Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Revolving-Door Syndrome: More on the Hazards of The Corporate CEO Model of Educational Leadership

I said earlier that I had made my final post for the day--but I should know better than to say that anything I plan or do is ever final. I'm logging in now to share some thoughts provoked by a Huffington Post article today linking to a story by Christian Rexrode at the McClatchy website, which announces that three more of Bank of America's board of directors have just quit. That brings the total of those who have resigned from the 2009-2010 class of directors to nine--half of the board.

This story of pronounced organizational instability jogs my memory to post something that I intended to say in a story about the sociopathic CEO and the application of that concept to leaders in higher education.

One of the negative consequences that those who study leadership in higher education are tracking in colleges and universities which adopt the corporate CEO style of leadership is the destruction of collegiality by presidents acting like CEOs on many college campuses. The corporte CEO style of leadership in universities is corrosive to the ties that bind a college community together--and, in this respect, it's corrosive to everything that colleges and universities are supposed to be about.

The concept of "collegiality" stresses the calling of a community of scholars and students to "bind together" in the pursuit of truth. The word "collegiality" comes from Latin roots meaning "bind" and "with."

The corporate CEO style of leadership disrupts collegiality, by imposing on institutions that are meant to employ a model of shared governance a top-down, and often autocratic, governance model. In the corporate world, CEOs are by their nature top dogs, the ones who make the decisions and hand them down to those "beneath" the CEO, who are expected to implement the decisions without questioning.

This model of leadership is a bad fit for higher education because higher education depends, at its most fundamental level, on a concept of leadership that values collaborative decision making involving the whole university community. This model of leadership sees decision-making as a shared venture, in which a community of scholars and students collaborate to generate ideas, discuss them, and then craft institutions to facilitate the implementation of those ideas.

At its worst--when a university president-as-corporate CEO moves toward that sociopathic edge described by Hartmann in the posting I discussed yesterday--an autocratic university president who views herself or himself as a CEO can create total insability throughout an entire institution. When his or her power is unchecked by governing boards who see no incompatibility between the corporate CEO style of management and university leadership, an autocratic university president can produce a revolving-door syndrome in the institution she or he leads, such that key offices see one person after another moving through them, causing serious instability in the whole organization.

That kind of instability, especially when it occurs in key university positions, undermines continuity, leading to institutional chaos, since the rules are constantly shifting, the chain of command is new every day, and no one knows to whom to report or what the expectations of the new supervisor might be. Such organizational chaos, induced from the top by autocratic leaders employing a corporate CEO style of management antithetical to the core values of higher education, seriously impedes a college or university's mission. It siphons off precious energy the college community needs to devote to the pursuit of its mission, since that energy has to be devoted, instead, to constantly adapting to new supervisors and new ways of doing business.

The loss of energy for the university's mission, in turn, causes misssteps that can lead to problems with accrediting bodies, whose primary function is to assure that universities have a clear mission, pursue that mission with integrity, and have strong processes of self-correction when the mission is not being pursued successfully. And when accrediting bodies begin to look askance at a university that is faltering in its pursuit of its mission due to autocratic leadership, donations from granting bodies and the university's stakeholders begins to dip, as well, since donors are hesitant to give funds to a university that seems to be spinning out of control with organizational chaos, a revolving-door syndrome in key offices, and loss of energy and focus for its mission.

It is the responsibility of a governing board, of course, to rein in leaders whose leadership style induces constant organizational instability and chaos, a revolving door in key offices, and a loss of energy for a university's mission, with consequent loss of credibility by the university. Unfortunately, in some institutions, the governing board is the source of these problems, in that it deliberately enables the out-of-control, or even sociopathic, autocratic university leader because she or he appears to be a tough, decisive CEO in the corporate style.

To the extent that the governing boards of American colleges and universities continue to refashion institutions of higher education around ideals and models drawn from corporate experience, which are ill-suited to the mission of higher education, and to the extent that boards choose and keep empowering leaders who employ those corporate models even when strong evidence suggests that such leadership is harming colleges and universities, we're in trouble, as a culture. We're in trouble because we depend, all of us, on the ability of our institutions of higher learning to produce leaders with values and skills necessary to keep democracy alive.

And that's not the goal of corporate culture, in most of its embodiments--not in any shape, form, or fashion. As the "Spiritual Autobiography" of a significant leader of higher education in the 20th century, Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman University, repeatedly notes, higher education has a crucial role to play in sustaining democratic institutions, by inculcating in students the core values necessary to keep participatory democracy alive. When we allow the values of corporate culture to dominate our institutions of higher learning, we court trouble for our culture as a whole.