University leadership: Finding the right balance between academic and business expertise

The nature of higher education leadership is undergoing change in the US. Demographics of university leaders is graying and a wave of change at the top is expected. According to the American Council on Education survey, the percentage of presidents age 61 and over increased from 14 percent in 1986 to nearly half in 2006 and the average age of presidents increased from 52 years in 1986 to 60 years in 2006. Here is a chart indicating likely retirement of presidents at leading universities in the US. At another level, the changes in the external environment with increasing competition for resources, ability to raise resources. To build a competitive advantage, this may require a stronger set of business skills ranging from operational efficiency to strategic development. Thus, emphasis on business skills may increase in American institutions.

However, in the Indian context, institutions are facing another leaderships crisis and it relates to lack of professionalism and academic values among leaders. The poor quality of Indian higher education and wide-spread corruption at all levels reflects the values of institutional leaders. Higher education leadership crisis is at two extremes–public institutions are entangled with bureaucracy while private institutions are all about bottom-line. In these extremes the core mission of institution and focus on quality is lost. Of course, there are exceptions with some high quality institutions both in public and private sector, however they are less than 1% in a system with more than 30,000 colleges.

The need is to find a balance where academic leadership brings deep understanding of the higher education domain and at the same time has an orientation towards speed and efficiency of business world. Here is my article entitle Academic Leadership: Beyond Bottom-line published in EDU magazine.


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