International mentorship for new university leaders

When Rosa Alejandra García Bado arrived at the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) Leadership Development Program (LDP) in Mexico City in June 2022 as the incoming rector of Universidad Marista de Guadalajara (UMG), she had a “one hundred days of change” plan in mind for her institution.

However, the root and branch restructuring that she had already outlined to the university’s board, the majority of whom belong to the Marist Brothers, a teaching order of the Roman Catholic Church, was quickly set aside as a result of conversations with her mentor Dr Gerald Reisinger, president of the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria (UASUA) in Wels (200 km west of Vienna) and another IAUP seminar participant.

“They suggested to me not to do anything for the first 90 days. Rather, they told me to listen, to watch and see how things were done at the university and what its character was. It was the best advice I could have been given,” said García Bado, who studied educational science as an undergraduate and took her masters in technology and education at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO), Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara.

After a number of endeavours, including editing and directing an academic journal, she returned to ITESO, where she was put in charge of various projects, the last one being principal of a high school for adult education and lifelong learning. “And then the Maristas invited me to be president of the university. So here I am,” she said.

This article is part of a series on Recovery and Transformation with Innovation and Inclusion by University World News in partnership with the International Association of University Presidents. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Enriching leadership potential

Fernando León Garcia’s path to becoming president of Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior (CETYS, in Baja California, México) was also untraditional. After completing his PhD at Stanford, he served as director of institutional planning and advancement and then chief of staff to the vice-president for academic affairs at CETYS.

Between 2000 and 2004, León Garcia was chief academic officer for the University of Phoenix International before becoming vice-president for academic affairs at the City University of Seattle, where he also served as interim president and as chancellor of City University International Division. He became president of CETYS in 2010.

Along the way, he told University World News: “I’d gone through several leadership programmes, including the American Council of Education (ACE) Fellows Program and the Harvard Seminar for New University Presidents. And I’ve seen first-hand what kinds of themes, topics and relationships with peers and experiences can enrich your potential to be a successful university leader.

“Among the themes that still stand out are the notion of servant leadership, listening to and empowering others, making sure that there is an institutional vision that drives the future development of the university, and the importance of governance and institutional quality,” he said.

In 2018, as incoming president of the IAUP, León Garcia proposed to the board that one of the initiatives of his presidency would be to create what became the LDP.

“If you look at higher education in general and review who it is that assumes leaders’ positions,” said León Garcia, “there is very likely to be a general conclusion that they were not as well prepared before they assumed their presidency, typically in such areas as governance, fundraising, strategic planning, and the like.” And, above all, he added, “we need to remind ourselves and others in colleges and universities that we are here for the students.”

A global mandate

Unlike the ACE Fellows Program and Harvard’s Higher Education Leadership Programme, which focus on the United States and to a lesser extent Britain and a few other select countries, IAUP’s LDP has a global mandate.

“Our programme draws its participants, speakers and mentors from the United States but also from the broader global higher education community, including regions such as Europe but also Asia and the Global South,” said León Garcia.

Last June’s LDP was the second that IAUP mounted. University leaders from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia attended IAUP’s first leadership seminar held in Denmark in 2019. Among the participants, León Garcia recalled, was Rhonda Padilla, the president of Panpacific University in Urdaneta, a city 185 km northwest of Manila in the Philippines.

“Her small university was struggling with low enrolment and financial problems. So, themes related to enrolment management, finances and applying technology in higher education were important for her to move Panpacific University forward. Other newly minted presidents or presidents in the early stages of their appointment included representatives from Japan, Colombia, Mexico and South Africa,” León Garcia told University World News.

A third LDP seminar is planned for Doha, Qatar, in 2024. The seminar, “Recovery and Transformation with a Focus on Innovation and Inclusion”, will be relevant for the post-pandemic higher education landscape.

Unlike the seminar in Denmark, when speakers and participants met face to face, because of COVID restrictions the seminar in Mexico City used a hybrid model: participants were on site along with León Garcia and a select number of IAUP presidents who acted as mentors and facilitators, while a number of renowned speakers and leaders joined by Zoom.

Among the speakers and mentors at last year’s session were 13 past and present university presidents from the United States, Qatar, Spain, Canada, Austria and China.

Additionally, another 10 speakers and mentors included higher education leaders such as: Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education; Francisco Marmolejo, president of higher education at the Qatar Foundation; Henry Stoever, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges; Susanna Karakhanyan, former president of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education; Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education; Dr Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; and Dr Arturo Cherbowski, executive director of Santander Universidades Mexico.

Listening and learning

Despite the advice to wait 90 days, during which time she would listen to concerns of UMG’s faculty and staff, García Bado found herself having to act on a number of files left unresolved by her predecessor.

“It’s like they were waiting for someone to say: ‘Yes, do that’, or not. It wasn’t easy because one of the things covered in the leadership programme was strategic thinking, which you cannot always do quickly because a decision ‘here’ impacts something over ‘there’,” she told University World News.

To get a firm handle on the situation at the UMG, García Bado hired a management company to audit the university. Central to that audit was another topic investigated at the LDP: staffing. In part, this meant determining whether the person in an administrative position had the right skillset for that position.

Since García Bado had not been affiliated with UMG prior to taking office, she went to different areas, such as finance, and to different departments to introduce herself – a tip she picked up in Mexico City. It is one, she said, that served her in good stead for understanding the management report because she had already met and, to some degree, sized up individuals.

Following the management report – and building on discussions at the LDP about the importance of clearly delineated lines of authority – García Bado is working to have coordinators of departments follow the formal lines. “The coordinators are used to speaking directly with the vice-rector. That means they are skipping a level of management. This can make for very messy decisions because no one knows what his or her role is,” she said.

At the same time the internal audit was being carried out, García Bado commissioned a market study to clarify UMG’s position in the higher education market and indicate where it should aim for in the future.

The diagnosis from the internal audit, combined with the results of the market study as well as analyses García Bado’s team made of the local and national higher educational context, has led to the development of a strategic plan, which was one of the topics given a fulsome discussion at the LPD.

According to León García, these plans typically run for three, five or 10 years. Due to COVID, CETYS’s strategic plan that was supposed to run until 2020 has an asterisk next to it, meaning it was prolonged by the pandemic. The university is presently beginning work on one that will run until 2036.

From a faculty member’s point of view, which was mine for the 30 years I taught at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario, strategic plans seem rather removed from what was happening in classrooms. León García explained, however, that well-crafted strategic plans give direction and with appropriate key performance indicators (KPI) and milestones that can guide development and change in higher education. For example, CETYS sought to attain US regional accreditation which was granted in 2012 and ratified in 2017.

In most cases, strategic plans have to be approved by the college or university’s board of trustees or board of governors. However, León García stressed, equally important is the process of getting to that point. A president or provost must seek input and involvement from faculty, staff and other key constituencies. Crucial, as well, for a strategic plan to be successful, it must be accompanied by a financial plan that lays out how it will be supported by a capital campaign or other resources.

García Bado credits the LDP with providing her with a useful introduction to her role as a rector, leading her institution through change. Specifically, she pointed to the overview of the main functions and tasks of a leader of a university as being important because of what she learned from what other rectors and presidents told her about their experiences. Equally critical, she said, is the IAUP’s emphasis on the human perspective that university leaders must always keep in mind.

“In this new stage of transformation, we have been working on two budgets: the operational budget and the transformation budget. The first seeks to attend to the day-to-day operation of the university. The second is focused on resolving what this new university stage requires: new personnel hiring, talent training programmes, educational programme updates, and infrastructure upgrades.

“We are considering that the updates of educational programmes are focused on meeting the specific needs of society, within a comprehensive educational project. This will allow us to fund both government and industry resources.

“This new stage of transformation seeks to respond in a better way to the mission of our institution and give a faster and more effective response to society, with a formation impregnated with the Marist charism.”

This last word, “charism”, is not often found in the rather bloodless documents that outline the strategic plans of institutions of higher education. In García Bado’s way of speaking about higher education in Guadalajara, however, it can be thought of as denoting, the extraordinary power of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment or Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper to draw the believing Christian closer to the divine. In essence, she points to the Marist’s calling to educate.

Invaluable mentorship

Michael Affenzeller, now provost of UASUA, also attended the LDP shortly before taking up his position. For him one of the most important take-aways from Mexico City was the time he spent – outside of the usual tightly scheduled meetings – to talk about all kinds of professional and personal things with his own university president, Reisinger, who was one of the university presidents on site.

Equally important was the mentoring advice León Garcia gave Affenzeller concerning directing universities that have several campuses, each devoted to different faculties. UASUA has four campuses, each of which houses facilities of computer science, communication and media, medical technology and applied social science, economy and management, and technology and applied natural sciences, respectively.

For several years, UASUA has worked to break down the silos that form when faculty and students work on their own campuses by fostering cross-campus research groups called “centres for excellence” that are created by faculty interested in specific problems and that include graduate research assistants.

“They are formed for important and emerging topics, like energy or production logistics. For example, the people who are doing mainly production science from a business science background, and those at our campus who are dealing with deterministic optimisation techniques or mathematical potentization work together. This combination is even more important to machine learning techniques,” said Affenzeller.

One of the important spinoffs of these centres of excellence, he added, was not only that they provided research opportunities for graduate students but also that they allowed UASUA to compete with local industry for research talent. “We cannot pay the same salary that industry is paying at the moment. So, we have to argue we provide other benefits and that you will have more freedom in what you are doing. The graduate student can go to academic conferences and write scientific papers in areas of their interest.”

Nevertheless, in his discussions with León Garcia, whose university has three campuses, the president with 13 years’ experience told him that while being respectful of the disciplines and the focus of each campus, it was important to look at a cross-functional, matrix-like approach that might begin to integrate what up until then had been silos and separate learning communities.

“The fact that I interact intensively with the deans representing the respective faculties raises the aspect that in the current interpretation of the provost role at our university there is no counterpart to the vice-deans responsible for R&D and teaching. León García's advice was to think in the medium term that there should also be cross-faculty roles that support the provost as vice-provost to coordinate the activities in R&D and teaching across faculties.”

Affenzeller told University World News he hopes to implement this reform in the medium term.

Contact with students

The men and women who lead universities necessarily juggle so many responsibilities that keeping in touch with what is going on in their institution’s classrooms, laboratories and lunchrooms can get lost in endless rounds of calls, in-person and Zoom meetings.

What, I asked both Affenzeller and García Bado, had they learned at the LDP about this problem?

Affenzeller told me that to keep from becoming aloof in university management, he ensures he keeps personal contact with students by continuing to be involved in courses, supervising academic theses and doing at least some research.

“Even if all this costs time that you don’t actually have, I think it is worth doing and it is important to stay grounded,” he said.

For her part, García Bado told me what Paul LeBlanc drove home. In addition to being president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), LeBlanc is the author of Students First: Equity, access and opportunity in higher education (Harvard Education Press, 2021).

“He was really inspiring and made me understand that as a president, sometimes it’s more about relationships … We have so many things to fix in this university, but I think as president you have to have balance. You must be in touch with the students and see how they are feeling, see if they are happy or not with the experiences we are designing for them.”

Shortly after assuming UMG’s presidency, García Bado put in place a policy that anyone – students, staff and faculty – could make an appointment to speak with her. To break the ice with students, she went to every class, introduced herself to the students and told them that one morning and one afternoon a week she would be in the cafeteria so that students could come speak with her.

“There’s no agenda. I’m there to listen,” she said.

Education levels and corruption

Oscar Molina Tejerina, pro-rector of Universidad Privada Boliviana (UPB), which has campuses in three cities including the nation’s capital, La Paz, praised the LDP for affording him the opportunity to network with colleagues with whom he could share ideas about developing innovative fundraising strategies. He was also mentored by LeBlanc, who shared his strategies for managing SNHU during the COVID-19 pandemic with Molina Tejerina.

Equally important for Molina Tejerina was the fact that, while it was not on the official agenda, in the training sessions, corruption in Bolivia and other countries was acknowledged as a significant challenge.

The discussions did not turn on corruption in higher education per se but rather on the link between low levels of higher education availability and corruption.

“The overall problem in many Latin American countries as well as in Africa is corruption, and corruption is correlated with lack of education. Countries without corruption are well educated countries (eg, Denmark or Canada). People without education are corrupted because they have few economic opportunities … We need to work on education and values to reduce corruption in these countries,” said Molina Tejerina.

“Countries like Uruguay and Chile serve as inspiring examples of how this can be achieved,” he said. “They have taken strong measures to combat corruption and have made education a top priority. As a result, they have seen a decrease in corruption and an improvement in the quality of life for their citizens.”

Uneducated people cannot, Molina Tejerina explained, make their way into the middle class – or, in the case of a poor country like Bolivia, participate in the building of a middle class. “We have people living on the right or left of the distribution curve. But we have very few in the middle. We have many poor people and some rich people. We don’t have a middle.”

The link between lack of education and criminal activity, he argued, is seen in the mindset of people who have no other economic options on the streets of Bolivia. “Because people are uneducated, we have narco-trafficking, we have smuggling and many other crimes in the cities.

“I believe that education is a crucial tool in the fight against corruption. It promotes transparency, accountability and ethical behaviour, which are all key components in reducing corruption and building a more stable and prosperous society. By investing in education and fostering a culture of integrity and responsibility, nations can create a bright future for their citizens and mitigate the harmful effects of corruption.”