Lead­er­ship in­tel­li­gence: how to com­mu­ni­cate with your in­sti­tu­tion

V-cs must strike right tone in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with cam­pus, es­pe­cially on hot top­ics. Jack Grove writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

With the con­tro­versy over the high pay of UK vice-chan­cel­lors still fresh, some might have ex­pected Al­ice Gast (pic­tured in­set) to keep a low pro­file.

Af­ter all, the pres­i­dent of Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don is one of the coun­try’s high­est-paid univer­sity lead­ers. Her over­all pay pack­age, in­clud­ing pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions, amounted to £432,700 in 2017-18, lat­est ac­counts show. Mean­while, her £300,000plus earn­ings from in­dus­try that year – most of which come from the US oil giant Chevron – are likely to be the high­est in the sec­tor.

How­ever, the US chemist, who has led Im­pe­rial since Sep­tem­ber 2014, took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to most vice-chan­cel­lors.

In an email sent to Im­pe­rial staff on 11 De­cem­ber, Pro­fes­sor Gast spelled out the ex­act de­tails of the ex­tra paid ac­tiv­i­ties, which, she said, amounted to about 30 days of work. She added that such roles “strengthen our re­la­tion­ships and broaden my per­spec­tive on in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion and best prac­tice in cor­po­rate gov­er­nance”.

In turn, she also listed a num­ber of cor­po­rate spon­sors of her re­search. “The ben­e­fits from these cor­po­rate col­lab­o­ra­tions and con­sul­tan­cies ex­tend be­yond the fi­nan­cial sup­port and made me a bet­ter re­searcher and ed­u­ca­tor,” added Pro­fes­sor Gast, who also de­tailed how some 287 aca­demics had led projects for Im­pe­rial’s in-house con­sul­tancy firm.

Those in­ter­ested in her univer­sity pay were also pro­vided with a link to the lat­est an­nual fi­nan­cial state­ments – which led some on­line com­menters to com­mend Pro­fes­sor Gast on what was seen as re­fresh­ing open­ness about her earn­ings.

“This is a good ex­am­ple of what lead­ers should do,” said Jon McNaugh­tan, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy and lead­er­ship at Texas Tech Univer­sity, whose re­cent re­search has fo­cused on in­sti­tu­tion-wide com­mu­ni­ca­tions by US univer­sity lead­ers.

“The men­tal­ity that as lead­ers we can ‘hide our warts’ is past – there are too many ways for stake- hold­ers to get in­for­ma­tion and, as time goes on, our dig­i­tal trail is pretty en­com­pass­ing,” re­flected Dr McNaugh­tan, who, with co-au­thor Elis­a­beth Day McNaugh­tan, in­ter­viewed eight univer­sity pres­i­dents and four vice-pres­i­dents of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for their paper “En­gag­ing elec­tion con­tention: un­der­stand­ing why pres­i­dents en­gage with con­tentious is­sues”, which was pub­lished re­cently in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Quar­terly.

One is­sue high­lighted by in­ter­vie­wees was the need to em­pha­sise the univer­sity’s “val­ues” in any com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­cause, ac­cord­ing to one leader, these val­ues “were unit­ing”. In Pro­fes­sor Gast’s case, ap­peal­ing to the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit of Im­pe­rial staff, as well as to their com­mit­ment to aca­demic ci­ti­zen­ship, helped to turn what could have felt like an apol­ogy into a cel­e­bra­tion of in­dus­try­a­cademia part­ner­ships.

Strik­ing the right tone in pres­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tions was dif­fi­cult, ad­mit­ted many pres­i­dents in­ter­viewed for the study. If mes­sages are too vanilla, pres­i­dents risk ac­cu­sa­tions of cow­ardice, but any­thing too stri­dent could in­flame mat­ters be­yond cam­pus, they added. “We know that it’s ul­ti­mately a pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the state – it’ll get picked up by the news­pa­pers here im­me­di­ately any time we is­sue a state­ment,” said one univer­sity leader.

Mo­ments of high emo­tion on cam­pus sparked by con­tro­ver­sial video posted on so­cial me­dia pose a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge, said sev­eral in­ter­vie­wees. “One of the pres­i­dents in our study talked about the ‘Boren’ ef­fect, which re­ferred to the swift ac­tion of Pres­i­dent [David] Boren from the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa af­ter an in­ci­dent with a fra­ter­nity that set the stan­dard for ad­dress­ing some is­sues im­me­di­ately,” Dr McNaugh­tan told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

How­ever, one univer­sity head also won­dered whether Pro­fes­sor Boren’s swift an­nounce­ment in 2015 that two stu­dents had been ex­pelled over al­leged racist chant­ing was an un­help­ful prece­dent be­cause it was un­clear if due process had been fol­lowed. “He set the bar very high…and I think that’s the stan­dard that a lot of the coun­try looks at,” said the univer­sity head, adding that pres­i­dents are now ex­pected to “weigh in…when there’s an of­fen­sive racist in­ci­dent on cam­pus”.

“When in­sti­tu­tions do not im­me­di­ately ad­dress or com­mu­ni­cate about al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault, fi­nan­cial im­pro­pri­ety or other ma­jor is­sues, they risk oth­ers driv­ing the nar­ra­tive without per­ti­nent in­for­ma­tion,” Dr McNaugh­tan said.

Many of Dr McNaugh­tan’s in­ter­views con­cerned the 2016 elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as US pres­i­dent.

Mr Trump’s brand of na­tion­al­ist pol­i­tics has met strong op­po­si­tion at eth­ni­cally di­verse US uni­ver­si­ties, and many pres­i­dents in­ter­viewed de­tailed how they had sought to re­as­sure spe­cific mi­nor­ity groups on their cam­puses that were feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble – such as les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der and queer stu­dents and stu­dents with im­mi­grant par­ents.

But one pres­i­dent added that he was also keen to of­fer words to “stu­dents who sup­ported Trump [who] felt like they were be­ing alien­ated and marginalised on cam­pus”.

As one in­sti­tu­tional head put it, the role of univer­sity pres­i­dent is to be “a voice of rea­son in times of stress and not one that adds to the stress in some way or other”. Whether they man­age to achieve this aim in to­day’s di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment will re­main a chal­lenge for univer­sity lead­ers across the world.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.