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Leadership Challenge: Common Errors when Building a World-Class University

Jamil Salmi's picture

This week, I’m sharing the top 10 common errors when building new world class universities based on my work over the past 17 years at the World Bank and reflecting on my observations from  working with colleagues involved in advising countries keen to establish new tertiary education institutions.  We started with the magnificent campus and expectation that magic will come from it, followed it with the errors related to the curriculum, content and the overall ecosystem within which universities exist.  Today, we delve into some other common errors, here are common errors 5, 6 and 7. 

5. Delay putting in place the board and appointing the leadership team.  The resolution to establish a new university is often a political decision reflecting a visionary ambition at the highest levels that a ministry or a technical project team is then charged with putting into action.  This typically leads to a centrally managed design and implementation process. 

Given that the establishment of a new university requires passion and drive to create a new organizational culture, it cannot be built by a disinterested committee.  A project of such magnitude must be fully owned and carried out by a dynamic leadership team, working under the authority of an independent board with the capacity to offer guidance and empowerment.  The first order of business of the new board has to be the identification, selection and installation of institutional leadership.  Putting in place an appropriate governance framework from the outset is a key factor of success.

6. Stack the board with political appointees.  Founders need to choose a governing board that brings together a range of essential expertise that can evolve over time.  The governing board should start out small and grow very gradually to accommodate more expertise as needed.  The common oversight is that people are appointed to boards on the assumption that they "represent" their institution or represent a constituency, when really they should represent an area of expertise needed in the management of the new and growing institution (legal expert, financial expert, infrastructure expert, academic experts, retired institutional leaders, etc.).  Another, related misstep is to appoint governing board members who have too little time.  It is better to have the board skewed toward recently retired university presidents or experts than to have too many members with too little time and dedication to the endeavor.

7. Plan for up-front capital costs, but pay little attention to long-term financial sustainability.  The promoters of a new university usually announce with enthusiasm the huge endowment dedicated to the establishment of the new institution, but the initial capital investment is only one part of the total project.  It is essential to provide adequately for the first few years of operation and to establish a thoughtful business model that allows the new institution to grow and endure in a financially sustainable manner.

The common errors presented today highlight the importance leadership along with proper sequencing in designing and implementing a new tertiary education institution.

Image:  The image used at the top of this blog post, 3D Team Leadership Arrow, comes from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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