Faculty Focus


How to Survive the Next Fad in Academic Leadership

If you’ve worked in higher education long enough, you’ve already had this experience. A supervisor or member of your institution’s governing board calls an administrative retreat, and there, following the inevitable icebreakers, brainstorming, and team-building exercises, you are presented with the “bold new paradigm” that is to determine how you are to reorganize your unit, “reconceptualize” your leadership style, or modify every policy and procedure that is already in place. Someone, it seems, has been reading a management book and has bought into a new approach to how you should do your job.

Here are a few tips on how you can respond to administrative fads without alienating your supervisor or losing credibility with those who report to you.

Gauge your supervisor’s commitment to the idea. You may well already know whether the person you work for is a member of the “Management Idea of the Month Club.” If he or she is, you can safely assume that by the time you ramp up the effort to implement the “new paradigm,” it will already be the old paradigm. In this case, you are probably better off making a token effort for the sake of institutional harmony and waiting it out.

Find ways of relating the new idea to current practice. One of the few good qualities shared by nearly every management fad is that it is based on what is ultimately neither very difficult nor particularly complex. In fact, with a little careful analysis you’ll discover that a number of the techniques’ strongest points are probably already being practiced somewhere in your unit.

Identify the most beneficial aspect of the new idea (or at least the one you can live with) and implement it with a flourish. For all their disadvantages, management fads frequently are based on a few useful ideas. Rather than completely revising every policy, procedure, and structure in your unit, find one of these useful ideas, implement it, and be sure your supervisor notices that you have implemented it. By allowing your supervisor to point to the innovation you have made and take partial credit for it, you are satisfying that person’s need to document improvement, identifying yourself as a “good team player,” and not imposing unnecessary or undesirable work on the faculty and staff of your unit.

Implement a genuine change that you believe to be necessary under the guise of the administrative fad. You almost certainly have identified a number of changes that you have concluded are necessary in order to serve the students better, improve faculty morale, make processes more efficient, or address a need that is currently being underserved. Administrative fads offer you a framework for bringing about the changes that you wanted to introduce anyway, but with an added level of support from your supervisor, who is enthusiastic about the benefits of the new management technique.

Tie implementation of the new system to an increase in resources. New management systems almost never result in initial cost savings, although they may claim to do so. Implementation of the new approach almost always requires start-up funding for training, assumption of new duties, reprinting of materials, updating of electronic resources, and the like. If your supervisor is truly committed to the new idea—and the only way of implementing it is through an increase in funding—then you have an opportunity to tie success of the new management approach to an increased allocation of resources.

Remember, good college administration requires vision, a capacity to master details, hard work, consistency without inflexibility, and a capacity to build consensus. No management fad will ever provide a shortcut for those.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006), The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership (2007), and The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career (forthcoming). All are published by Jossey-Bass.

Excerpted from Coping with Fads in Administrative or Management Techniques, Academic Leader, February 2008.