Leadership at universities (23 Feb 2015)

On 17 February 2015, Katherine Graham, the former special advisor to the provost and former dean of public affairs at Carleton University, published a thought-provoking piece on leadership in the Ottawa Citizen (link) that compels us to ask what constitutes leadership. Does leadership mean economic growth, spatial and temporal ordering, a hierarchical structure, willingness to take risks, being a member of an old boy’s club, or something else? I briefly explore definitions of leadership and how Carleton University has done or should do with each.

The most obvious definition of a leader uses spatial and temporal ordering. Whoever goes first is a leader; whoever follows them is not. In such a scheme, a leader is only defined by their followers. We should therefore not only have leadership programs, but also followership programs, such as boot camp. While this militaristic approach may be how many people perceive leadership, this is not consistent with the goals of universities, which strive for critical thought, innovation, originality, independence, and reflection.

Many governments see leadership as a stratum, divorced and above rank-and-file, much like Stephen Harper’s and Richard Nixon’s governments. There is little or no connection between leaders and backbenchers, let alone a connection with voters and students. This definition of leadership does not seem appropriate for universities, although is probably utilized.

Leadership often adheres to the orthodox economic model that growth is good. Whenever Carleton’s current provost talks of sustainability, he exclusively means economic sustainability, completely co-opting this lovely ecological term. As an example of embracing growth as a proxy for leadership, in its strategic mandate agreement (for which Katherine Graham was the nominal lead author), Carleton antithetically chose to focus growth on one of its true weaknesses, namely health science. Carleton does not have programs in human medicine, nursing, veterinary medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, epidemiology, nor even kinesiology. Until two years ago, Carleton’s health science department consisted of one plant (not animal) biochemist, who is currently the chair of that weak department. Sure that constitutes growth, at least of enrolments, but not sure how cultivating weaknesses constitutes leadership.

Leadership, especially with respect to hedge funds and real estate speculation, has often meant nothing more than risky gambling with other people’s money. Carleton chose to gamble $45 million dollars of its own monies for a new building for their unproven health science program.

Leadership has often meant being a member of an old boy’s club. Carleton’s leadership program certainly fits that bill. Although extolled by Katherine Graham as collaborative, equitable, and a way to bring together people across hierarchies, Carleton’s leadership program is the exact opposite. Carleton’s leader 1, 2, and 3 programs have been rigidly segregated. The first two are open to any employee. The third program is only open to people nominated by upper management and seems to be meant as an executive training program [see my earlier postings on this subject from 25 and 27 June 2014 here and here]. Furthermore, my guess is that Carleton spends ten to a hundred times more funds on leader 3 (executive training) than on leader 1 or 2 training.

I believe that leadership can and should be by example. As a university, does Carleton lead by example? Although aiming to be a research-intensive university, half of Carleton’s vice presidents do not have doctoral degrees [although, the two vice presidents without doctoral degrees are probably the best of our four vice presidents]. In fact, Katherine Graham, who was formerly an academic dean, does not have a doctoral degree. My dean has neither taught nor conducted research in many years, which hardly constitutes leadership by example, although he is probably very good at managing his four assistant and associate deans. Carleton’s academic deans, especially in science and engineering, hire a disproportionally small number of female faculty members, although they make up for that by hiring lots of female staff members and contract instructors, the latter of which don’t receive benefits. Decide for yourself whether that constitutes leadership by example.

One thing that definitely flies in the face of leadership is naked aggrandizement. But that is exactly what Katherine Graham provided in her 17 February 2015 Ottawa Citizen infomercial, in describing Carleton’s leadership program that she designed and implemented.

There is, however, brilliant leadership at Carleton University. Carleton’s current university president leads by example and seems to eschew old boys clubs. Emilie Cameron, Stacy Douglas, Danielle DiNovelli-Lang, and Ummni Khan have organized an amazingly dynamic informal interdisciplinary series in the social science and humanities. Chris Burn, who isn’t even a biologist, organized Darwin week to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Origin of Species. There is a huge amount of grass roots leadership at Carleton, albeit mostly completely divorced from management. Maybe leadership at universities should mean structured anarchy sensu Peter Kropotkin. If universities really want to cultivate leadership, they need to cultivate freedom and stop cultivating conformity, propaganda, and pablum.

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