THE BLOG
05/28/2013 05:13 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013

Doing University Administration Well, Part II

In my previous post, I covered two of the five most important things that I think one needs to do university administration well: Students First and Really Listen. Below, I'll cover the next three things I think must be done to do university administration well.

However, before I get to the rest of the list, I think a very short analogy on understanding the power and potential of shared governance in university administration is necessary. In its simplest form, if governance is thought of as analogous to driving a car with several riders inside, shared governance involves all the riders in helping decide where to go, how fast to go, and what roads to take on the journey. Needless to say, this requires a great deal of communication, cooperation, and planning. It also requires that everyone in the car trusts each other to do their parts and keep the greater good of the entire group in mind. In light of this simplified analogy, it should come as no surprise that leadership and management traits outside of shared governance (e.g., top-down, command-and-control, etc.) do not all work in shared-governance systems. Now, back to the list.

3. Never Surprise Your Own Side--I often refer to this as "Rule 1, Management 101." It sounds so simple, yet it is violated so often (and yes, I have violated it myself, with appropriate consequences for my actions). This particular guideline really distills down to communicating frequently, fully, and clearly, even if (or perhaps especially if) communication is awkward, difficult, or otherwise uncomfortable. It also means that everyone in a university administration has to do the same, or else any president or other leader will appropriately bear the blame for failure to do so.

The power of never surprising your own side is that often, you can head off problems by having the open communication required to keep people in the loop. From personal experience, I have been spared some very public missteps with the council that I received before going public with things that were not or never will be ready for prime time. Because higher education is so focused on shared governance, never surprising your own side leads to more involvement in reaching decisions, which leads to better decisions and much better commitment from everyone involved.

4. Take Some Chances, but Remain Calm--One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to John Shedd or Grace Hopper, is "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for." To me, this means a good administrator/leader will take some chances--steering the university ship out of the harbor--but will keep calm when things around her or him do not go exactly as planned. Often it is that calm demeanor that gives people confidence in your leadership, even if you are questioning yourself internally. A university leader also is responsible for generating excitement about positive or forward-looking items, taking the ship to new harbors. I often find myself being very excited about the positive aspects of Oregon Tech and our future while maintaining calm about the challenges that face so many state universities today.

Although this combination of excitement and calm may sound contradictory, there is a commonality of optimism and confidence that ties it all together. It is critically important to maintain a predictable, even keel--especially in today's higher-education landscape. In discussing his long-term marriage to Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson noted that the key to a successful marriage was "...the capacity to treat disasters as if they were incidents and not to magnify incidents into disasters." In today's colloquial parlance, this might be known as, "Chill out. We've got this."

5. Lead By Example--Seemingly a simple, easily implemented approach to leadership. However, I have seen example after example of hypocrisy in leaders who have different rules for themselves versus everyone else. Yes, there are perquisites associated with being a president. But these perquisites should be those that allow a president to do her or his job better or more efficiently. Reserved parking is a good example because presidents come and go at all hours of the day for meetings, and it is inefficient for someone to burn presidential salary time looking for a parking space, sometimes several times in a day. Where perquisites cross the line to unnecessary benefits, I contend that not only is a president not leading by example, but she or he actually is eroding trust in the university (i.e., if the leader takes shortcuts and plays by different rules in public, imagine what she or he is doing in private!). Leading by example is especially critical in public higher education where there are more eyes on the leader than most people have encountered in previous positions.

There is a well-known joke among many university presidents known as The Three Envelopes. New president arrives; departing president leaves three envelopes to be opened one at a time in order as new president runs into problems. After a few months, problems arise, new president opens envelope #1: it says, "Blame Your Predecessor." This works for a while, but after an additional year or so, more problems arise, so new president opens envelope #2: it says, "Reorganize." This also works for a few years, but yet more problems arise, so now not-so-new president opens envelope #3: it says, "Prepare Three Envelopes."

Keeping students first, listening, communicating, taking chances, and leading by example are the five traits I think are needed in a university administrator to do university leadership well. A common thread throughout is trust. Being a university president and working in a shared-governance system is more about trust than almost any other emotion. We all make mistakes in leadership, and those mistakes erode some level of trust. Not handling those mistakes well, not taking ownership of them, not rectifying them to the best of your ability--those are the mistakes that irrevocably damage trust and lead to preparing three envelopes.