How University Leadership Matters

There is something to an educational leader with a vision for the institution along with engaged faculty, staff and students. Penley on Education and Energy made the case that Leadership Matters in K-12 education in an earlier blog. It matters as well in higher education where I have spent most of my career.

Diana Natalicio has transformed higher education in El Paso, Texas. Ms. Natalicio became president of the University of Texas at El Paso not quite 30 years ago. UTEP is a better place today as a result of her leadership. She has sought increased research support, based on UTEP’s historic science and engineering role; UTEP began as the School of Mining and Metallurgy. She has raised UTEP’s enrollment of Hispanics; it is more representative of the El Paso community now. She has increased graduation rates, including those of Hispanic students, in technical fields like healthcare, engineering and mathematics. UTEP has received national recognition as a Hispanic-serving institution.

Building hope, engendered by vision, is what Ms. Natalicio has done as UTEP’s leader. In 2013, the New York Times quoted her about what had transpired over the years of her presidency. “I think the biggest difference between then and now is our self-confidence as an institution.” Building hope began early in her tenure, she says in a video welcoming students on the UTEP website. “We saw liabilities where there were real assets. What I understood was that these were all opportunities just waiting to be capitalized on.”

Leadership matters, of course, in every organization.  One day in Denver an airline CEO and I awaited a panel discussion. We talked about what we really did – he as CEO of an airline and I as president of Colorado State University. It quickly became evident that the leader of an airline and the leader of a university had much in common. Both of us saw our prime responsibility as building hope through vision.

That combination of vision and hope builds employee engagement. Earlier in my career, a colleague and I developed a measure of employee engagement that was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. In that article, we labeled one type of engagement, moral commitment, a kind of engagement that mattered most for employees’ performance. Those individuals with moral commitment see their future aligned with that of the organization.  With personal hopes’ being achieved via the organization’s success, performance rises.

A good leader encourages engagement. That is exactly what Ms. Natalicio has done at UTEP as its leader. Upon becoming president, she saw what some considered the isolated, border location of UTEP as an opportunity. She viewed the often less-well-prepared, first generation college students as hard working with great potential. She took the substantially Hispanic community of El Paso as a bridge to more Hispanic graduates. She built hope from what many perceived as challenge. She did so by offering a glimpse of the possible in her vision that leapt beyond felt inferiority to hope and engagement.  Leadership matters, and Ms. Natalicio demonstrates it.

Leadership Matters

Years ago, the Brookings Institution published a report on what mattered for the success of students and learning outcomes in high school. After many years, I still recall that one of the two significant variables was leadership of the school principal. Perhaps that research was no surprise; leadership matters.

Those of us close to education know how critical good leadership really is to K-12 and higher education.   If we are to improve education, one of the most obvious, but occasionally overlooked, areas to do so is to appoint good leaders and give them the authority and responsibility to lead their schools. While this inherently means less operational interference from the district, board, and others, the benefits of good leadership mean a great deal.

We need leaders who are committed to making a real difference in their schools. We need transformative educational leaders. If the primary focus of a school’s leader is on self-advancement or self-protection it is tough to be a transformative leader. Self-protection is very easy to understand. Leaders are always in vulnerable positions. We admire those who do succeed. That is why we look back to people like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. They faced challenges, took risks, and the world – and this country – are different and better because of their leadership.

That is why I admire Tim Ham, the retired Superintendent of Madison School District in Arizona. A 2013 study of superintendents by the Brookings Institution concluded that it is quite rare for a superintendent to make a difference in student achievement. In 2012 in Penley on Education and Energy, I had written about how Mr. Ham made a difference. He led with a strategic choice – commitment to a school’s cultural changes in the face new digital learning tools. Mr. Ham took risks; he made strategic choices. He led. His schools were better for it.

We too often see the alternative – a school or college leader whose interest is in the next career step, a more prestigious school to head, or a higher salary. Such individuals may achieve what they want for themselves, but they are not good leaders. The school or college they leave behind is little changed by their time as its leader. Few strategic choices were pursued that would have made a real difference in the school. The superficial was their modus operandi; publicity and self-promotion were their rewards. That is not good leadership.

Good leaders, the kind who are recognized by the Rodel Foundation and make a difference in a school, face many barriers. External constraints inhibit changes and learning innovations. Long-time stability in the education industry presents a leader with a culture of steadiness rather than innovation. School leaders’ own career goals make risk-taking on behalf of the school questionable for them. Tenure, unions and the absence of valid, effective internal performance evaluation of teachers or professors limit them. It is much easier to be an administrator or a cheerleader than it is to be a good leader.

Good leaders make strategic choices that transform their schools. But strategic choices bring risk. We understand that from business. What we need to see are changes that result in the selection and encouragement of more good leaders of schools. This means changes to the selection process of school leaders. It means limits to the external constraints that we place on schools, especially K-12 but also the legislative constraints on public colleges and universities. It means changes to the boards with a focus on governance rather than operational management.

Realizing the goal of school and college improvement is not entirely a matter of good leadership, but that long-remembered Brookings study made it clear. Leadership does matter.