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Why Management Training Doesn’t Work

I knew when I wrote my last entry on “Management Training vs. Trial By Fire” that it would probably elicit exactly the kinds of responses it did, including comments suggesting that management training is essential to an administrator’s success and that its absence is a significant cause of institutional challenges.

Let me note here that I am not anti-training—I think that there are many areas in which aspiring administrators both need and can make practical use of thoughtfully designed training that helps them learn to manage processes and people and to lead effectively in complex circumstances. I especially liked the suggestion offered by one reader of a yearlong seminar-type program which has as its “lab” the actual concurrent job duties of the participants, a model that could work especially well at a larger institution where there is a regular supply of new administrators being promoted from within and arriving from outside.

I do, however, take exception to the idea, expressed by a couple of commenters, that the lack of such training is why many institutions of higher education are in serious trouble right now. I am quite certain that this claim cannot be empirically verified. There are certainly many colleges and universities that suffer from some degree of mismanagement, and some of that mismanagement may be traced to lack of training and mistakes that administrators have made as a result of not being properly prepared for their roles. But to go from these obvious, observable truths to a general statement about the sources of the problems facing higher education today is a logical leap I am not prepared to make. There is a huge range of sources for institutional challenges these days, and many of these are clearly not the result of internal forces.

Moreover, I respectfully suggest that those who believe in the overwhelming importance of leadership and management training make a comparison with other businesses, many or most of which—especially relatively large ones that are economically comparable to colleges and universities—are led by M.B.A. holders or corporate businesspeople, who presumably have received extensive management training. Such a comparison would show that the failure rates of such enterprises are at least as high, or perhaps higher, than they are for higher-education institutions.

The current plight of BlackBerry, which not long ago had a virtual lock on the corporate market for cellphones and is now up for sale and very likely to discontinue handset manufacture completely, suggests that even apparently secure and leading businesses led by highly trained and experienced professionals (the CEO of BlackBerry, while not an M.B.A. holder, was a senior executive at Siemens and worked his way up the management ranks at Research in Motion, which became BlackBerry) don’t always get it right. Versions of this story could be repeated with General Motors, Chrysler, Olympus, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and countless other instances in recent history.

It can be argued that higher education is a special case for management training because of the public subsidies it receives, but that argument won’t really hold either when one thinks of the tax breaks and other incentives granted to many other businesses. (I live in the middle of Iowa cornfields and near a couple of ethanol plants—I know something about government subsidies for noneducational businesses.) The more likely reason why higher education actually is special is the matter of shared governance and the differential roles that system imposes on administrators.

As I write this, I am in the middle of a break in our first board-of-trustees meeting of the academic year. We have an excellent board, comprising people who genuinely care about and morally and financially support the university and our students, and who have a very good sense of the distinctions between their role and duties and those of the administration. Among the members are many highly accomplished businesspeople who have had noteworthy success in multiple business arenas including banking, farming, insurance, medicine, public relations, and law. One thing that is abundantly clear in working with them, though, is that their basic conception of management in their own businesses is unworkable at an institution that still adheres to the traditional model of shared academic governance. What it boils down to is that in a regular business, no matter how persuasive or effective one is as a leader and manager, ultimately one can always simply tell employees what to do and, if they don’t do it, fire them. That is simply not the case at a college or university, and trying to do so—what in many cases is meant by “running the university like a business”—will not work, which in fact has been demonstrated time after time.

I spend a good deal of time discussing this kind of issue with colleagues around the country, and watch with interest the careers of both chief academic officers and college and university presidents. As readers here know, lately one of the big trends in presidential hiring has been to look outside the academy for business and political leaders who theoretically bring management expertise and valuable connections to the institution. As is the case with traditional presidential hires, in some instances these new presidents do well, and in some instances they fail spectacularly. Another thing that happens from time to time is that such presidents keep plowing along despite what the faculty says, occasionally doing serious harm to their institutions along the way.

If I had time to be a formal student of higher education, I’d be interested in examining institutional management and leadership in a way that attached a useful metric to the value of management training in promoting institutional success. I strongly suspect that the outcome would be ambiguous and not nearly so clear as the advocates of training assume. I would also note here that outside of academic affairs, there are already a tremendous number of people with such training in most colleges and universities: The chief financial officer has an M.B.A., the chief student-affairs officer has a doctorate in educational leadership, the HR person is certified by the Society for Human Resource Management, and so on.

In short, the factors that lead to institutional difficulty and failure are complicated and multivariate, and I would be willing to bet that they have minimal causal relationship with the training of the institution’s leadership, though this is a bet based on my experience and direct knowledge of a number of colleges and universities rather than a formal study.

For example, consider the catastrophic actions of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors in the summer of 2012 in attempting to oust President Teresa A. Sullivan—the board included numerous business leaders, most notably Rector Helen Dragas, who holds a B.A. in economics and foreign affairs and an M.B.A. from UVa, and presumably had multiple instances of management and leadership training during her formal education and afterwards. Yet she and some of her colleagues on the board mismanaged their attempt to unseat the president so badly that it will be a stain on the university’s name for years, and they were forced into a humiliating recantation of their actions.

Similarly indicating the possible disconnect between formal training and professional conduct are the cases of Benjamin Ladner, former president of American University, whose specialty is philosophy and religion and who was terminated for lavish spending, and Graham Spanier, former president of Pennsylvania State University, whose training is in marriage and family therapy and human sexuality, and the cause of whose downfall is well known. In both of these instances, the things that brought down the presidents were absolutely and exactly the things that their academic training would have warned them against most strongly, yet they were caught acting directly opposite to what their formal training should have taught them to do.

The ultimate point is that yes, training is important. Administrators absolutely must understand the processes and legalities of their positions, how to manage crises and finances, and learning these by trial and error is the surest route to disaster—I would never argue otherwise. At the same time, as the examples above show, training is not the be-all and end-all of institutional success. People are people, by turns noble and venal, clever and stupid, honest and devious, competent and inept. Character matters, brains matter, empathy matters, work ethic matters. Training can sharpen these, but if an administrator doesn’t have them in the first place, no amount of training is going to fix the problem.

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