Alaska editorial: Transformational leadership needed at University of Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, March 02, 2010

With the finalists for the University of Alaska president coming to Juneau on Wednesday, perhaps the most important question we can ask them is: What's your leadership style? And two words to listen for are "transformational leadership."

As the name implies, transformational leadership involves a process in which leaders involve and inspire others to reach their full potential. Transformational leaders build trust, motivate people and enable them to act. Research has shown substantial evidence that transformational leadership improves subordinates job satisfaction, motivation and performance. Historic transformational leaders include Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy

Education today, however, operates in a largely transactional leadership paradigm. Transactional leadership entails a relationship between a leader and followers that is based on a transaction. There is some contingent reward for desired behavior or, in the alternative, negative feedback for not meeting a set standard.

This transactional regime is highly visible in No Child Left Behind and in K-12 education, and evident in the performance based budgeting used in higher education systems such as the University of Alaska. Self-interest or fear drives performance in the transactional leadership framework.

In short, the transformational leadership model asks what you can do for your university; the transactional leadership model asks what your university can do for you. However, the reality is that leadership of any public university is far more nuanced and complex. Some of the confounding factors include shared governance with faculty, collective bargaining with unions, and a dialogue with the legislature over funding priorities and resources.

Additional leadership challenges for our new UA president entail establishing credibility with a wide range of constituencies. Faculty want to see a candidate who has scaled the career ladder from assistant to full professor. Administrators look for those with increasingly progressive academic responsibilities - rising from dean to chancellor. Students want a leader who will hear and respond to their concerns; and the public often desires an individual with accomplishments entirely outside academe.

Across the United States, we see a range of personalities at the helm of universities -everything from the highly paid ($1.5 million per year), hard- charging Gordon Gee of Ohio State, to the humble unpaid priest presidents at many Catholic universities.

There is no perfect presidential profile, but the ideal candidate must nurture the web of relationships critical to the university. These include the university's relationship with students, faculty and staff, as well as its ties with communities and cultures, its stewardship of lands and links with elected leaders. And, above all, the ideal candidate must be willing to ask what you, as Alaskans, can do for your university not what your university can do for you.

The finalists for UA President will be in Juneau on Wednesday. There is an open forum at Centennial Hall from 5:30 to 8 p.m. for the public.

• Michael L. Boyer is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Southeast

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