Developmental universities need strong leadership

Leaders at every level of the developmental university should constantly engage in conversation, discussion and dialogue with individuals or groups of university stakeholders. The purpose of this is to encourage innovative, critical and creative thinking about the university's roles and functions. This would disrupt the traditional idea of the university as merely a teaching institution and replace it with the idea of a university that is a development partner of the government.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

A minuscule amount of attention over the years has focused on African university leadership as if university leadership is somehow insulated from the political leadership crisis that has prevented the improvement of the human condition on the African continent.

This article focuses on the role transformative leadership can play in bringing about the vision of a developmental university. Transformative leaders are capable of handling uncertainty, contradictions and adaptive challenges that require exploration, learning, creativity and new forms of behaviour and attitude.

The developmental university is any university whose core purpose is research production, dissemination and use for national development purposes. In such a university teaching and learning pedagogies, assessment practices and the administrative ethos are driven by that core purpose.

Articulating a vision and setting goals

The realisation of the core purpose of the developmental university is entirely dependent on effective transformative leadership within the university, from the top echelons down to the bottom.

Though the university senate or academic board may identify and articulate a compelling vision, that is, a statement of the university's purpose and aspiration, that vision should be clearly and explicitly communicated to all stakeholders of the university – academic and administration staff, government, students, sponsors and donors.

Vision is important in a developmental university in that it helps to communicate the purpose of the university to its diverse stakeholders. It also provides vital information for the development of strategies for achieving that vision. It also allows the university to maintain its focus, preventing it from being blown in one direction or another by the winds of circumstance.

The strategies necessary for achieving the developmental university’s vision should be modified through a series of negotiations and bargaining. This is required to ensure that the voices of all stakeholders are included, listened to and valued.

Apart from articulating a vision and setting goals, transformative leadership is required to ensure there is a consistent focus on that shared vision. The developmental university leadership should not allow changing political, economic and social circumstances to steer the university away from its core vision.

Transformative leadership should also set achievable and measurable goals that are derived from and aligned with the vision.


Achieving the vision of the developmental university outlined depends largely on the resourcefulness of its leadership.

Resources, including finance, equipment, material, time and expertise are crucial to the vision of the university. How these resources are mobilised, distributed and managed are important for the efficient and effective attainment of the developmental university's vision and goals.

In developing countries in Africa the national budgetary allocation to research is as tiny as the amount of food fed to a hummingbird. To obtain increased research funding developmental university leaders need to demonstrate to government the concrete, beneficial results of their university’s research proposals.

Research proposals that could modernise specific sectors of the economy such as food, cocoa, coffee and cotton production have greater power to attract more government funding.

Role models

In addition, transformative leaders are required to role model attitudes and behaviours aligned to the vision of the developmental university.

Transformative leaders must set a good example in terms of behaviour and attitudes that promote the vision of the university. It would be contradictory for leaders of the developmental university to exhibit behaviours and attitudes contrary to the letter and spirit of the vision of the university.

While this may sound trivial, it has too often been the case that African leaders preach virtues but practise vices.

There are many ways leaders of the developmental university could demonstrate appropriate role-modelling behaviours and attitudes. For example, research production, dissemination or use – the core purpose of the developmental university – is not the exclusive domain of academic staff. The university president, vice-president and the registrar, for example, together with academic staff could organise research conferences, collaborate on empirical research, review international literature and offer specific advice to government.

In addition, many developing countries in Africa have a limited budget for basic services, let alone for research. Consequently, the university president, vice-president, faculty and departmental heads could work together to mobilise funds for research projects and establish research centres within the university.

Another example of where developmental leaders could make a difference is through establishing an electronic-based research journal to provide students with opportunities to publish their research articles or reports. This would allow students to learn research craft, principles and ethics, cultivate a critical reading culture and pay close attention to trends and events in their own society.

In addition, the university president, vice-president and other leaders could co-organise student research conferences annually for final-year students to present their research findings to the university community and receive feedback. Such students would benefit from practising and honing their research skills as well as associated presentation skills.

Rewarding staff

Rewards such as praise, recognition, acknowledgement and promotion for excellent research production, dissemination and utilisation are part of the motivational tools needed for the practice of transformative leadership. The developmental university could institute forms of recognition, monetary or otherwise, that encourage excellent research in any field of endeavour by a member of the university staff.

For academic staff, research-related activities such as research reports, case studies, scholarly articles, conference presentations and commentaries should be used for promotion and to denote seniority.

Besides, academic staff members who have used research in teaching – for instance, through developing courses that involve gathering, analysing and presenting evidence – could equally be motivated by recognition and acknowledgement.

Intellectual stimulation

As mentioned above, leaders of the developmental university should engage in discussions with university stakeholders. The subjects of these interactions could range from stakeholders' assumptions about their roles in the university; their contribution to the university; their current and future aspirations in relation to those of the university; issues of national development and what the university could contribute to this; and research-based approaches to teaching, learning and assessment.

Establishing a developmental university in Africa involves confronting monumental challenges. This is because the concept of a classical university, which is basically a teaching university, has deep psychological and historical roots in Africa; because the developmental university is a new concept with no practical models on the continent which can be imitated or adapted; and because financial and material resources and expertise need to be mobilised and brought together to achieve the vision of the developmental university. Those challenges require a transformative leadership team at the top.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy analyst in Canada.