Understanding power struggles between state systems and flagships

Both entities are what mathematical modelers call complex systems, making adept and adaptive leadership all the more critical.

The challenges for executives operating state-wide higher education Systems and the flagship research universities within those Systems have grown more baffling with each passing year. From UMass and UNC to LSU, Wisconsin, and Oregon, we hear regularly about frustrated and embroiled leadership.

Public Systems have always been subject to strains, both within themselves and beyond, extending to the broad political and economic arenas within which they operate. But today those inevitable strains have been intensified by reciprocally aggravating causes. A new model of leadership is required. In order to secure leaders with good odds of success, governing boards must cultivate a deep understanding of how to assess leadership competencies and match them to the kaleidoscopically changing demands of these complex organizations.

Both Systems and their research university flagships are loosely linked confederations of heterogeneous components. Former University of California President Clark Kerr believed the leaders of multiversities (his word to express the multifarious character of these sprawling institutions) need to accept that some parts of their organizations will always be discordant with others, if not actively at war. A mega-System like the State University of New York illustrates the diversity of activities and entities that makes complex, competitive relationships inevitable: 64 post-secondary institutions, from technical and community colleges to research universities; healthcare systems comprising multiple hospitals and academic health science centers; nearly 500,000 students; nearly 100,000 faculty and staff.

Conflicts and Synergies

But big research flagships—with medical schools, hospitals, and healthcare systems; with extensive research facilities; with thousands of faculty and staff and tens of thousands of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in hundreds of degree programs across a dozen or more colleges and schools; with vast real estate holdings and physical plants; with technology and business incubators, extension services, and experiment stations; and with burgeoning auxiliary enterprises (housing, parking and transportation, athletics, and fund-raising, among many others)—rival statewide Systems. They too cross thresholds of diversity, organization, and interconnectivity such that interactions among the parts give rise to organizational cultures, behaviors, and outputs that are not predictable in linear ways, that are larger than the sum of the parts, and that reflect internal conflicts and synergies which emerge in surprising ways.

That is to say that both public Systems (for which I will reserve the capital S) and their research flagships are what mathematical modelers call complex systems. Leadership of such systems requires extraordinary acumen in many domains. Because the opportunities and dynamics are always already emergent there is a premium for leaders who combine analytic and executive skills with an intuitive grasp of complexity, broad intellectual sympathies, and unusual levels of altruism and empathy.

Hedgehogs and Foxes

Readers of University Business know that executives at the helms of Systems and their flagships must have exceptional business acumen and political skill, comparable to those required at the highest level of corporate leadership. They must operate complex bureaucracies while managing—across a spectrum of domains, internal constituencies, and external stakeholders—change that is occurring more rapidly than ever.

And unlike corporate CEOs, who can often be the hedgehogs focused on doing one thing well that Jim Collins described in Good to Great, System and flagship leaders must be foxes, able to shift their attention rapidly and effectively among a dazzling multiplicity of enterprises, cultures, activities, disciplines, means, and ends far more diverse than the bottom line—even the triple bottom line—of for-profit businesses. To optimize their institutions and their myriad outcomes, leaders of these complex post-secondary institutions must have intellectual sympathies that span the full range of their multiversities; must have ample tolerance for dissent and conflict; and must attain high levels of altruism in championing every aspect of their heterogeneous enterprises.

Shifting Competencies

Since leaving the presidency at the University of Vermont, I have consulted on executive searches and have been fascinated with the tools used today to gauge the characteristics and competencies of leaders, both in the corporate and non-profit worlds. The idea is to enhance recruitment of top leaders as well as their success once in office.

I have also been privy to research regarding how academic and corporate leaders compare on competency assessments (see “Leadership Traits and Success in Higher Education,” a report published by Witt/Kieffer earlier this year). Among many interesting findings, three are of particular interest for consideration of public Systems and their flagships. First, corporate and higher education leaders are far more alike than different. Second, one of two salient differentiators is that higher education leaders score significantly lower than corporate leaders on interest in finance and business. Third, higher education leaders score significantly higher for altruism than corporate CEOs.

There lies the sweet spot for Systems and their flagships: to find leaders who close the gap on the business side, who can rise to the challenges of economic crisis and changing business models and of urgent calls for cost-containment, price-restraint, efficiency and productivity, and who at the same time retain the altruism and intellectual breadth that allow them to make the most of the diversity of missions, activities, and interests over which they preside—to orchestrate a whole larger than the sum of the parts of their complex systems.

It is easy to see why clashes between Systems and their flagships are inevitable, especially when resources are constrained. Any System leader worth her salt will work to wring out of all of its units the utmost complementarity, efficiency, and productivity in order to achieve the policy goals of public investment in higher education. Increasingly, System officers will feel compelled to align their efforts with the purposes of governments, above all with governmental interest in workforce training and economic development.

The CEO of a research flagship, while subject to the same imperatives as the System with respect to workforce and economic development (though in a different key than others, than, say, the leaders of the community colleges within the System), will tend to weigh those ends against other values—a level of undergraduate education, for instance, adequate to participation in the institutional mission of creating and applying new knowledge. Any flagship leader worth her salt will measure success against other research universities, not just in serving the purposes of government through economic benefits but in a dedication to teaching and scholarship across the disciplines that values the disinterested pursuit of knowledge as much as applied research: theoretical as well as applied physics; basic science in molecular plant biology as well as the provision of know-how to small and large-scale farmers; art and art history as well as architecture and urban planning.

Taking the Holistic View

As former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt has observed (see his chapter in Precipice or Crossroads? Where America’s Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway through Their Second Century), subordination of public research universities to the purposes of governments may not always support the universities’ central mission in teaching and scholarship. And, as Duderstadt also suggests, leaders of the flagships often have good reason for seeing System offices as bureaucratic agencies of government rather than as educational institutions.

System leaders must of course be exceptionally effective in the political domain extending from local communities to the executive and legislative branches of state government and to the federal government. To foster high levels of performance across a broad range of activities and institutions, they must have the commitment to altruism and the sensitivity and imaginative sympathy that are equally needed in the leaders of their flagships.

Both Systems and their flagship research universities are complex systems that require highly adept and adaptive leadership. If those at the helms of Systems and their flagships understand they operate in complex systems in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts, then the still unavoidable frictions between the flagships and the Systems can be intelligently managed and minimized. And if governing boards and search committees include in their decision processes when selecting top leaders a deep assessment of the leadership competencies and characteristics of short-listed candidates, they will greatly increase their odds of choosing well and of supporting the success of the chosen.

—Daniel Mark Fogel, professor of English at the University of Vermont, was president there from 2002 to 2011 and executive vice chancellor and provost at Louisiana State University from 1997 to 2002. He is the editor, with Elizabeth Malson-Huddle, of Precipice or Crossroads? Where America’s Great Public Universities Stand and Where They Are Going Midway through Their Second Century (SUNY Press, 2012). He serves on the Education Leadership Council of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer and is also a consultant with CBT University Consulting.

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