, hold workshops specifically aimed at "mass" mentoring for leadership skills in current and future leaders. The workshops bring in internal and national leaders for presentations and lively discussions, and serving lunch adds to the enjoyment and the attendance. These meetings are supplemented by monthly mentoring/networking lunches and lunches specifically for assistant professors. A side benefit of the emphasis on networking is the profound impact it can have on recruiting an excellent faculty. Of course, group mentoring activities should supplement and not be a substitute for individual mentoring, where possible.

While this chapter mostly focuses on mentoring other faculty members, it is important to note that faculty often serve as mentors for undergraduate and graduate students who may be influenced to consider leadership roles outside of academia. There is the potential for impact on society more broadly from this perspective. Government decision making on many issues would benefit from having more engineers and scientists serving in Congress and taking on other leadership roles.

May 9, 2005

Women professors with childrenTopMentoring supportMentoring for academic leadership