Two Styles of Academic Leadership

Abraham H. Miller

The term “academic leadership” comes close to being an oxymoron.  Academia is a labyrinth of bureaucracies. The guy willing to climb out of a trench, yelling, “follow me,” charging the enemy lines, at risk of life and limb, would rarely make it to the top levels of bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy doesn’t tolerate leaders; it destroys them.  Risk takers can achieve great things, but they also make mistakes. Bureaucracy is intolerant of mistakes, and more intolerant of anyone who isn’t a team player.  Bureaucracy is about managers, paper pushers, and sycophants, people who have long learned to quash a thought at variance with policy, even bad policy.  Bureaucracy is in essence about people who will say yes when they should be saying no.  Bureaucracy is ultimately about survival, not about leading.  Leaders learn how to circumvent the bureaucracy and get things done.  They are rare.
I’m rounding the corner to the ten year mark of retirement. Looking into life’s rearview mirror has given me some perspective and, I’d like to think, insight into the concept of leadership.  I worked witha lot of different people over my career.  Precious few were leaders by anyone’s definition.  But two extremely different types stood in both sharp and memorable contrast, almost as ideal types in the Weberian sense, at opposite points on a continuum. 
The best person I ever worked under ran a department—a social science department in a research university—that bordered on anomie by preference, if not design.  There were almost no department meetings. He encouraged people do what they were trained and hired to do and to do it well.  He left them alone, and basically they left him alone.  He ran the department the way Warren Buffet is said to run Berkshire Hathaway and the way some hedge funds are run.  How did he know how well people were doing? The criterion was—did other people, who did what you do, say you did it well?  They said so if you got into good, solid journals in your field.  In the world of finance, the answer to how you did is indelibly printed in the profit and loss column.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Did you make or lose money?
When we recruited for an open position, the head would assemble the hiring committee and would tell them the following, “I got rid of the weak resumes.  So here are the good ones.  All these people have exceptional pedigrees, published articles, and glowing recommendations.  Your job is to find the person who has something different; the person who has done something different in life or career.  I really don’t want to hear whether Chicago has a better department than Yale.  I don’t want you to assign numbers, add up points, and tell me what some meaningless average is.  Go look for the unique!” 
Unique turned out to be a guy who worked with street gangs in Chicago, a Peace Corps worker in Brazil, a civil rights organizer in the Deep South, and a fellow who had worked on a small, anti-Apartheid newspaper in South Africa.
The department was not nirvana.  There was little socializing and little collegial interaction.  We were like a bunch of commodity traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade with our own portfolios and decision rules.  But at the end of the year, we all had been productive, and productivity did engender a sense of personal affirmation, even if there were little collegial confirmation.  Removal from both the pettiness of meetings and the time-consuming challenges of fruitless issues released us to engage unencumbered the life of the mind. 
No one cared about administrative gossip or rumors. Our department head kept us out of those frays.  We ignored them, and in reality, I suspect, he too probably ignored them.  Nothing passes as quickly across the dimension of time as the latest crisis in a university president’s office.
Our head would let the marketplace decide the mission and strengths of the department.  People who published in the best places in their field would have created the reputation of the department. People of similar orientation could have come together to foster that reputation by getting external funding for major research projects in that field, which coincidentally was precisely what that department successfully did years later.
Some years later, I was in a department—again a social science department at a research university—whose head had a style that was quite the opposite. Department meetings were all-consuming.  Politicking before and after meetings, lining up votes for or against trivial issues of undergraduate requirements, curriculum reform, or course descriptions became the raison d’etre of the department. The head would roam the corridors, plop himself into any office with a light on, and sit for at least an hour talking about his mission and vision for the department.  He would then move on to the next victim.  He thought of this as building consensus and cohesion, getting everyone to feel they were part of things.  I longed for the productive environment of my earlier experience.
All the time, the head was attuned to every piece of gossip and rumor out of the faculty club. He scoured the boilerplate of public relations statements for indications of where the university was headed.  If the president of the university made a meaningless public relations statement about the direction of the university, we immediately had to have a meeting to discuss it.  One old salt said, “Doesn’t he know that presidents say all sorts of meaningless things for public consumption?”
Where my previous department could not get two people to join a faction norwould anyone feel the need to do so, the endless meetings in my new department didn’t build cohesion or consensus; they predictably split the department into factions.  In academia, trivia is always important; for otherwise one has to confront the reality that so much of one’s work doesn’t matter.  As the academic cliché goes: “The conflicts are so intense because the stakes are so small.”  We began having intense conflicts.  You would have thought that the fate of the universe hung on a methodology requirement that was a symbolic statement about where the department was going intellectually, but in reality, precious few of our undergraduate students could handle such a requirement. 
The methodology requirement took on a life of its own being of such significance that it warranted an “en camera meeting” of those who were in support of it against the “old guard,” who saw it as a threat.  The department head portrayed himself as leading a charge for academic change, a man on a mission to modernize the intellectual orientation of the department and sideline the old guard.  He was doing all this through the rather bold and extremely meaningful strategy of, yes, changing the undergraduate curriculum.  The irony totally escaped him.
Caught up in the whirlwind of conflict, no one stopped to ask whether it was all worth it.
These admittedly are two extremes: a head who was laissez-faire about his department and one who was all consumed with it to the point that like Louis XIV, he thought, “Le department, c’est moi.”  My experiences juxtaposed a man who would rather come down with bubonic plague than call a department meeting and one who chose to sit ex-officio on every department committee and take over every meeting. 
The real difference between the styles of these two men was a result of their experiences prior to their appointment: the first never really wanted to run a department.   He preferred to do little more than engage in research. The other, after a lackluster career and watching his classmates achieve great professional heights, gave up on himself as a scholar—a decision that said more about his insecurity than his ability.  He thirsted for administration as a new career path. He fancied himself a leader, but in actuality he was more interested in personal advancement than policy.
A number of years have passed since the events of these two departments.  And most certainly factors other than leadership have affected how these departments progressed.  Yet each of these men contributed to the culture of these departments long after his departure.
The first department was then known professionally as a small but exceptionally productive department is today far and away more than double in size.  It has a strong graduate program and a strong reputation.  Meanwhile the other department fell into a spiral of internecine conflict and mutual distrust reminiscent of the inner workings of an authoritarian regime.  It was unable to come together and became high on the administration’s hit list for cuts.  It currently is less than half the size of its heyday.  Yes, there were other factors, but culture created by a leader, good or bad, persists long after he leaves the scene.  
Early in my career, I wrote (with James McEvoy) a piece on the conflict at San Francisco State when S. I. Hayakawa became its president.  The campus had a vicious faculty strike and violent demonstrations over admissions to its ethnic studies program.  The issues fractured the faculty like the San Andreas Fault.  Decades latter, I was at a professional meeting with some people from State, who told me that campus had never recovered from those days.  It would, in their opinion, take a generational change to remove the scars seared by those events.
There are few criteria for becoming a leader in academia.  There are no tests for leadership, no gauge of past leadership—as distinct from administrative—experience, just the desire to step up and have oneself nominated and a general perception from higher administration that the candidate is sufficiently compliant, eminently malleable, and possesses an ability to see the most important ethical issues as situational. 
The intrusive head was not a bad person.  As a colleague, he could be gracious, considerate, and affable. He had far more academic talent than for which he gave himself credit.  He might not have achieved the fame of some of his classmates, but certainly he was capable of creating an intellectual presence in the discipline. He was totally unsuited to be a leader, but the more he failed at it the more he persisted.  The more he failed, the more he sought success by aligning himself with the policies of the administration.
Academia toward the beginning of my career was a place for self-starters, mavericks, and people who thrived without structure.  All of that has changed over the years.  One associate provost, where I interviewed for a position, had me look out a window and asked me what I saw.  I said a parking lot.  He said no, what you really are seeing is a parking lot with five reserved parking spaces.  When the number goes to ten, the place will have gone to hell.  Years, later the number had gone to three hundred, and indeed the place had gone to hell many times over.
Leadership remains essential in academia, as it does in any setting, but the normative structure of academia produces the most ossified of bureaucracies. They value conformity over initiative.  The current crisis in academia over a system that only seems to work for those who run it will not be solved from within.  The academic “bubble,” as it is increasingly being called, is about to burst, and it will remain for those outside of academia to find a solution when it does. 
  • Share

Most Commented

January 24, 2024


After Claudine

The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in DEI and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms. This is not, however, the first time that the a......

February 13, 2024


The Great Academic Divorce with China

All signs show that American education is beginning a long and painful divorce with the People’s Republic of China. But will academia go through with it?...

October 31, 2023


University of Washington Violated Non-Discrimination Policy, Internal Report Finds

A faculty hiring committee at the University of Washington “inappropriately considered candidates’ races when determining the order of offers,” provided “disparate op......

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....