Leadership in the Age of Trump

As this is written, Donald Trump is twenty-four hours away from becoming the forty-fifth President of the United States and perhaps ushering in an era during which concepts of leadership are sharpened to fit the profile of a strongman uninhibited by tradition, conventional decorum, and institutional constraints. Does this have implications for the search for leaders of universities and medical colleges, organizations with origins in the ninth century and customs and rituals viewed by some as quaint, anachronistic by others?

The “Strong President” Model of Academic Leadership

Until World War Two, college and university presidents were “hands on” and truly presided over campuses - crafting curricula, speaking out on public issues as the leaders of their institutions, and heading up national commissions that spoke truth to power and helped set courses that persist today. By and large, medical school deans played similar roles, albeit, more focused on health and medical issues than those of university presidents.

University presidents and medical deans maintained their strong leadership roles for two decades following the Second World War as higher education expanded dramatically - perhaps because of that growth. But by the mid-1960s, students’ demands of universities and restive faculty members seeking to influence both the internal and the external operations of those institutions began to confront presidents and deans and their exercise of authority. Since most presidents and deans were themselves products of the academy, they struggled to reconcile deference to shared governance with increasing demands from governing boards and state officials and were often seen as weak and ineffective leaders unable to deal with what were seen by some as challenges to their authority.

A clear sign of the changed role of the university president and the medical school dean was the the 2010 promulgation by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) of the concept of “integral leadership” in which the president “exerts a presence that is purposeful and consultative, deliberative yet decisive, and capable of course corrections as new challenges emerge. . . . In addition, presidents were urged to focus more on the larger higher education community in order to sustain the public trust and serve the nation’s needs.”  

AGB further argued for a new collaborative spirit in governance, calling on presidents and governing boards to partner in leadership, with the support and involvement of the faculty.∗

The evidence of the success of integral leadership is mixed, as the average tenure of university presidents has declined to just over five years. Moreover, states’ support for higher education began what has become more or less a long-term downward trend, to which presidents and governing boards responded by raising tuition and fees faster than any other fee-for-service sector, including health care. 

This, in turn, has brought greater scrutiny and criticism of higher education, governing boards, and presidents as well as calls for wholesale changes to the underlying financial model and modes of operation at institutions. Included in the expressions of concern are calls for presidents and boards to assert more control and stronger leadership.

A New Kind of Leadership?

In recent years, public dissatisfaction and disillusionment with institutional leadership in government, religion, business, and other sectors have occasioned the emergence of figures such as Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, Pope Francis, Marine Le Pen, and others who stand out from more traditional and more conventional leaders in a variety of ways. What links them is that they almost without fail put themselves forward as forceful leaders unencumbered by tradition with respect to how they lead, even if their cause is the reclamation of some historical or remembered time when the institutions they lead were grander, more viable, more effective.

Might this also be the case for leaders of universities and medical schools? On the one hand, both sectors are seen as essential elements to a successful society. At the same time, these institutions are often viewed as divorced culturally and politically from broader individual and public concerns and increasingly inaccessible from a broad swath of society. It is not a stretch to imagine governing boards and public officials seeking out leaders less wedded to tradition, custom, and standard operating principles.

After all, the combined strength of Millennials and older persons having to acquire new skills and knowledge in order to work and remain productive could marshal a forceful demand that colleges and universities respond and respond promptly to provide broader access to learning. These stakeholders could focus their demands on the leaders of these institutions for change that does not await a process of consultation and collaboration that moves as most reform usually does: at a deliberate and measured pace but invariably slowly. In such an environment, boards may seek out strong, assertive leadership.

Early signs in the United States are that boards who have hired presidents and deans charged to be change agents have more often than not had to engage in damage control within a relatively short period of time following leaders’ appointments. At the same time, the number of colleges, universities, and medical schools deemed to be in fragile fiscal health grows, while the numbers of traditional high-school graduates in the Northeast and the Midwest enter into a period of substantial decline. Mergers and consolidations are – if not routine – no longer singular events. Independent colleges and universities offer 50 per cent discounts on tuition in order to attract enough students even as operating costs exceed annual budgets. “Tinkering” with the structure and operations of institutions may not be enough to right them and something and someone really different than what’s come before may be called upon to lead.

In accepting the nomination of the Republican Party for President, Donald Trump declared, “I am the only one.” Enough Americans took that to heart and elected him, at least in part because he seemed so unconventional and untraditional when compared to those who came before him. Early signs are that he will indeed operate in ways quite different from forebears. He is prepared to challenge long-standing givens and to dispense with custom and ritual. He may, in fact (and without judging effects), bring about significant and enduring change.

It is indeed hard to imagine a university president or a medical school dean proclaiming her/himself “I am the only one.” But signs that might be omens hint at a future not too distant from today when “strong leaders” are called on to act and not deliberate, command and not consult. A clash of cultures may await us.


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