Reinventing Leadership in Higher Education

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Rab PatersonLeadership in higher education is multidimensional and complex, requiring a meticulous and systematic approach.  To stay competitive and to thrive in the current higher education landscape, it is critical that college and university leaders prioritize, focus, and evolve their operations and their offerings. In this blog, Rab Paterson shares insights on the challenges and skills required in effectively leading higher education.


1) Tell us a little about yourself and your role 

I’m the Principle Instructor for the Toyo University – UCLA Extension Center for Global Education basedGTA-presenting in Tokyo. I mainly run the Business English Communication program for Executives and this program teaches English language skills needed by business people in the 21st century. We also teach cross / inter cultural communication skills based on the work by Fons Trompenaars, and modern presentations and negotiations skills and theory. Our courses also include modules on creativity and innovative thinking processes, and everything is coordinated through Canvas, the LMS used by the UCLA Extension program. I’m also an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Educator, GEG Leader, Trainer and Innovator and try to bring all the ed-tech knowledge I have from these programs into my teaching and staff training sessions I run. So I’m in high demand for my ed-tech professional development workshops, both at my university and in other education groups I’m involved with in Japan, such as the National JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching), Tokyo JALT, and JALT CALL (Computer Aided Language Learning), and the aforementioned Apple and Google groups.

2) What leadership and assessment skills are necessary for academic leaders to promote effective professional development and lead innovation 

Leaders need to practice what they preach. So first of all they should be willing to take calculated risks, and they must also be able to promote this approach to those they lead, as only from experimentation can meaningful progress be made. If staff are too afraid to try new ideas out then no progress will be made at all. So leaders should be able to convey ideas and approaches to their teams in a clear and inspirational way as the key here is to instill a culture of experimentation in their organisation. And this can only be done if staff are given approval and encouraged to test new approaches when they have a chance, or else their ideas will disappear.  So clarity of expression and explanation is another must for leaders along with an inspirational and growth mindset.

3) What programs and practices will assist in developing these leadership skills for existing staff? 

Many times in the Higher Ed sector in Japan I have seen departments and university’s stuck using old and out of date approaches, and from first hand experience I have seen teachers suggest novel approaches only to see their ideas turned down time after time, many times turned down abruptly and with negative comments thrown in for even suggesting new things.

So over time teachers in these types of workplaces learn not to even suggest anything new, as the negative consequences to their reputation and self confidence usually outweigh their desire to effect change.

I can give many, many detailed examples of this at many different universities, but a quick example or two can highlight this best. A very well known and highly ranked Japanese university runs a 3 – 4 week summer residential course for business executives wanting to be global leaders. After a few years of the course running, and after receiving some specific feedback from attendes, a module to show how to use social media was proposed only to be turned down by the senior leaders of the university. It turns out the university itself had no social media accounts, and the ‘leadership’ of the university also didn’t use social media themselves, so they felt that these SNS omissions would reflect badly on the university if SNS content was being taught on a well known course held at the university for business execs. So instead of taking advantage of the course and the knowledgeable instructor to modernise the university practices and the course, the decision was taken to not change the program and to not run the SNS course. Another very well known and highly ranked Japanese university has almost no wifi on campus at all. The only area with an official university supplied wifi is the lobby of one building only, everywhere else has no wifi coverage at all, not even in the library. When some teachers asked for a wifi network to be set up to help their classroom teaching, their request was turned down flat. And both of the universities in these examples are so called Super Global Universities, i.e. they are in the top 30 out of Japan’s almost 800 universities.

So the lack of good evolutionary educational practices and programs being touted by senior leadership is retarding the professional growth of their teachers and by extension their students, as they are still being taught the same old way as their parents were before them.

4) Today’s vibrant and ever-changing environment means that the vision, mission and values of many institutions are fluid and always challenged, how can higher-ed leaders cope with this?

From the examples above we can see how leaders have not coped, i.e. by keeping the systems at universities static. Really visionary higher ed leaders need to have a growth mindset (Dweck) as society and its systems are changing, and higher educational institutes and their leadership teams also have to constantly change to keep up with the evolution happening elsewhere in society. So from the ever changing social media environment, the knock on impact this has on students in their daily lives, and the professional development of teachers, higher ed leaders have to be present in social media, be aware of how it works by being active users of SNS, and keeping abreast of changes in social media platforms and usage patterns in society.

5) Many changes have developed within higher education for standardized definition,  assessment and measurement. In all this how do we preserve creativity?

Creativity is the opposite of standardisation. Anything that is a standard is not really creative. This is a hard truth for many to swallow but creativity comes from breaking and going beyond standards, not blindly following them. Yes there is a need for standards in higher ed in some form and fashion, and for some testing functions to some extent. But creativity is outwith this and so should not be grouped with standards. Within the standards there should be room for creativity, as standards should not be stifling.

6) Education for education’s sake is becoming an archaic concept. The fact is students want a job, and higher education must deliver – What is your view on this?

I disagree with the part about education for education’s sake being obsolete. All education should deliver skill sets that can be used in the workplace and beyond. For example history and philosophy students may not use the content and theories from their education in the business world. But they will use their powers of creativity, critical thinking, logic and reasoning that should be present in all their academic work. And academic work should also teach proper presentation and report writing skills and these are transferable in nature. Very few students transition to a job that uses the specific content of their university studies, but they all should be able to draw on the skill sets they acquired during those studies.

An award winning Educational Technologist, experienced in advising on the migration of educational and business operations and systems to a 21st century style of operation in Higher Education, Rab Paterson joins us all the way from Japan to share great insights on leadership and innovation.

Join him and a host of other inspiring educators on 9-10 November at EduTECH Asia.

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