Learning to Lead in Higher Education

By Gmelch, Walter H. | Journal of Higher Education, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Learning to Lead in Higher Education


Gmelch, Walter H., Journal of Higher Education


Learning to Lead in Higher Education, by Paul Ramsden. New York: Routledge, 1998. 288 pp. $75.00 (24.99)

Is academic leadership an oxymoron or a serious field of study? Until 20 years ago the major works on academic leadership focused on the roles of presidents and chief academic officers. The literature on academic department chairs was silent, with most of the information and attention coming from anecdotal speeches, professional papers, popular journal articles, a couple of text-type books, and a few data-based studies. Two decades ago the main reference for department chairs was Allen Tucker's Chairing the Academic Department (1981). Through the 1980s the academic department chair remained the least studied and most misunderstood position in the academy. Although many education scholars wrote about the organization and governance of higher education, relatively little was known about those who led and supported academic units. In addition, the management role of the department chair has no parallel in business and industry, or education for that matter. Typical faculty manuals at most colleges and universiti es provide a list of chairs' duties and responsibilities but do not provide insight into department leadership.

The 1990s brought an onslaught of new publications shedding light on the overshadowed role of department chair. In 1990 John Creswell and his colleagues introduced The Academic Chairperson's Handbook, followed by Gmelch and Miskin's Leadership Skills for Department Chairs (1993), Ann Lucas's Strengthening Leadership: A Team-Building Guide for Chairs in Colleges and Universities (1994), Mary Lou Higgerson's Communication Skills for Department Chairs (1996), and Irene Hecht and her colleagues' recently released The Department Chair as Academic Leader (1999).

Australian scholars extrapolated the role of the department head from English and American writings and studies until the release of Moses and Roe's (1990) ground-breaking work on Australian department heads and Sarros and Gmelch's replication of American department chair research in Australia (1996). Within this context Paul Ramsden's book Learning to Lead in Higher Education represents the second major work written for academic department leaders based on the Australian experience. Whereas Moses and Roe illuminated the world of the chair/head within the department, Ramsden looks at the role as part of a larger institutional nexus.

In the introductory chapter Ramsden posits a simple three-stage systems model of presage-process-product to understand the challenges faced by academic leaders. Chapter 2 empirically addresses the presage or environmental factors of changing external forces on higher education (knowledge differentiation, mass higher education, and reduced public funding) and internal characteristics of universities (academic values and culture). Chapter 3 explores aspects of the academic outcomes or products constituting the third part of the model, underscoring the leader's job to increase productivity. He follows up in Chapters 4 and 5 with evidence suggesting that departmental leadership and intellectual climate can influence the output of research productivity and effective teaching. Chapter 6 concludes Part I with an inconclusive exploration of whether there are any useful leadership principles common to both university and other organizations. Ramsden postulates a series of principles characterizing competent academic leadership: a dynamic process, an outcomes-focused agenda, a phenomenon of both personal and organizational development, a relationship between leaders and followers, and a personal transformation process through reflection and learning.

The second and third parts of the book attempt to demonstrate ways to manage in order to improve the context of academic work. Ramsden argues (unconvincingly in the opinion of this reviewer) that the framework for improving university teaching is similar to the practice of academic leadership. …

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