Reimagining academic leadership

Beronda L. Montgomery Joseph A. Whittaker
By Beronda L. Montgomery and Joseph A. Whittaker
July 6, 2021

Academic leadership may be in urgent need of a leadership revolution. At a minimum, we maintain that significant reimagining of academic leadership is long overdue. The disruptions associated with the global pandemic have revealed a need for more agile and equitable systems of leadership. COVID-19 upended many standard practices in higher education. The myriad consequences of the pandemic highlighted the need for rapid leadership pivots and innovations to minimize damage, maintain core functions, and adapt to new delivery modes and styles of learning and working — all while maintaining physical distance and transitioning to new frameworks of engagement.


This moment has brought to the fore the ongoing and significant impact of leadership regarding institutional (in)stability, stewardship of resources or (in)ability to navigate disruptions. Individual institutions routinely deal with the impact of leaders on the transition periods that follow change or disruption as well as on the deployment and implementation of plans to sustain stability. Yet a global disruption such as COVID-19, compounded with national disruptions such as addressing long-term systemic racism, has resulted in systemwide challenges to transition and sustainability in higher education.

While heightened in the current moment, the need for innovations in leadership is long-standing and predated this global crisis. A major need for reimagined leadership emerged due to factors such as rapidly advancing technology, persistent reductions in state and federal appropriations, and escalating enrollment challenges in higher education. The path to new conceptualizations of leadership will require a deviation from norms and thinking differently about persistent issues and pain points in institutional leadership and administration. Significant reimagining will require elevating and altering several aspects of academic leadership culture including selection and preparation, expectations and rewards, and advocating for equitable leadership practices.

David Geitgey Sierralupe
In June 2020, a crowd in Eugene, Oregon, marched to the campus of the University of Oregon where local members of Black Lives Matter led a teach-in from the steps of what was then known as Deady Hall, an historic campus building named after a racist 19th-century judge. Days after this march, the building was temporarily renamed University Hall until a new name can be chosen.

Selection and preparation

Individuals who have successfully navigated traditional faculty pathways frequently are selected for advancement into formal academic leadership roles. As Beronda Montgomery discussed in her 2020 paper “Academic leadership: Gatekeeping or groundskeeping,” leadership selection often relies on perceived loyalty to in-groups or traditional measures of success as an individual scholar rather than preparation for leadership through formal training. Leaders are selected based on their demonstrated success as disciplinary scholars and according to traditional metrics of perceived impact. Depending on whether the range of roles of a leadership position is informal or formal, departmental, or college or university wide, leaders may be selected based on perceptions of their relationships with colleagues or governing board members. In most cases, scholarly success and perceived relationship-building ability drive selection rather than formal leadership training, demonstrated ability, prior experience in leading through crisis or innovative, visionary stewardship.

In their 2016 book “Faculty Development in the Age of Evidence: Current Practices, Future Imperatives,” Andrea Beach and colleagues described how formal leadership training is not universally required in higher education. Furthermore, where it occurs, such training frequently emphasizes tactical skills and transactional engagement. Yet the standard one-size-fits-all leadership training protocols no longer apply — if they ever did. New paradigms for leadership preparation and enactment must include cultivating abilities to recognize and detect, as well as to assess and steward, micro- and macro-level changes or needed disruptions within an ecosystem. Leadership selection, development and assessment rarely are driven by cultivation or demonstration of leadership vision and philosophy, according to authors Kendra Cheruvelil and Beronda Montgomery in “Women Leading Change in Academia: Breaking the Glass Ceiling, Cliff, and Slipper.” Additionally, in “Connecting values to leader and leadership development,” Joanne Smikle highlights that a focus on values and values-driven action rarely is incorporated into leadership development.

Recognized limits to innovation and agility in leadership may stem in large part from the traditional ways in which we select and prepare (or fail to intentionally prepare) leaders in academia. Attracting individuals who have the vision, passion and purpose needed for leadership of an entire academic system inclusive of people, infrastructure and resources — or ecosystems-based leadership — may require higher education to revisit the rigid structure of academic leadership positions as well as determinations of who can and should be selected as leaders. Current structures reflect patriarchal constructs and traditions, including noted gender differences in leadership attainment described by Anne Wong and colleagues in the article "What’s the fuss? Gender and academic leadership.” Also prevalent are individual success models that center on traditional hierarchies; for instance, those on a tenure-track faculty path are disproportionately valued for leadership consideration. These systems also value currencies of loyalty, external affirmations and self-preservation in access to and success in leadership roles. Additionally, many academic leadership roles necessitate major time commitments and sacrifices of individual scholarly pursuits and career–life balance or integration.

Reimagined leadership frameworks may expand the pool of potential leaders by elevating flexibility in structure — including collective or shared leadership positions, entrepreneurial approaches to leading, broadened paths of access to leadership positions, and more part-time executive positions that do not require a full pivot from engagement in research or scholarly pursuits. This pool could include nontenured individuals with demonstrated commitment and innovative skills. New selection paradigms could prioritize vision- and values-driven, as well as entrepreneurial, leadership rather than traditional tactical and transactional modes.

Expectations and rewards

In addition to traditional selection paradigms, we often require and reward academic leadership efforts that esteem quantitative metrics aligned with maintaining prestige and standing in select national and international ranking systems. This often has led to selecting leaders who largely maintain a culture of status quo systems and practices. They enact traditional modes of leadership focused on incremental changes to a system to maintain and elevate status, especially national and international ranking, rather than encourage strategic and sustainable creativity, innovation and ecosystem transformation.


Changing expectations and rewards for leadership structures and effectively promoting a shift to leadership based on ecosystems rather than individual success and self-preservation will require revisiting metrics of leadership success. We need to review how we see leadership in terms of a pursuit of personal benefit (including individual career advancement) versus stewardship of and benefit to a larger higher education ecosystem including personal, professional, institutional and society-at-large benefits — not forgetting a view of institutions as economic drivers. Some prior leadership models, such as transformational leadership, are associated with innovation and improved satisfaction of those being led, as discussed by Athena Xenikou in the 2017 paper “Transformational leadership, transactional contingent reward, and organizational identification: The mediating effect of perceived innovation and goal culture orientations.” Transformational leadership, as well as the leadership described as groundskeeping by Montgomery in 2020, are forms of leadership based on stewardship of academic ecosystems.

Common measures of transformational leadership largely focus on traditional quantitative metrics including numbers of new courses, new policies instituted or new or reallocated sources of dollars to support new measures, according to Peter Eckel in “Assessing change and transformation in higher education: An essential task for leaders.” Eckel recognized that transformational leadership can include cultural factors that are more difficult to measure, and these factors often are not used as markers of leaders’ impact or success by governing boards or accreditation bodies.

We argue that measuring the effectiveness of new approaches to leading would require adequately assessing what leaders do, the relationships they cultivate, and the cultural adjustments promoted by leaders. An ability to measure these aspects of leadership would increase the likelihood of assessing both quantitative metrics and qualitative measures such as cultural factors that together contribute to leaders’ success and sustainable change in an ecosystem. Indeed, to accomplish such a complete reimagining of academic leadership will require embracing change at all levels and institutional flexibility about the definitions of excellence and success as a leader as well as an institution.

We need to redirect our understanding of leadership from traditional gatekeeping frameworks tied to narrow definitions of excellence that prize exclusionary, highly selective metrics and single-minded pursuit of rankings and prestige. Instead, we should consider successful academic leadership as the stewardship of complex and diverse ecosystems. We need individuals to drive ecosystem change rather than tending the status quo.

Equitable leadership frameworks

Current challenges have called on academic leaders to go beyond expressing commitments to promote diversity and equity — often in the form of diversity, equity and inclusion statements — to demonstrating lived commitments to equity in their local academic ecosystems. Despite long-term articulated commitments to such issues by leaders and institutions, real progress has been painfully slow. As Emma Whitford describes in the 2020 article “There are so few that have made their way,” Black faculty are disproportionately underrepresented in advanced faculty ranks and administrative roles despite a long-standing focus on promoting diversity among faculty and administrators in higher education. Limits to rapid progress in pursuing equity are evidence of leadership shortfalls. Leaders set strategic direction and cultivate buy-in to support progress in alignment with their interests and lived commitments.


Many leaders also rely on institutional governing boards to drive decisions, which can limit independence of thought and implementation in making decisions. Powerful recent examples have emerged of governing boards reversing or failing to support faculty and leadership decisions related to hiring and review, as reported by Char Adams for a highly visible recent case in the article “UNC withholds tenure for ‘1619 Project’ journalist after conservative backlash.” The leadership interface with boards of directors/trustees can be affected by board members’ sometimes limited understanding of the immediate needs and challenges of a local institutional culture, or by other factors, such as political leanings.

Leaders (and governing boards) must intentionally prioritize increasing the pace of change in diversity, equity and justice, deeming it essential to promote collective focus, structures of accountability and reward, and investments of key resources and capital — including human, financial, social and other critical capital.


The global pandemic presented seismic challenges in higher education, which completely disrupted business as usual. These challenges occurred during a heightened recognition of systemic racism and anti-Black policing in the United States. These synergistic challenges increased an already critical need for agility and cultural competence among academic leaders — traits that rarely are selected for during recruitment or critically assessed during review and reward.

Leaders have had to imagine new modes of operation, deploy them and assess their effectiveness simultaneously in the midst of these dual crises, as previously discussed by Montgomery in 2020. The leadership demands required by these current challenges opened a new opportunity to reflect on how we select and prepare leaders, what prevailing expectations and associated rewards are, and how leaders enact equitable frameworks. Reflections on the impacts of and responses to the global pandemic and recent increased awareness of systemic racism led us to examine and elevate the need to reimagine leadership in higher education more generally.

Next-generation leaders should not only identify and analyze challenges but also acknowledge the value of truth-telling and catalyzing paradigm-shifting institutional change by surmounting the cultural inertia characteristic of academic environments. A more expansive view on the future of effective academic leadership needs to focus broadly on key considerations, including the following questions: What specific models of leadership are needed to reimagine higher education and to bring this reimagination effectively and sustainably to fruition? What must institutions do to transform the process for selecting leaders to guide universities toward an equitable and sustainable future?

We believe this reimagining starts with new paths for preparing, selecting and rewarding individual leaders who are committed to promoting equitable ecosystems and long-term communal success.

Beronda L. Montgomery

Beronda L. Montgomery is MSU Foundation professor in the departments of biochemistry and molecular biology and microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University. The Montgomery Lab pursues a common research theme of understanding how individuals perceive, respond to and are affected by the environments in which they exist, including responses of photosynthetic organisms to external light cues. Montgomery also pursues this theme in the context of effective mentoring and leading in research environments.

Joseph A. Whittaker
Joseph A. Whittaker

Joseph A. Whittaker is the vice president for research and economic development and associate provost at Jackson State University. He is a neuroscientist and physiologist with many years of experience in academic and nonacademic leadership. Prior to joining JSU, he served as dean and professor of the School of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Morgan State University, was associate director of the NASA GESTAR Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and was elected the 73rd president of Sigma Xi Scientific Research and Honor Society.

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in Opinions

Opinions highlights or most popular articles

Learning to love assessment

Learning to love assessment

July 28, 2021

“As every scientist knows, there is no point in doing an experiment if you don’t have a way to assess the result. So assessment is a crucial step in teaching and learning.”

I’m fully vaccinated but feel sick – should I get tested for COVID-19?

I’m fully vaccinated but feel sick – should I get tested for COVID-19?

July 25, 2021

It’s impossible to know whether a vaccinated person is fully protected or could still develop a mild case if exposed to the coronavirus.

5 ways to use hip-hop in the classroom to build better understanding of science

5 ways to use hip-hop in the classroom to build better understanding of science

July 24, 2021

Teachers often don’t know how to make science relevant, and many students of color fail to develop a science identity.

What to ask during your faculty interview
Professional Development

What to ask during your faculty interview

July 21, 2021

“Going into your interview armed with good questions not only will help you gather intel to help you make the best decision for your career but also will help you stand above the competition.”

The STEM Academy: A necessary remedy to med school tunnel vision

The STEM Academy: A necessary remedy to med school tunnel vision

July 13, 2021

A one-week camp at the University of South Florida forged community as it introduced new students to the possibilities of a career in scientific research.

Merging biochemical and analytical training

Merging biochemical and analytical training

July 8, 2021

“(T)he pandemic revealed that while it is critical for us to specialize and have depth of knowledge in some domains, it is also essential that we cultivate some breadth in our skill set.”