There has been quite a lot of discussion recently (including a front-page article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) over the ouster of Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia. Some of the controversy has arisen from an email message that came publicly to light after Sullivan’s departure, one that suggested the possibility of distasteful behind-the-scenes machinations with the university’s Board of Visitors (BOV). But apart from the nasty academic politics that always swirl around the abrupt departure of a senior administrator, this incident seems to have arisen from a serious and substantive issue: by all accounts, the Board’s objection to Sullivan’s presidential style had to do with her philosophy of change management.
Sullivan’s approach is, by her own assessment, “incremental.”
“Sweeping change may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership,” she wrote in a public statement released subsequent to her dismissal, “but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”
Sullivan was no reactionary — she had laid out a plan for substantial but gradual institutional change and, for the 24 months of her presidency, followed that plan successfully. But for a voting majority of the BOV, it was apparently not enough.
This was brought home rather alarmingly by the public release of an email message written by Peter D. Kiernan, chair of the BOV of another institution and characterized by the Chronicle as a “powerful Virginia alumnus” who seems to have wielded significant influence with the Board. In his message, he characterized Sullivan as “not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model.” He went on to say that “these are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”
“Strategic dynamism” sounds like a generic phrase, but in fact it’s a term of art: it refers to a model of organizational leadership based on the idea of “strategic inflection points” that leaders may either recognize in their environment or actively create. As a leadership strategy, it maximizes flexibility and minimizes stability, emphasizing risk-taking, nimbleness, and a constant stirring of the organizational pot. The benefits of such an approach can be huge; the costs can be catastrophic. In her statement, Sullivan suggests that “disruptive . . . high-risk change” in an atmosphere of “corporate, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work.”
The more I’ve read about this and thought about the implications of these issues for the scholarly communication marketplace, the more I have felt as if two different lobes of my brain, the Chaos Lobe and the Order Lobe, are arguing with each other. The argument has been going like this:
Chaos Lobe: Kiernan is right. The environment in which academics, researchers, students, and librarians do their work is changing so quickly and unpredictably that responding to it with incremental measures is simply not feasible.
Order Lobe: Come on. How long have you been working in academia? The university simply isn’t like other work environments — it’s not realistic to think that a leader can just come in and dictate “strategic dynamism” to a bunch of tenured professors whose traditions and whose culture of decentralized authority have developed over a millennium.
Chaos Lobe: You assume that the academy has a choice. It may control the environment inside its ivied walls, but its circumstances are ultimately determined by events outside, over which the faculty have no control (even if they’re full professors). Isn’t it the university administration’s job to look outside the cloisters of the university and see what’s going on in the wider world, and position the institution to deal with what’s coming? In short, isn’t it their job to lead?
Order Lobe: Lead, yes, but not necessarily through the constant fomenting of chaos. I’m not saying there’s no need for deep and even painful change, only that it matters how you carry it out. Sullivan makes a good point about the surface charms and deep costs of “sweeping change.”
Chaos Lobe: She does make a good point there. But you could just as easily argue the obverse: incremental change may be easier for faculty and staff to absorb and may create the comforting aura of wise and prudent leadership, but it too has unintended consequences, and those consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.
Order Lobe: So is it better to actively impose chaos, or to try to manage change in such a way as to prevent or at least mitigate chaos?
Chaos Lobe: When your environment is changing quickly and radically, you may not get to choose whether or not you experience chaos. You only get to choose how you’ll participate in it. Chaos just doesn’t lend itself to incremental management. You have to jump in and flail around if you want to have any impact on its parameters. Pretending otherwise may soothe everyone and make you popular with the faculty in the short term, but serves everyone ill (including faculty and students) in the long term.
The Order Lobe of my brain has to admit that it doesn’t have a very good response to that argument yet.
What are the implications of this issue for the scholarly communication environment? All of the factors laid out in Kiernan’s email message (funding issues, the fundamental shift to a networked digital information environment, new funding models for the academy, etc.) have a direct bearing on scholarly publishers, professional societies, libraries, and academic authors in every discipline. Given the realities of this larger environment, do we have the luxury of responding incrementally? On the other hand, given the realities of the cultures in which we work, do we have the luxury of “strategic dynamism” (i.e. the imposition of radical, top-down, unpredictable change)?
A few years ago, when I was serving as president-elect of an international organization of serials publishers, vendors, and librarians, we were approaching end-of-life for our then-current strategic plan and had to decide what to do next. The obvious thing would have been to start a new round of strategic planning. But the more we talked about it, the more obvious it seemed to us that trying to predict the landscape of five or even three years down the road was just too foolhardy. As it turned out, we pretty much shared Kiernan’s assessment of that landscape: that it was changing too radically and too quickly for traditional strategizing to be effective. So instead, we opted for scenario planning and hired a consultant to help us.
How did it work out? So far, so good — three years later, the organization is stable, its finances healthy, its recent conference a success by all measures. Are things working out well because our planning was excellent, or because we’ve gotten lucky? That’s harder to say — and as a library administrator, it’s a question that kind of keeps me up at night.