What is successful international leadership in HE?

Seven years after UNESCO published Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an academic revolution, the paradigm shift the report cited toward ‘massification’ and global competition appears to be accelerating. Universities of all types and sizes are unremittingly internationalising, both catalysing and responding to global changes in higher education.

In turn these institutions need leadership and support to lead the charge while managing a complex set of operations, policies and programmes that span the globe. Student and faculty mobility, international partnerships and agreements, and remote operations and campuses are all adding to the extraordinary administrative burden that universities now manage, requiring dedicated professionals to orchestrate global efforts.

Who are these people, what do they do, and where do they come from?

There are no simple answers nor standardised roles. Most campuses have had staff dedicated to international programmes of one sort or another for decades, but research shows a profession that has quickly evolved in the new millennium from a distributed workforce of staff positions embedded in departments and colleges to one that is more centrally coordinated or led by administrators on the senior management team.

Titles vary but are inevitably trending upwards in status and accountability. The Association of International Education Administrators defines these professionals as Senior International Officers or SIOs – individuals at a high level of institutional leadership who head an office dedicated to internationalising the broad scope of the institution’s programmes and activities.

Its 2014 survey found “significant changes” in the titles of SIOs when compared to a previous study conducted just three years earlier.

The most common title was director, which applied to nearly half of respondents compared to 25% in the earlier survey; next most common were associate or assistant vice president/chancellor/provost and vice president/chancellor/provost, indicating that as universities adapt to a global platform, they are appointing higher level professionals to manage a growing portfolio of responsibilities.

Centralising from Cambridge or Nottingham

Dr Mark Elliott, vice-provost for international affairs and the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, recalls that, when his position was created 10 years ago, the university was already inherently global in nature, and rapidly becoming more so – with numerous research collaborations, visiting faculty in both directions, and a diverse, international student body.

However, these activities were highly decentralised down to the individual level. At that point, the university recognised that a single leader was needed in the provost’s office with responsibility for understanding Harvard’s array of international activities, shepherding complex global initiatives, and ensuring such activities are consistent with Harvard’s teaching and research mission and well-supported administratively.

In addition, the position needed to advance – and align with – the university’s research agenda and improve coordination among international activities in Harvard’s various schools, departments and centres.

A distinguished scholar with a long history at Harvard, Elliott was appointed to his role a year ago. He admits that his research and faculty credentials helped him establish credibility and build trust with his fellow faculty members from day one.

As a result, he is able to facilitate coordination of collaborative, transnational research activities and to connect seemingly disparate pieces on Harvard’s very diverse campus in ways that will take the entire university into the wider world.

Given the changing landscape of higher education, entrepreneurial skills are as important as credentials. Professor Nigel Healey, newly appointed vice-chancellor at Fiji National University, was appointed pro-vice chancellor international at Nottingham Trent University, or NTU, in the UK in 2011 to redesign and restructure the university’s international programmes and operations.

NTU Global was the result – a central clearing house, coordinating unit and leading edge of the university’s global strategy that includes, among other things, relationships with 250 campuses around the globe and two dedicated campuses in Beijing.

More than 40% of NTU’s faculty is from outside the UK as well as many of its doctoral students, presenting a significant management challenge with regard to immigration, housing, mobility and the like. Professor Healey says that key competencies needed are resilience, openness to new ideas and ways of doing things, adaptability to new systems and a respectful, empathetic learning approach to leadership.

Global generalists

Dr Elliott and Professor Healey illustrate just how institutionally-specific as well as expansive these roles are – both individuals are unifiers and connecters (and herders of cats) but with jobs that little resemble each other. Thus, where SIOs develop these skills and competencies can differ widely.

The most common source is existing staff who are asked to take on additional responsibilities. Frequently, this means a faculty member with an interest in an area or discipline with an international perspective.

According to research collected by my firm, of SIOs at 57 research universities, approximately 56% were promoted from within from a research or tenured faculty position. The doctorate is highly valued, as roughly 80% of these SIOs have a terminal degree.

Others like Willis Wang, vice-president and associate provost for global programmes at Boston University, Massachusetts, US, since 2009, grew into the role because of talent, interest or experience in international sectors. Now managing a team of more than 300 individuals around the globe, Wang also serves as deputy general counsel at Boston University and has a background in international business and venture capital.

Increasingly, many institutions see value in diverse backgrounds and now recruit SIOs from outside institutions or industries where they may have gained fundamental skills. Manufacturing, financial services, the foreign service and multinational NGOs have been sources of candidates for some top universities.

Bernd Widdig, director for international activities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, since 2013, served in international leadership roles at two other institutions before coming to MIT.

He emphasises that international strategy should be a vehicle for strengthening excellence, not the other way around, so he focuses on promoting the larger mission of the university the way a foreign affairs officer promotes the home country’s interests.

As one of the world’s leading universities, MIT pursues large-capacity projects by partnering with other countries to build new universities based on the MIT model, in addition to more typical activities like research collaboration, study abroad and faculty exchange.

With more than 43% of its graduate students and 65% of its post docs international citizens, MIT epitomises the modern global university. To be a senior international officer here, says Widdig, means being a strategic institutional thinker, adding and communicating coherence to a widely dispersed set of activities and staying calm and focused.

The SIO must in addition help translate or interpret complex, challenging dynamics of a turbulent world to the senior administration and university community to inform policy, practice and strategic decisions.

As Wang of Boston University points out, something he learned in the venture capital world, knowing when to stop or pull the plug on a project is almost as important as knowing how to launch one.

So who are these people? It varies, but tough decisions are part of the territory. In addition, they all excel at connecting disparate people and entities within vast internationalised institutions.

Lucy Leske is senior partner of the education practice of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. She is also a board member and holds an Of Counsel position in the education practice of Witt/Kieffer Ccentric, an international joint venture between her firm and Australia-based Ccentric.