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New Leadership in Higher Ed?

By Helen Norris

In late July, the Regents of the University of California nominated and confirmed Janet Napolitano to lead the university system. This is simply stunning. To say that she’s non-traditional is an understatement. Most university leaders are scholars-turned-administrators. She is a lawyer-turned-administrator. She has no background in academia (although I understand her father was an academic) and no Ph.D. She has a highly political background, complete with baggage. She certainly has experience running large bureaucratic organizations. I can’t imagine how tough it is to run the State of Arizona or Homeland Security. And perhaps the challenges of running a university will seem less daunting than, say, running the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber.

My theory is that this is the beginning of a trend and that we will see more leaders like Napolitano in universities. This begs some interesting questions. Why the move in this direction? How will leaders like this do? And as leaders in universities, how can we support these new colleagues to help ensure their success?

Why did they choose Napolitano, instead of someone more traditional? Certainly it’s a challenge to find qualified candidates. There’s a very small pool of candidates who have actually run large universities or systems, and with retirements, there’s been something of a brain drain. That’s likely to continue for a while. Maybe there’s an element of “who would want that job?” Even though we in California consider the UC system the jewel in the crown of public education in the United States, its battles with the governor and state legislature are constant and well documented.

But I don’t think that’s it. I think the governor and the regents just wanted an “education outsider.” The legislature and the public in California don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling toward their public institutions, and I don’t think we’re that different here from the rest of the country. I suspect that the regents, perhaps influenced by our new governor, don’t have confidence that the university can change itself and have decided to bring in a non-university leader to move the organization to meaningful change.

If Napolitano does well, I would predict that we will see more non-traditional appointees like this. Of course, how her performance is viewed will vary among constituencies. Certainly the taxpayer measure of success will include her ability to make the system more efficient, while students and the faculty will be more focused on quality. So how will she do? Her record as governor of Arizona includes many accomplishments in advancing higher education in that state. Obviously, she is experienced at running large, bureaucratic organizations. She’s smart. She’s tough. There’s no reason for her not to succeed.

What does her appointment mean for those of us working in higher education? Perhaps this will become the new normal, working for or with leaders who have little or no direct experience in higher ed—leaders who won’t accept that “it’s different in higher ed.” Much like reduced state funding and online education, we may need to accept that this change is coming. We will need to figure out how to integrate people without higher ed experience into our world, and how to benefit from the skill sets they bring.

On a personal note, when I attended the Leading Change Institute in June, one of my colleagues mentioned that his organization had just hired a new CIO with no higher ed experience. I reacted to that in a very closed-minded way, suggesting that they may crash and burn, as the culture shock of coming into higher ed at that level would be too much. In hindsight, and considering the Napolitano appointment, I wish I’d advised my colleague to help his new boss learn the culture as he needs it. I would also encourage him to learn from his new boss’s outside experiences and to welcome the boss’s ideas to introduce change in the organization. I think we’ll see a lot of higher ed newcomers in leadership positions in the future, and it’s advice that we may all benefit from.

Helen Norris is the associate chief information officer at California State University, Sacramento. She has spent the last 16 years leading IT organizations in higher education.

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