Professional and Organizational Development in Academia

Faculty careers are considered to be a meta-profession: a complex collection of responsibilities, skills, and demands for which there can be no uniform training or preparation. This is particularly true at research intensive universities where the expectations of research, teaching, and service each define a complete set of interdependent yet unique requirements that must be tailored to the specific institutional and disciplinary environments in which they are enacted.

Faculty training begins in graduate school, a training period of 4-10 years during which key components of a base profession are developed. This base profession consists primarily of content expertise and research techniques and proficiency aimed at producing scholars capable of advancing the field of knowledge and the useful application of this knowledge to the concerns and needs of everyday life. During this time, very little attention is given to the preparation needed for a career in academia, although many graduate students gain some experience and training in the skill sets and competencies required for teaching. This initial training period is often followed by additional training in the base profession as a post-doctoral fellow, typically lasting for 1-3 years.

Upon achievement of a tenure-track faculty position, a faculty member enters into a probationary period during which their potential as a scholar is tested and developed. This pre-tenure time period typically lasts for 5-7 years and focuses on demonstrating proficiency in the base profession of disciplinary expertise and research excellence. Significant leadership demands begin during this time as junior faculty establish independent research programs, assuming authority for significant research programs typically involving large budgets, multiple personnel, and the training of the next generation of scholars.

Junior faculty also begin to develop other foundational leadership skills as they take on responsibility for classroom teaching and departmental service. During this time, they significantly develop their professional expertise and competency in the areas of pedagogy and curriculum, developing a broad range of skills including classroom management, assessment and evaluation, curricular design, and the ability to effectively work with and develop students across a significant range of learning abilities, styles, social identities, and career aspirations. Departmental service brings with it the need for skills in communication, meeting planning and facilitation, and working with complex organizational structures.

By the time a faculty member achieves tenure, they have typically achieved the equivalent of “C-Suite” status within their base profession: they are held entirely responsible for the success or failure of their own research enterprise, making decisions that affect everyone within their research organization. To achieve success in their research enterprise, they must bring the technical, interpersonal, conceptual, diagnostic, and political skills typical of a leadership in complex organization. As the leader of these research efforts, they set the goals, objectives, and strategies, defining the vision for the collective work of their research team and translating this vision into projects that may span the entire length of their career. In this role, they are solely responsible for mobilizing outside resources and are accountable to multiple stakeholders as well as the general public, especially at public institutions such as the University of Michigan. During this time, they continue to develop the pedagogical and curricular skills of their leadership roles as teachers.

With tenure, and even more so with promotion to full professor status, faculty are increasingly responsible for ensuring the larger success of the institution. All tenured faculty assume significant authority for the major decisions of their unit, including hiring of other faculty, development of strategic vision for their departments and their disciplines, and the development of policy and other governing decisions embedded in the faculty governance structure of higher education. As such, senior faculty are required to develop skills and knowledge far outside the realms of their base profession training, including an understanding of business models, risk management, budgets, succession plans, regulatory considerations, and similar skills required of the most influential members of any organization. Senior faculty also take on extensive roles as mentors for junior faculty, with complex supervisory relationships associated with the development of research, teaching, and service capacities within their younger colleagues.

Within this context, most senior faculty take on formally defined leadership roles that sharply increase the demand for management and leadership skills. Faculty administrators must expand their competencies to successfully enact a full range of personnel and human resource duties, extensive communication requirements, conflict management, and strategic thinking about the many levels of the organization. These roles are made more complex by four significant factors:
• a lack of training and preparation for the role of formal administration
• the complex relationships associated with leadership of peers in the non-hierarchical structure of academia, resulting in the need to lead and supervise in an environment where these roles may not be recognized or accepted
• the requirement that the base profession of disciplinary and research expertise be maintained despite the addition of significant other responsibilities
• the rotational structure of many faculty administration roles, especially that of department chair which in many cases may be enacted only for a 3-5 year period followed by a return to a non-formal leadership role in the organization

A smaller collection of faculty develop their administrative roles into their base profession, advancing to increasingly complex leadership of the institution as a whole. The demands and complexities described above continue, and new challenges are added. Due to the highly idiosyncratic nature of academic institutions, advancement within administrative structures is often oblique, non-linear, and chaotic, with no clear pathways between leadership roles. Furthermore, the definition of leadership roles varies greatly across institutions and within them; the definition of the role of chair, associate dean, dean, provost, president and other officers within academia is highly contingent upon the institution, the discipline, and the temporal reality within which the organization is functioning.

While faculty governance and administration is a core feature of academic institutions, their success relies just as heavily on the performance and skills of those whose base profession is administration – the staff who provide the infrastructure and continuity within research programs, departments, service units, and upper administrative offices. Within this environment, numerous staff function as middle managers, carrying out strategic directions and ensuring the smooth functioning of the enterprise while providing a bridge between local environments and institutional policy and procedures. Departmental managers are the most common example of this role, simultaneously reporting to faculty leadership within the departments and to school/college administrative leadership. In addition to the typical challenges of middle management, these roles must address the conflicts between administrative and faculty cultures. This challenge requires a level of flexibility, insight, and professional maturity that exceeds that typically demanded of middle management roles in other industries.

Senior staff in the academic environment face a more acute version of these conflicts. Their responsibility for strategically leading the business realities of the institution must be finely tuned to the strategic processes of faculty governance and faculty administration, requiring expert-level competencies in the areas of communication, collaboration, and adaptability. Significant resources are required to support success in these roles and to promote effective synergy between the “business side” and the “academic side” of the institution.

Because of the highly interdependent nature of leadership roles in academia, professional and organizational development for this industry must combine investment in the individual with investment in the organization itself. While recent decades have driven the development of more uniform and robust policies and procedures across academia, most departments still function amidst a haphazard intersection of institutional structure, idiosyncratic tradition, rapidly transforming demands, and benign neglect. These conditions are dependent in part upon the challenges of the meta-profession structure of faculty-based administration described above. Additionally, the nature and mission of a research intensive university is to advance the frontiers of knowledge and practice. In doing so, faculty activities continually generate new contexts, opportunities and challenges that existing institutional policy cannot have anticipated, requiring an unusually high level of organizational adaptability. Profound decentralization of most academic structures increases the difficulty of identifying and applying best practice strategies to the business of academia.

Finally, the organizational functions and cohesiveness of academic departments and institutions are profoundly impacted by the nature of the academic community. Three factors come into play: tenure, the size of the community, and the role of peer evaluation.

The role of tenure in academia is intended to ensure the functional stability and professional safety necessary to risk the extension of knowledge into arenas currently unknown. Tenure is defined as a complex set of rights and responsibilities that are manifested with considerable variation across disciplines and situational contexts. This variation must be based upon underlying principles of fairness and equity in role responsibility and compensation, and yet the experience of individual tenured faculty varies greatly. The other defining feature of tenure is the commitment on the part of an institution to life-long employment. While many faculty choose to leave the institution where they achieved tenure, few faculty make multiple institutional moves due to the high investment and need for stability to support the research endeavor. Thus, most faculty careers become significantly embedded within their home institution. Departmental composition changes very slowly and working relationships among faculty colleagues typically span many decades. In most cases, these relationships include sub-functional dynamics that can define the organizational identity and capacity of a department or an institution.

Both within and beyond academic institutions, the size of the academic community is small. The Census Bureau estimates that 3% of the U.S. population has doctoral or professional degrees, and many of these individuals are employed outside of academia. Restricting the academic community to colleagues at elite institutions reduces this number further, and disciplinary specialization even more so, creating a highly impactful small interdependent system. Relationships established during graduate student years typically extend throughout a career, especially within the academic lineage of mentor/advisors. Due to the consuming nature of academic careers, personal relationships are often formed with colleagues, resulting in many instances of dual-academic career couples, often within the same discipline and department. Thus, organizational dynamics within any department or institution are highly influenced by the dynamics within this small community of scholars, locally, nationally, and internationally.

Tenure and the size of the academic community intersect with the third variable, peer evaluation, with an intensity that permeates all interactions and structural definitions of higher education institutions. While tenure results in career-long implications and community size creates complex interpersonal and institutional dynamics, peer evaluation infuses the faculty career track with a level of constant scrutiny and professional complexity not found in other environments. A faculty members’ peers are constantly involved in evaluating research viability, writing competence, disciplinary relevance, career trajectory, teaching skills, and more, in addition to the embedded assessments associated with defined leadership roles. Furthermore, this scrutiny occurs in a complex set of interactions, comparable to what the Olympics would be like if each race or performance were judged by one’s fellow competitors, if every coach and trainer were simultaneously an opponent, and an athlete’s day were filled not only with honing one’s own excellence but also in honing the excellence of others while also defining the nature of excellence, the standards by which it is measured, the processes by which it is achieved, and the thresholds according to which one is designated an Olympian or not.

Academic coaching and organizational consulting must understand this complex environment and the specific challenges faced by faculty and staff in research intensive institutions. Additionally, the exceedingly high intelligence and competence required for faculty to attain a position and tenure at an elite university result in a cultural expectation that faculty translate their intelligence and competency into the ability to take on roles, responsibilities, and professional identities that extend far beyond their training and preparation. Within this culture, most faculty fail to recognize, or cannot afford to admit, the need for development resources. In order to be effective, the academic coach/consultant must draw on extensive expertise and professionalism, able to work with these highly competent individuals as an equal.