Strategic Leadership in Higher Education: Embracing Challenge, Change, and Paradox

Strategic Leadership in Higher Education: Embracing Challenge, Change, and Paradox

Sharon E. Norris (Spring Arbor University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch107
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Abstract

Higher education administrators face unprecedented changes that require not only faster decisions but also strategic ones. Unfortunately, institutionalization and isomorphic pressures weigh heavily on college and university administrators making it challenging for these individuals to envision the type of changes needed to formulate diverse strategies and lead the strategic change necessary in higher education. How many of today's higher education administrators have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully lead their colleges and universities through the competitive, global, and technological advances that influence education today? The focus of this chapter will be on the need for strategic leadership in higher education, the outcomes that results when higher education administrators lack strategic leadership skills, and why it is important for administrators to develop associative thinking and collaborative innovation skills in order to successfully navigate the future.
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Introduction

Today’s institutions of higher education operate within a rapidly changing competitive global environment that is increasingly more complicated and complex. These changing conditions require administrators with the capacity to think outside the box and formulate new organizational strategies and also, and more importantly, develop the leadership culture necessary to execute the new business strategy. One of the difficulties higher education administrators face is institutionalization and isomorphism, which has influenced their mental models. Standards of quality in higher education as well as what constitutes success have been firmly embedded within the hearts and minds of educational professionals, future students, and legitimizing agencies such as accrediting bodies, government oversight entities, and certification agencies. To further complicate the situation, some higher education administrators lack business and management expertise and mistake economic planning for strategy and innovative action (Martin, 2014). As a result, there is an increasing need for academic professionals who can identify new market opportunities, innovate, manage change, and lead strategically.

According to Finkelstein, Hambrick, and Cannella (2009), “strategic leadership focuses on the executives who have overall responsibility for an organization – their characteristics, what they do, how they do it and particularly, how they affect organizational outcomes” (p. 4). The top echelons in higher education typically consist of the president, provost, vice presidents, deans, and department chairs. Many of these administrators rose through the ranks after starting their careers as professors with little background or experience in business management or organizational leadership. To compound the problem, in the early career years, these administrators may have perceived a slower rate of change with decision initiatives requiring many months or even sometimes years to move through faculty ranks and academic senate, to the board, and back to academic affairs in a lengthy planning and approval process. Furthermore, the expectations and standards set by accrediting agencies have also influenced the way administrators think about what ought to be done in their institutions.

Today’s higher education administrators face unprecedented changes that require not only faster decisions but also strategic and innovative ones. Unfortunately, as Keller (1983) points out, many college and university top echelons have refused to incorporate strategic management principles “even though other nations regard American management one of the ingenious contributions to the new world of large organizations and rapid change” (p. viii). As a result, some higher education administrators are struggling to overcome challenges associated with increasing costs, skyrocketing discount rates, declining net revenues, enrollments, and graduate rates, which are problems that are contributing to the closure of many colleges and universities. There is sometimes a tendency to focus on the economic challenges and improving efficiencies while overlooking opportunities to innovate within the industry.

Pisapia (2009) argues strategic leaders must have the capacity to evaluate and assess the organizational situation and determine whether frame-breaking or frame-sustaining change management is necessary. He explains, “Frame-sustaining change is change that enables the organization to adapt and work more efficiently on the things it is already doing. Frame-breaking change is change focusing on shifts in direction, procedures, and culture that enable organizations to work more effectively” (Pisapia, 2009, p. 37). When it is important for an organization to improve internal efficiency in order to overcome challenges and meet industry demands, it is helpful to focus on frame-sustaining changes. Unfortunately, too often, administrators count on frame-sustaining initiatives to also enhance the effectiveness of the firm within the marketplace and may be discouraged by actual outcomes.

How many of today’s higher education administrators have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully lead their colleges and universities through the competitive, global, and technological advances that influence education today? The focus of this chapter is on the need for strategic leadership in higher education, the consequences when higher education administrators lack strategic leadership skills, and why it is important for administrators to develop associative thinking and collaborative innovation skills in order to successfully navigate the future.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Business Strategy: The plans and decisions that guide an organization toward the achievement of specified goals such as competitive advantage, market position, profitability, and sustainability.

Normative Isomorphism: The process through which professionalisms within a specific field influences organizations changing over time and becoming more similar to one another.

Strategic Leadership: The purposeful leadership of the entire organization.

Associative Thinking: A method of thinking that involves making connections between existing problems or opportunities with cognitively distant ideas.

Institutionalization: The commonly understood order, organization, rules, and social patterns of relating that are shared within an industry or association.

Collaborative Intelligence: The knowledge that is created when diverse individuals engage in open conversation around problems or opportunities.

Mimetic Isomorphism: The process through which organizations change over time becoming more similar to one another as best practices are imitated.

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