University Personnel Seeking a Leader

Researchers and teachers wish to be led by an individual that is academically accomplished, compassionate, encouraging, and an all-around great person. Where can such leaders be found?

Management work in its various forms is something many university personnel become familiar with during their careers. Even one’s very first research project and being in charge of a research group introduce administrative responsibilities, for which the researcher is often unprepared. The majority of professors work in various management positions. Reaching a university rector or dean position certainly requires fire and ambition from the individual, but especially a local manager job may land on one’s lap unplanned when their own objectives are primarily related to a career in research.

Leadership skills cannot be taken for granted, and an academically accomplished researcher is not automatically suited to the administrative grind or personnel management. However, training and support for management roles is available, to a greater extent than before. Skilled management is reflected in personnel well-being, academic merits, and university finances.

In the university environment, managers and supervisors face various expectations forcing them to adapt to multiple situations. Together with a group of experts, we have determined the five most essential requirements any manager must meet in order to succeed at their job.

1 A good leader builds people’s careers

In a Helsingin Sanomat editorial in August, researcher Kirsi Cheas pointed out deficiencies in academic leadership. She described issues with power relations and silencing of grievances in a situation that finds young researchers highly dependent on their supervisors and managers. For example, a young researcher’s application for funding requires a statement from their supervisor and the commitment of the head of the institution backing the application.

A good leader does not simply direct the everyday work but helps build up people’s careers.

University of Helsinki professor of computational space physics Minna Palmroth seeks solutions for clearing space debris from celestial orbits and leads a team of approximately twenty researchers at the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research of Sustainable Space. Palmroth remarks that in academic work, one’s CV decides their career path, and for that reason it is essential for any leader to facilitate the development of their staff’s CVs.

“Sometimes it might even feel bad to build other people’s careers, because the logical consequence is a situation where your own authority changes. As the leader, you need to let others excel at their jobs and allow someone else’s career to progress quicker in relation to your own”, Palmroth describes.

According to Palmroth, management work at its best is her guiding researchers to suitably challenging projects, giving them free rein, and “waiting for Nature publications”, but if the work isn’t going as planned, a more hands-on approach to management and help from the team are required.

Palmroth has both positive and negative opinions about university management. One source of problems is the lack of adequate base funding, and the goals of the academic management and administrative management do not always align. However, Palmroth points out leadership is something the universities do take into consideration. She herself has participated in several training courses, such as management training as part of the MBA degree.

“I must say the best thing about management training is meeting other managers. The training in its simplest form could be to gather a number of managers together for a discussion, without a consultant explaining everything”, says Palmroth.

2 Surviving in pressure crossfire

Research funding has become increasingly contested, with performance being measured by quantitative criteria more and more frequently. The 2010 university reform has been judged to have weakened collegial decision-making and strengthened middle management authority. Thus, university work is subjected to pressure from both society at large and within the university itself.

All of these changes are emphasised in leadership work, with conflicts arising between the various roles of, for example, a local manager.

Postdoctoral researcher Taru Siekkinen works at the University of Jyväskylä’s Finnish Institute for Educational Research and has studied the tensions between the academic profession and the university.

“Academic leaders represent the academic staff but are also required by some higher authority to produce results. Anyone in a management role is stuck between a rock and a hard place, because for example you want to support the staff, but budget restrictions mean you can’t make promises you can’t keep”, Siekkinen says.

A large part of the pressure faced by management staff is related to the university’s temporary work practices and the uncertainty of employment relationships. When the party making all of the recruitment decisions is not the same one that decides on the budget, the pressure of responsibility is felt but freedom is lacking.

Siekkinen and her colleague Taina Saarinen have been reviewing the local manager training at the University of Jyväskylä. Siekkinen reckons it is essential for academic leadership to become more visible and receive more recognition.

“Leaders must be people that are genuinely motivated and strive to improve at their own job.”

According to Siekkinen, it is also vital to consider the group from which future managers are chosen. A Finnish Union of University Professors report from 2020 indicated that the tenure track path for full-time positions has become the most common recruitment method for professors. The current recruitment method does not only affect researcher career paths but also who will be in charge of the universities in the future.

Compared to traditional recruitment, the recent tenure track recruitments have been dominated by male and international candidates. This raises the question of what that means in terms of diversity. Tenure track professorships are also highly contested, and in order to succeed you must be extremely focused on research”, says Siekkinen.

3 Nurturing collegiality

Leadership skills are considered an individual trait. Alongside individual skills, the organisation’s operation largely determines the leadership that is possible. The universities have gone through major upheaval in the last decade, and many management and administration methods have been introduced that many have found foreign.

Professor of Educational Research Jussi Välimaa from the Institute for Educational Research has studied the time of so-called managerial leadership. The universities are tuned to become efficient and impressive organisations in the manner of the business world. However, past operational methods and ethical principles have stratified over time, still influencing university matters.

The oldest of the scientific community’s principles is collegiality, which means matters being discussed informally and the best argument coming out on top. Collegiality is hardly the fastest way to make decisions, but collegial decisions are easier to commit to.

“The issue with this method is that the university does not have an office for it. It’s quite common for people not to even recognise it. Peer reviewing of publications or professor reviews are the only matters with collegiality established as a recognised operational method”, Välimaa says.

Over time, a second model has developed atop collegiality — the official work ethic, which involves laws, regulations, and working times. Successful official work means everything goes exactly according to regulations.

“That works well for personnel management and academic services, but more creative academic work tends to conflict with official work. Academic work is a cross between entrepreneurship and artistry, sometimes rather anarchic and that’s absolutely fine. Creative work is at its best when it is unpredictable”, says Välimaa.

Managerialism is an import from the business world, powered by the ideal of “productivity, productivity, and productivity”. In his article Elämää siiloissa (lit. “Life in Silos”, Aikuiskasvatus, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2019), Välimaa describes a linear organisation in which the university’s administration has been divided into vertical silos and everyone is responsible for their own job.

However, pursuing productivity via chopping up responsibilities eventually leads to a situation where the flow of information deteriorates, operations slow down – and productivity suffers as a result. Financial administration is handled by different people than personnel management, despite these being different angles of the same process.

Leadership work requires juggling these two operational methods stemming from different times. According to Välimaa, a good leader and manager understands the collegiality tradition while participating in discussions and bearing responsibility. He believes the university needs clear academic leadership paths. Singular training courses are not enough.

“Tensions are part of the academic world, and the people in charge must create fair and equal operating methods. These managers must be people that do not create any tensions within the community but instead try to mitigate them”, says Välimaa.

4 Time and motivation

Many academics wish for a leadership role, so dean, vice rector, and rector positions are highly contested. However, leadership tasks are not always attractive. Many experts are concerned about administrative work taking time away from research. This theme was explored by a working group led by University of Jyväskylä professor Taru Feldt in their Fear of Leadership project that concluded in 2019. Along with other experts, approximately 550 professors participated in the extensive survey for the study.

Leadership tasks are part and parcel of any professor’s career trajectory, but professors identified more concerns related to leadership in comparison to other professions. Many stated they had ended up in leadership roles, such as managing a department, due to the fundamental principles of their scientific organisation or because the trust of the work community compelled them to.

Tampere University lecturer Elias Pekkola has studied academic professions for a long time. He leads the Administrative Studies unit in the Faculty of Management and Business.

Pekkola says leadership lacks a position between administration and academic work. The market for academic leaders in Finland is small enough for a purposeful leadership career to be difficult to achieve. On the other hand, anyone deciding to take on a leadership job also takes the risk of their own research career fizzling out.

“We don’t manage the research from our leadership positions. The leaders of the research groups are in charge of that, while we take care of administration and the necessary evils — to simplify things a little”, says Pekkola.

According to Pekkola, the fact leadership does not excite even those researching leadership is emblematic. In the past, the Tampere University’s School of Management, as it was then known, could not find a single internal professor candidate for the faculty’s dean position.

“A good academic leader is a person with a lot of time. Openness, listening, and collegiality require time, but the paradox here is that these are not resourced within working time. Any additional time taken up by leadership is time away from research, or it means extending your workdays”, Pekkola says.

Pekkola reckons leadership could still be made attractive. He himself is a proponent of dual leadership, in which the faculties and departments would be led by the academic and administrative leader working closely as a pair, with both handling their own clearly designated responsibilities.

“This includes the idea of the academic leader still being able to do scientific work.”

5 Anticipating misunderstandings

‘Has it been proven that a big organisation works better?’ ‘Why do you always have to make changes for change’s sake?’ ‘The admin’s throwing their weight around again, and nobody asked us anything!’

Russian language professor emeritus Arto Mustajoki has held numerous leadership roles including Head of the Department, Dean of the Faculty, and Vice Rector at the University of Helsinki, as well as Chair of the Board of the Academy of Finland. In his career, he has implemented, for example. a major department merger that elicited the above comments.

Mustajoki considers one of the greatest challenges a leader faces to be the way they position themselves in the community. Do the staff feel the leader is part of “us” or “them”?

“Every group wishes the leader would protect ‘us’ and speak ‘our’ language. However, the leader also interfaces with the next level of administration, learns its language, and understands how it operates. The leader has to be the interpreter in between”, Mustajoki says.

First, the leader must fully understand what is being done and why it is necessary. Invoking the upper management or the university’s new practice does not generate trust.

Recently, Mustajoki has focused especially on pondering the pitfalls of communication and discusses these in his book Väärinymmärryksiä (lit. “Misunderstandings”, Gaudeamus 2020). According to Mustajoki, misunderstandings are as much a part of universities as any other organisations. Often, misunderstandings are caused by the same notions meaning different things to different people. When a notion evokes emotions, it becomes difficult to be receptive about the subject.

One danger lies in administrative jargon. Terms such as vision and strategy might excite the administration, but researchers and teachers may be annoyed by them.

“In many people, they incite maybe not quite aggression, but at least the feeling they are something pointless that has been brought to the university from outside”, says Mustajoki.

Within the university, there may also be different cultures in terms of the staff’s receptiveness towards ideas from the top. Mustajoki’s own experience suggests humanists and social scientists in particular tend to challenge these ideas and demand justifications. A good leader must spend plenty of time communicating and listening carefully to identify grievances.

“Personally, I have thought I would spend even more time on unofficial discussions as a leader. In hindsight, implementing certain things would have been simpler if I would and could have spent more time interacting with different colleagues.”

Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Images: Niina Behm
Translation: Marko Saajanaho

Acatiimi 5/2021