A revolving door of university leadership

Published on September 18, 2011 on GulfNews.com

Dubai: In a country like the UAE, temporary home to a large transient expatriate population, leadership positions in various businesses often tend to see people come and go.

Tertiary institutions in the UAE kick off the new academic year with fresh faces at the helm.

The Higher Colleges of Technology, a federal tertiary institution with campuses nationwide, has welcomed two new directors to its Abu Dhabi Women’s (ADWC) and Dubai Men’s College (DMC) campuses. Dr Jace Hagis has replaced Dr Kathleen Hodge as ADWC Director and Dr Leo Chavez has taken over from Dr Bob Richards, former Senior Director of DMC.

The University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) bid farewell to President Rob Whelan and welcomed interim President David Rome.

Rome will serve as interim president for the next six months until a suitable candidate is recruited, professor Whelan told Gulf News prior to his departure last month.

However, this is Rome’s second stint as interim president at UOWD as he took up the same position in January 2008, before professor Whelan’s appointment to the position under a three-year contract.

Infancy of institutions

In other countries with more established academic institutions and higher education frameworks, deanships and presidency positions at universities tend to take on a more stable nature.

Dr Tod Laursen, who was appointed President of Khalifa University in August last year, believes the constant leadership adjustments made at some of the UAE’s universities are in fact due to their infancy.

“Perhaps part of the reason for this leadership change is related to the fact that many of these institutions are relatively new and as such they evolve quickly,” he said. “These institutions must rapidly adapt in response to their rate of change.”

However, he added successful campus leadership in fact depends on building an effective team of academic and administrative leadership which will in turn root the institution.

“Frequent changes of direction in leadership can disrupt the strategic direction of a team and disrupt the momentum built by the campus community over time,” he said.

Ghaleb Darabya, Managing Director of Cambridge Leadership Associates Middle East, agrees that the constant changing of a university’s leadership is, in some cases, disruptive to the implementation of key strategies.

Darabya is former director of the Dubai School of Government’s (DSG) Leadership Programme, an institution which has seen leadership change in the past year with the departure of Dr Tarek Yousuf, founding dean of DSG; and Tarek Lootah, Executive President, taking over subsequently.

“It takes at least three to five years to implement a strategy, therefore deanships should be no less than one term of at least five years,” he said. “There should be a balance between short and long deanships, say between five to ten years.”

Staying in touch

He added a good leadership strategy would be to limit deanships to two terms, similar to those of presidents and prime ministers, with each term no less than five years.

“If you have people who stay short term they don’t get to see strategies fully implemented and realised,” he said, “while long-term leaders become stale and old and the position then becomes in need of new blood.”

He added because the world is changing so much it is important for the university leadership to stay in touch with current generational needs.

New Director at DMC Dr Chavez agrees with the premise of the need to introduce new blood to an institution’s leadership as he believes it keeps curricula and pedagogy fresh, something he intends to ensure in his new role at DMC.

“As the world changes rapidly we need to ensure our curriculum and teaching methodology reflects our external environment,” said Dr Chavez, who took up the post at the beginning of August.

“We need to stay in close communication with the business community that employs our students, with the government that funds us and has its own plans for the evolution of the country, as well as the families of our students,” he added.

However, Darabya believes the greatest impact of unstable leadership at universities is on the undergraduates.

Affecting quality

“I think changing leadership impacts undergraduates more, simply because it’s a four-year commitment while a postgraduate is, in most cases, one year,” he said. “At the end of the day the student community is affected by the overall organisational strategy.”

He added if an institution’s leadership does not fulfil its mission outlined through strategies, this in turn will affect the quality of education offered to the students.