Lessons from a decade of academic leadership: Advocacy as a pillar of service

In 2007, more than a decade back, six years into my journey in the Professoriate, I was asked to serve in a leadership role.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to serve in various leadership roles from the Deanery to Headship to the Directorships of two centers that I founded.

In these journeys of leadership, the key lesson I have learned is the role of a leader as an advocate. Of course, my energy, creativity, and resilience have been great resources that have enabled me in my leadership journey. But all of these resources have been anchored in a lesson I learned early on, leadership in academe is the pursuit for building supportive structures that enable and inspire others to create, to imagine, and to build. This work of building enabling structures is what I understand as advocacy.

An academic leader is first-and-foremost an advocate for the people she/he serves.

Because most often academic leadership is a pathway into which one ends up (I certainly never imagined I would be spending a decade of my academic life leading), often serendipitously, from within the academe, it fundamentally means that an academic leader is first and foremost an academic.

This point is a critical point that needs remembering, especially amid the neoliberal transformations in the academe where leadership incentives are increasingly turned into managerial key performance indicators (KPIs) such as number of students taught, student evaluations, number of articles, number of top tier journals hit etc.

Advocacy in this sense is the ownership of the institutional processes and frameworks to serve the needs and goals of students and faculty colleagues. Advocacy is integral to retaining the integrity of academic institutions amid the managerial onslaught on academe based on logics driven by the least common denominator.

To be an advocate is to stand up for the rights of others that one serves, to make institutional processes transparent, and to create pathways for sustainability. To be an advocate is also to have the integrity to question the narrow managerial logics, to ask for accountability at the haphazard imposition of this-or-that diktat, and to question the top-down imposition of criteria that are imposed without accountability and faculty consultation.

To be an advocate also is to stand up against the KPIs that are often imposed on the academe by non-academic managers and bureaucrats. That these indicators, narrowly conceptualized, are often detractors is a point that academic leadership needs to make. A leader ought to fundamentally have the integrity to evaluate these criteria objectively, see what is achievable through consultative processes, and create pathways for achieving the criteria that are mutually agreed upon. This also means pushing back at the managers, bureaucrats, and ministries that often set these standards without real ideas of the academic process.

Most importantly, to be an advocate is to hold oneself to the same standards that one expects from students and colleagues. If I am expecting my faculty to publish two peer reviewed articles in top notch journals in a year, am I myself doing so or are capable of doing so?

Too often, institutions prefer mediocre bootlickers to warm the seats of leadership. This ironically means that the ranks of leadership are filled with ambitious failed academics with mediocre CVs. To this coterie of mediocre managers, counting the numbers or driving the number games is easy because leadership for this category has always been about crafting a career trajectory rather than about service.

Incentives are built in for these "managers" to toe the line rather than to demonstrate their integrity. Mediocrity knows very well the pathway to survival is to perform acquiescence to the hegemonic structures that control universities. Too often, the seductions of the next step up in the career ladder are too enticing to stand up for students and faculty when they question the line of power. Too often, the enticements of a managerial career hold these career academics hostage to random diktats that are fundamentally undemocratic and toxic to faculty health and wellbeing. 

Even as the incentives for academic leaders to quickly turn into managerial bean counters are all to seductive, it is critical to remember, leadership is fundamentally about service, and therefore, inherently a form of advocacy. 


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