Modern higher education leaders must blend business and educational knowledge

Clearly articulated values, structures that support accountability and metrics that align with strategic goals are the new leadership competencies, says Angela Hernquist

Angela Hernquist 's avatar

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Colorado State University Global

Colorado State University Global
22 Nov 2022
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Combining business and educational acumen is required for HE leaders

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Almost two decades ago, I wrote about the dynamic environment of the 21st century needing higher education leaders who are able to meet the demands posed by the combination of internal, external and market forces – and incorporate the best practices of both the public and private sector contexts of leadership. We see this intensified in the face of the challenges brought by today’s economic, technological, social and political environments, in addition to the larger impacts of a pandemic, the move to online as mainstream and the coming student population “cliff” of 2025.

While many higher education institutions continue to cling to previous models of operation and structure, our business and stakeholder expectations have changed. The boundaries between industry, the public and the university are negligible, and higher education leaders are charged with developing compelling strategic visions, engaging employees, assuring a sound organisational conscience and ethical standards, guaranteeing career relevancy and preparedness, and building change capacity; all in the face of greater public expectation of increased equity, responsiveness, performance standards and accountability measures. Internally, clarity and commitment to organisational mission and values are more significant than ever for success, along with countless other factors such as financial viability, social platforms and communication, inclusion, and engagement with employees as strategic resources.

Leadership is key, and creating innovative organisational units to find, use, create and transform knowledge at every level is no longer just an option but a requisite for sustainable ongoing operations. Leaders at every level must be willing and capable of guiding their teams through strategic and entrepreneurial activities. Clearly articulated and consistently communicated values, organisational structures that reflect and support accountability and metrics that align with strategic goals and initiatives are the new leadership competencies. And leaders can demonstrate these through strategic actions. Among them:

  • Guide employees through a shared vision and culture that, while articulated at the top levels, is informed, discussed and approved by members throughout the organisation.
  • Create high-functioning teams consisting of knowledgeable, professional and highly skilled employees who are coordinated through operational goals, expectations and accountability.
  • Communicate, coordinate and measure the efforts of all members against objectives and contribution to the wider organisational strategic plan.
  • Respect for differences of opinion and constructive dialogue but dedication to hierarchical decision-making and end goals.
  • Innovation and entrepreneurial mindsets at every level regarding processes, procedures and overall approaches to the work you do.
  • Structural and personnel alignments that create not only efficiencies but agility to react to change.

In my research almost 20 years ago, I identified differences between public and private female leaders around three themes: engagement, productivity and accountability. These differences in context no longer exist, as public and private leadership have blended and are now essentially indiscernible. However, the ways we look at and measure engagement, productivity and accountability are now central to organisational success and those who lead our institutions.

I can’t truly say if it was karma, fate or just the right fit, but I started at CSU Global eight years ago and have seen and experienced the impact of this blended environment every day. CSU Global was the first independent, fully accredited, 100 per cent online state university in the US and has successfully operated with no public funding. Today, it is still leading the wave of change in higher education. As our values state, we are entrepreneurial, agile, tenacious, dedicated and engaged. We’ve spent the past year identifying, evaluating and communicating these values that truly represent who we are and what we expect of each other. The values lead what we do, how we do it and determine who is part of the team; literally how we do business.

The pandemic and other influences have changed the landscape of higher education, and new forces will continue to do so. We see through headlines, data and bottom lines that every institution has experienced the impact of these changes in some way. Navigating these issues has not been easy, but the higher education leaders of today and the future must be both highly competent business professionals and public servants who can effectively create and disseminate knowledge.

The previous divisions of academics, administrators and students need to be erased, with our teams of HE professionals leading collaboration, ushering in accountability and driving innovation. We need to recognise that the ivory towers of the past are just that – past – and that higher education leaders will need to move their institutions forward with new models for doing business to serve our students and society.

Angela Hernquist serves as vice-president of student and faculty operations at CSU Global.

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