Governments can help universities to achieve their vision

Ineffective leadership is the bane of African society and African economies. This has led some researchers and scholars to state that Africa is facing a leadership crisis or leadership vacuum.

Unfortunately, African universities are not exempt from this observed phenomenon. Ineffective institutional leadership is part of the catalogue of African universities’ problems, which include chronic underfunding, dilapidated infrastructure and facilities, archaic pedagogies, outmoded administrative practices, exploding class sizes, weak assessment methods and irrelevant course curricula.

As a result, some African university leaders have adopted visionary leadership approaches in the fervent hope that this will assist them to transform their institutions by offering a desirable future outlook as well as prevent institutional stagnation or confusion.

Regardless of the cultural context, we take visionary leadership as the capacity to create, articulate and execute a clear vision and to provide meaning and purpose. We also conceptualise vision as the formulation of realistic, sustainable, achievable, long-term goals for an institution.

An invention of a future

The central thrust of the vision is that it portrays a leader’s hopes and dreams for the future. For this reason, vision is not a prediction of the future but rather an invention of a future and the path to progress toward it. While researchers unanimously agree that a vision should be simple, unique and sustainable, it should also be optimistic by communicating the institution’s possibilities and addressing any foreseeable problems.

Over the decades we have observed with heightened interest that African university leaders have enormous opportunities to contribute to the transformation of their institutions by adopting visionary leadership approaches.

Normally, institutional leadership provides direction, support, guidance and resources to the institution to enable it to fulfil its mission. Nevertheless, visionary leaders increasingly utilise vision as the foundation for their work, though vision and effective leadership are inseparable.

A visionary leader should paint a desirable picture of a future, giving a consistent focus and purpose for the institution. Consequently, the desirability of visionary leadership is seen in its ability to undertake long-term development of the institution’s needs and inspire institutional stakeholders to work towards proposed goals.

Articulation is only the first step

Visionary leadership is ineffectual if it only involves the articulation of visions. Certainly, articulation of visions is the first step. We know, from empirical observations, of vice-chancellors and other leaders of African universities who have articulated great visions for their institutions.

Yet these visions in and of themselves have not produced any transformative improvements in their institutional performance, operation or role in African society and economic development. Does that mean that visionary leadership is inappropriate for transforming African universities? We are more concerned with how visionary leadership is enacted to learn lessons of success and failure.

After painstaking analysis of the behaviours of African university leaders, we found that they are more enthusiastic and passionate about articulating visions for their institutions, showing that they are visionary leaders committed to transforming their institutions. However, these university leaders:

• Fail to periodically revisit their vision statements to review them, re-evaluate them or make them relevant;

• Do not create shared visions that are supported by a majority of the key stakeholders;

• Do not take into consideration the amount of institutional resources needed to achieve their visions;

• Do not communicate regularly to key stakeholders to remind them of the articulated visions to keep them motivated and inspired to ensure they are working towards the articulated visions;

• Do not form a team or committee to translate the articulated visions into actionable plans for faculties, departments, colleges or schools;

• Do not follow through with any promises made to stakeholders and ensure that they are fulfilled;

• Do not establish any mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the performances of the various parts of their institutions with regard to the attainment of the articulated visions;

• Fail to engage in relationship-building with key stakeholders to ensure that the articulated visions are clear; or address any arising confusion, ambiguities, questions and concerns in order to obtain their cooperation;

• Fail to match their behaviours and attitudes with their articulated visions, demonstrating a contradiction between their visions and their actions; and

• Are not tenacious in the execution of their articulated visions and tend to lose enthusiasm in the face of unexpected problems or distractions within the institution or its external environment.

Thus, successful visionary leadership is based on strong communication, relationship-building, goal-setting, alignment between leader’s behaviour and vision, formulating plans based on vision, monitoring implementation and evaluation of visions and identifying and mobilising the resources needed to carry on and achieve visions.

Strong, clear communication is most important for creating explicit agreement when it comes to the values, beliefs, purposes and goals that should guide the behaviour and action of institutional stakeholders with regard to achieving the vision.

It is critical that the vision must reflect the institutional purpose or mission. However, some researchers advise that visions should be tied to the institution’s culture and values. Since most African universities are in dire need of transformative change, visions should not be tied to the existing institutional culture and ethos.

On the contrary, the vision should empower and inspire institutional members and other stakeholders by serving as a fundamental internal compass for constructing new culture and values.

Harmonisation of visions

The transformation of African universities into effective and relevant institutions, responsive to the development needs of African society and economic development, is not the exclusive responsibility of African university leaders.

Consequently, we were disappointed to read from Wachira Kigotho’s article last year that the current Ghanaian president made the following comment during the Association of African Universities’ 15th quadrennial general conference of African university leaders: “There is an urgent need to review academic content, while vice-chancellors and other academics should provide visionary leadership.”

We have two sets of questions in relation to this comment. Who should review the contents of African universities’ programmes and curricula? What is the Ghanaian government’s vision for its universities?

We strongly believe that the Ghanaian government should participate in developing visions for its universities and harmonise them with those that university leaders have developed. This harmonisation should take place in a series of meetings between representatives of the government and those of the universities.

The critics may argue that this recommendation infringes university autonomy. But this is not a government imposition on universities and thus university autonomy is not violated. Indeed, harmonisation is supposed to be an opportunity for the government to contribute to the formulation of visions for the country’s universities. It also serves as a useful strategy to get the government to commit resources to help universities to achieve their visions.

Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy analyst based in Canada, and Michael Antwi is an educator in Ghana.