“But We've Got No Power”: The Leadership Role of the Program Director

“But We've Got No Power”: The Leadership Role of the Program Director

Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch004
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Program directors are academic leaders at “the coal-face” of a university's teaching activities. Responsible for curriculum design and co-ordination of the programs into which students enroll, program directors play a crucial role not only in the success of the programs offered, but potentially, in the survival of their respective faculties/schools. As oftentimes occurs in university settings, appointment to leadership positions is made on the basis of academic, rather than leadership, expertise – program directors are no exception. Hence, some program directors arrive into their leadership role with little or no experience/knowledge of leadership strategies. Lack of leadership skills aside, program directors are additionally challenged by the current ‘difficult' state of higher education. Interestingly, although the importance of the program director's role is being recognized and institutions are beginning to invest in developing program directors leadership skills, there remains relatively little literature surrounding program directors' leadership. The present chapter thus seeks to raise discussion around leadership and program directors. Challenges are identified and useful theoretical frameworks to guide leadership development for program directors are explored. The chapter serves as a primer for establishing foundational understanding of what the program leadership entails and for identifying the key capacities of a program director.
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Academia provides a somewhat unique context for leadership roles. Oftentimes, academics are promoted into leadership positions on the basis of their academic expertise rather than their leadership expertise. Subsequently, academic leaders oftentimes feel the pressure of occupying a position of leadership and responsibility without the knowledge and skills specific to leadership. Lack of leadership skills aside, academic leaders also face pressures emanating from a sector facing ‘difficult’ times. Institutional leaders at all levels of higher education institutions must grapple with the forces bearing down on higher education: globalization, competitive environments, fickle economies, emerging technologies and great diversity in ever-expanding student cohorts. Most tertiary institutions have an agenda for expansion and attracting higher numbers of students in order to insure their survival in these uncertain times. There is ever-growing emphasis in strategic plans on attracting greater student numbers, the quality of learning and teaching, and the necessity of equipping graduates with lifelong learning skills. In such an environment, the necessity of academic leadership has become obvious and there is a mounting emphasis on academic leadership roles within the higher education scene. For example, Scott, Coates and Anderson (2008) in a report funded by Australia’s ALTC for Learning & Teaching in Higher Education focuses on academic leadership capabilities “in times of change”. In the report the pressures facing higher education are clearly articulated, and a strong argument is made that responding to these pressures necessitates change, which in turn necessitates effective leadership:

To remain viable, universities must build their capacity to respond promptly, positively and wisely to this interlaced combination of change forces…but change does not just happen but must be led. (Scott, Coates, & Anderson, 2008, pp vi-vii)

Universities are therefore expending a great deal of energy to try and address pressing issues such as student recruitment, retention, employability and success. Conceivably, in the face of competition and economic challenges, the survival of the respective faculty or department hinges on the success of the programs offered. Given that program directors are primarily responsible for the curriculum design, quality and co-ordination of the degree programs into which students ultimately enrol, program directors (sometimes referred to as program leaders, discipline co-ordinators among other titles) are academic leaders very close to “the coal-face” of such issues. Program directors are being charged with a share of the institutional burden of addressing the issues student recruitment, retention and student success within their programs. Thus, institutions are recognizing the critical role program directors play within the organization, and there is some evidence that the importance of developing leadership capital in program directors is also being recognized. A quick Google search with keywords “academic program director leadership” highlights a number of results that mention specifically program directors. The resulting searches include titles such as:

  • “Academic Leadership Development Program (ALD)” – Tufts University;

  • “Academic Leadership development program (ALDP)” – University of British Colombia;

  • “Program directors’ leadership” – George Washington University.

It is quite evident from such search results that institutions are now making some investment in building academic leadership capacities for program directors.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Emotional Intelligence: The capacity of individuals to understand both their own feelings and reactions to circumstances and also the feelings and reactions of others. Emotional intelligence is fundamental to empathy and to interpersonal skills.

Pedagogy: There is no general agreement on a single definition of ‘pedagogy’ in literature. The term is being used here to refer an educators understanding and beliefs about curriculum design and the teaching and learning process which underlie their teaching activities.

Program Curriculum: The architecture of courses that make up a program or course of study which leads to a particular qualification.

Program Director: Sometimes referred to by other names such as discipline leader, program leader, program co-ordinator, the program director in the context of higher education is primarily responsible for the quality of the overall curriculum for the whole of the program of study that leads to a degree or other qualification. The program director leads the team of academics and instructors which teach the component courses within the degree program. The program director leads and also teaches alongside the colleagues teaching the component courses. Aside form curriculum responsibilities the program director also has administrative responsibilities including counselling students in academic matters such as study pathways.

Transformational Leadership: Transformational leadership achieves change or transformation in the value of others through the mechanisms of four key leadership behaviors: idealized or charismatic influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration ( Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2004 ).

Communities of Practice (CoP): A system by which “people learn and develop shared practices while engaging in a common enterprise over time” ( Wenger, 1998 AU34: The citation "Wenger, 1998" matches multiple references. Please add letters (e.g. "Smith 2000a"), or additional authors to the citation, to uniquely match references and citations. , p.119). Communities of practice are based on the idea that as social beings, individuals learn through social interaction.

Collegial Leadership: An approach to leadership characterized by interaction with others as equals. Status is de-emphasized.

Contextual Intelligence: Contextual intelligence is about a leader’s capacity to be aware of their environment and the changes that are happening, and to be responsive to those changes by putting in place practices which are conducive to success.

Critical Reflection: Critical reflection stimulates self-discovery in personal and professional life; it gives depth of understanding to complex or difficult situations and forces a more ‘holistic’ view ( Mezirow, 1998 ; Roberts, 2008 ). It involves achieving an awareness of the situation, evaluating the situation and making changes to action if necessary.

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