The seduction, joys and privileges of university leadership

I first entered university leadership by accident and rather reluctantly in 1994 when I was persuaded to assume the role of college principal at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. I had initially resisted becoming an administrator, joining what I regarded, in the typically dismissive attitude of faculty, as the dark side of academe, abandoning my true vocation as a scholar.

To my great surprise, I found the position quite intriguing as it opened new vistas in my personal and professional life that became increasingly enticing and enriching.

And so began the long road to the vice-chancellorship at United States International University Africa (USIU-Africa) 22 years later, interspersed with the positions of centre director, department chair, college dean and academic vice-president at various universities in the United States.

In my administrative career, I came to relish five sets of professional and personal privileges of university leadership: solving problems, convening important conversations, celebrating the achievements of stakeholders, enhancing appreciation for interdisciplinarity, and opportunities for professional and personal growth.

Over the years, I developed a paradigm of problem-solving comprising what I call the seven Ps: problem, process, policy, people, practices, product, and politics. This entails clarifying what the problem is, adopting an effective process to address it, utilising the appropriate institutional policy, identifying people to consult, best practices to apply, the desired product, and weighing the potential political consequences.

The position of vice-chancellor of USIU-Africa gave me the power to promote conversations and implement change on matters I deemed critical for the continued growth of the university. This convening power of university leadership took many forms.

First, there were the policy-making processes that often involved consultations of the university’s multiple constituencies and generated the hustle and bustle of contentious collective thinking that only universities as epistemic communities are capable of.

Second, there were the numerous national and international conferences held on campus that I had the privilege of opening and attending, whose number increased significantly under my tenure, until the pandemic struck.

Third, my position as vice-chancellor opened opportunities to give keynote addresses at national and international conferences or give public lectures on higher education and development issues.

Fourth, my active participation in national and international conversations on higher education, African development and global issues as vice-chancellor benefited from joining various boards.

Culture of celebration

As a university leader, one engages with internal and external constituencies that are often not a part of a faculty member’s daily life. As vice-chancellor, I interacted with Kenyan cabinet ministers, members of parliament, county governors, diplomats, business leaders, prominent alumni, media houses and fellow university leaders. Some I encountered during official visits and events on campus, and others in their offices.

As a creative writer, a special highlight for me was the visit by one of Kenya’s, Africa’s and the world’s renowned writers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whom I used to meet when I lived in Southern California and once hosted as dean at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in an unforgettable palaver with Wole Soyinka, who was President’s Professor at LMU.

Ngugi was accompanied by his wife, Njeeri, and the legendary publisher, Henry Chakava, and former chief justice Willy Mutunga to launch a book on his literary life. The captivated audience was enraptured by Ngugi’s reflections interspersed with mellifluous readings from his book.

As a long-term faculty member, I’ve always believed in the importance of recognising faculty work as researchers and teachers. One reason I have doggedly maintained my research interests as an administrator is because I never want to lose the appreciation and celebration of faculty life.

That’s also why I taught a class as vice-chancellor to maintain my connections with students in their educational life. During the pandemic, this enabled me to better appreciate the challenges students and faculty were facing in the sudden transition to using online platforms and begin crafting a vision for the post-pandemic future incorporating the lessons learned.

One of the greatest sources of personal pride for me at USIU-Africa was my students who proceeded to graduate schools at top universities around the world.

Another was mentoring junior faculty and opening scholarly and leadership opportunities for them, as well as facilitating professional development for younger staff, some of whom have proceeded to make impressive strides in their careers.

Thus, university leadership provides one with incomparable opportunities to contribute to institutional transformation and wider social impact.

It offered me the privilege of meeting people I would ordinarily never have met as a faculty member, which gave me a greater appreciation of the ways in which different stakeholders conceive the role and value proposition of higher education, which helps frame the contentious politics around universities.

Relishing interdisciplinarity

At USIU-Africa my understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing higher education in general, and African universities specifically, increased considerably.

Not only did I need to provide institutional leadership, but I was also invited to join and address numerous higher education organisations and forums in Kenya, across Africa and globally. I made many lasting acquaintances and even new friendships in these encounters that I’ll always cherish.

My publications on higher education, a field I embraced when I became centre director at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, increased considerably.

The pandemic proved particularly productive in this regard as it offered a huge and disruptive reckoning with the limitations of existing models and a real-time experiment of possible new models for higher education.

Some of my pandemic writings in 2020 were published in a collection in 2021, titled Africa and the Disruptions of The Twenty-First Century. Currently, I’m finalising a new collection of essays written in 2021 and 2022 tentatively titled, The Joys of an Afropolitan Intellectual Life.

I have always found administration a generative intellectual space because, every day, you encounter diverse people and situations outside your own expertise and even comfort zone that require critical thinking and pragmatic solutions. You are always in a state of praxis, which is intellectually invigorating.

Professional development

University leadership holds a daily mirror that reveals, sometimes discomfortingly, one’s strengths and weaknesses, talents and deficits, and aspirations and anxieties. You hone your skills for a leadership style in tune with your values and predispositions and institutional mission and interests, including how to balance often conflicting impulses, information and advice that go into making and implementing both tough and mundane decisions.

In my administrative career, I progressively learned to listen deeply, appreciate the need for exhaustive data and sound advice in decision-making, and taking responsibility for decisions made and I expected the leadership team to do the same.

This is one reason why I took umbrage when the university council did not stand up for difficult and necessary decisions they made when faced with often predictable but temporary backlash.

As a leader, it is easy to become arrogant and autocratic, to translate the authority of the office into the delusions of omniscience, to mistake the superficial supplication of employees into confirmation of one’s eternal superiority.

Much is made of the desirability of servant leadership, its motivations, modalities, and mindsets. Its characteristics include listening, empathy, humility, awareness, openness, persuasion, communication, stewardship, delegation, vision, honesty, integrity, competence and commitment to developing and empowering people, building a trusting team, and achieving results. This echoes many of the attributes of transformational leadership.

Towards the end of my tenure, I held a series of talks on university leadership based on my experiences that were both upended and buttressed by the pandemic.

I found the typology developed by the firm and person who handled my search as vice-chancellor at USIU-Africa particularly pertinent. Maya Kirkhope and her colleague at Academic Search identified 10 key leadership qualities for the COVID-19 and post-pandemic academy. One can add two more.

First, it is important to ensure robust leadership appointments at every level, including for members of governing bodies, based on verifiable leadership competencies, passion and understanding of the higher education sector.

Second, training for university leaders at all levels, from department chairs to deans, vice- chancellors to board members, is imperative given the rapid and complex changes taking place in the sector. Such leadership development training must be specifically tailored for higher education rather than pasted corporate pastiche.

Third, in addition to managing complex institutional budgets, the pandemic forced university leaders to manage reductions in staffing, programmes and space, and showed the need for developing financial acuity.

Fourth, intercultural competency is indispensable as the range of stakeholders and their disparate institutional demands, including those for diversity, equity and inclusion, escalate.

Fifth, in an increasingly digitalised academy and society, technological deftness is more and more fundamental.

Sixth, the pandemic revealed the importance of crisis management that, in addition to preparing for natural and security threats, leaders must manage physical and mental health crises, emergency preparedness and business continuity, as well as leading in times of uncertainty.

Seventh, given the changing funding and financial models of higher education, universities increasingly need leaders with an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset.

Eighth, as political environments at national, regional and global levels become more polarised, universities require leaders with unusual political savviness to navigate the treacherous quagmire.

Ninth, as diversity and propensity for persistent internal and external conflicts and even crises increase, empathy and respect for all constituencies are vital.

Tenth, in a world of multiple media outlets, including social media that can make and destroy institutional and individual reputations with a viral posting, multi-genre communication skills are crucial in addition to traditional written and verbal communication skills.

Eleventh, besides the ability to demonstrate confidence and empathy, leaders are expected to demonstrate high emotional intelligence encompassing self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and social skills.

Twelfth, they must demonstrate agility, flexibility, capacity to learn, resilience, moral compass and accountability, in addition to having well-established professional knowledge and experience.

Learning these invaluable lessons as vice-chancellor, even if I wasn’t always able to put them into practice, left me with one overriding emotion: gratitude.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is currently the North Star Distinguished Professor and Associate Provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States. This commentary is the eighth of a series of reflections on various aspects of his experiences over six years as the vice-chancellor of USIU-Africa and reflects his personal opinions. The original article has been edited and shortened.