# 345: BOOK OF THE WEEK — “Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia”


Beardsley, Scott C. (2017). Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in Academia.

Story behind the Book Choice

Of all the books I have discussed on Sundays during my 365-day blogging challenge so far, this one is by far the most important one — for me. Book choices, as I repeatedly say, are highy subjective, of course, and not just that: the timing matters. Every book has its time. You can be forced to read Goethe in school as a student and you learn nothing. Or you return to Goethe as an adult because you are hearing a “calling,” your life leads you to his works, and suddenly he teaches you so much. The same holds true for this book. It has been sitting on my shelf for at least a year now and I obviously bought it for a reason — the reason that I talk about almost every day: changing higher education. But only now was I ready to read it. And now that I am through reading it in one piece, I cannot even describe how much I could share about it….

To not get lost from the beginning: This book is a study and a manual — both on the highest level of expertise. A study because it contains thoroughly conducted research and equivalent data on the situation and role of “nontraditional” university leaders, especially presidents and deans. By nontraditional, Beardsley mostly means people from outside academia, whereby “outside” means they do have completed advanced degrees but they have not walked the traditional linear university career path. And a manual because if you read it, you know what to do to save some universities from disappearing, especially liberal arts colleges and related institutions. Both elements together form what great McKinsey publications also combine: intellectual brilliance and pragmatic action to drive sustainable change. I wish I had known about, read, and integrated this book into my last book. But even though I did not, I feel like Beardsley and I have known each other for a long time. Hopefully we will meet at some point.

Beardsley was a senior McKinsey “consultant” for more than 20 years when he decided to follow his true “calling” and become a university leader. I put consultant into quotation marks because, as most of you who have some idea about consulting know, you cannot possibly remain “just” a consultant for such a long time at “the firm.” “The famous rule “up or out” means that you either rise to other ranks (partner…) or you leave. So Beardsley rose up to the very top but at some point and also due to the changes that had affected how the core values of the company had been lived, he felt that this was not it. In fact, he knew by then that just achieving career goals was not all life had to offer, even if these goals made you grow significantly in the past.

In the book, especially int he prologue, he shares his journey to finally arrive at his true calling. And then he presents the hard facts about the significance his own story has for the world of academia. Again, there are so many parallels and insights he shares that I know from my own life and fully agree with. Above all, I have always been a nontraditional applicant or holder of a position. But the difficulty or the potential in my case was and still is that I am nontraditional in both worlds — business and academia. In business, I am the “academic” who is deeply into content, abstract thinking, and even literary writing. In academia, I am this presumably neo-liberal business weirdo who acts like and looks like a manager. This is not even an either/or — this is a neither/nor case so far — in other words: Since I do not fully belong to any of the worlds mentioned, and I have not climbed to the top in either of these worlds (as Beardsley did at McKinsey). So, I am running the risk of ending up as a complete failure. After all: You are measured by results.

While I know this, the only thing that still motivated me to further pursue my nontraditional path was my heart and the rare occasions when older and more experienced professors told me: “We need people like you here.” But these are just words. Nobody adds how on earth I will get there. By “there,” I mean taking a meaningful leadership position that allows me to orchestrate and partly implement the innovative solutions I have to “save” what I deeply believe needs to be saved — above all: the public university system and, as a crucial building block therein, the liberal arts.

I have never shared publicly how I came to aspire such a position. It is a short story, actually. When I was just 26, I got to work in the president’s office of my university. There, I immediately knew where I wanted to be in the future: right there, helping run a university. I know it sounds crazy and arrogant but this is what it was. And it was not that crazy after all. I had started in business before going to university and what had made me go to business first was my longing to work in a meaningful leadership position. But I soon realized that my values were not in line with what mattered there. I am not saying that business is bad. But if you want to be a business leader at the very top, not only do you have to love business itself, you have to love the mission of the company. And the mission of a company is usually related to a product/service. The thing I learned very quickly was that, above all, there is no “product” on this planet that is as important for me as education.

I am the person I am because of my education.

And I want others to be able to pursue a quality education which is life-transforming and deeply fulfilling.

Not just some bullshit short-quick-and-dirty certificate race.

So, in a very “McKinsey-like” manner, if you want, I came up with my own strategy to achieve this goal of making it to the top of the university system. I studied best practices, i.e., the CVs of university leaders. You have to remember, at the time, I had just finished my M.A. and since I come from a non-academic family background, it was not clear to me at this point how exactly academia worked, even though I had gotten some insights into the system as a student assistant before. So, what I found to be the “conventional” path to becoming a university president was this: You get a PhD, you do your habilitation (like a 2nd Ph.D., special requirement in Germany), you become a professor, you become a dean, you work your ass off on some other committees, associations, and so on, you polish your micro-politics skills and then — you run for president at some point and if you persevere, you will get elected at some point when you are 50+.

That was my true motivation.

It was the only way I saw how I could bring about change in this institution, in this system (I am a systems thinker after all).

So I walked this path by applying the best project management skills I had learned in business before:

speedy PhD, speedy habilitation, lots of scholarships.

Until I realized, this would not work for me all the way through.

I saw no point in publishing papers in my field whatsoever.

And it would be too late to save the humanities anyways.

I know some people will probably call me crazy to admit all this — a mid-20 year old sitting there as an M.A. graduate thinking about becoming the president (who knows what the president from back then would think about this now…). To make one thing clear: I have the highest admiration for university presidents and other leadership personnel. If you have worked in academia for a while, you will also have noticed how many people have sacrificed their health, family, and any kind of “life” outside academia just for this job, for this “higher calling,” to take up Beardsley’s title. Still, because I had also seen what “traditional” professors were doing, I saw that the presidency was the only position where you could really bring in management excellence to achieve results on a large scale, outside your tiny disciplinary compartments and outside your own classroom. And management and leadership, after all, have been my passion since I was a kid. This, I share with Mary Parker Follett who turned to business not because of the business itself but because of the transformational power and energy she found in the business tribe.

This passion then also made me write the second book about change management in academia. I knew that this would be the end of my American Studies “career” because it was already very much out of bounds with respect to traditional disciplinary topics. Still, I had to write it because it has my soul in it. I had to lay out a roadmap of how to save the humanities, the liberal arts, and ultimately traditional universities. By the way, even though it is not mentioned in the title of his study, this is also what Beardsley does in his book — just for those skeptics who think that managers cannot even spell “liberal arts.” He devotes almost entire chapters to exploring the meaning and impact of the liberal arts on society. But I will talk more about this below. The reason why I am mentioning this now is because in my book, the solution I saw to changing the leadership of universities was to educate students and scholars in the humanities about management. I came up with a method of how humanists could learn management and leadership and the beautiful thing is that this same method would also help MBA students learn “soft” skills.

So, in other words: My solution was internal change, i.e., equipping people who have no idea about business with the tools for seeing the university as a business and thus improve their leadership skills in order to improve the performance and the marketing — among many other things — of the liberal arts. Nowhere in the entire book did I think about the possibility that we could also realize this change by bringing in nontraditional leaders from outside. Well, I did at least count how many university presidents in Germany come from the humanities to see if “our people” were already making a strategic difference at the top. But, just like hardly any CEO in Germany has a humanities background, my findings were highly disillusioning. But university leadership, to make it clear, was not my ultimate focus of investigation. I cared more about finding out how we could change society by changing how business is done. I am convinced that this does not just require different “theories” and methods (circular economy, sustainability…) but DIFFERENT PEOPLE, i.e., managers. Hence, what the teaching method I developed aims at is to not only train students differently but also empower nontraditional applicants to join corporations.

The last part now finally brings me to discussing some passages from the book. What Beardsley is doing in Higher Calling is very similar to my approach, just with a different field of application. And this is so fascinating, I can hardly share with you how thrilled I am. If I had his number, I would call him right away. It is the first time that I am reading a book by someone who deeply understands both — the business side and the academic side — on such a high level, with so much passion and sensitivity, and who is not an entrepreneur. People like Reid Hoffman, for example, and many others, have been talking about the importance of the humanities in business and they give speeches at business schools, etc. But, because they are who they are, they also convey the message that the only way you can turn all your different nontraditional skills and your transformational mindset into practice is — by being a business guy founding companies and creating technology. Now, here is someone, namely Scott Beardsley, who decided to create impact where it matters most, according to his (and my) calling: inside the university.

  1. Business Models
Beardsley 34

After my lengthy intro this time, I am going to be more brief on the passages that follow because otherwise, this is going to be another run-on post — which only happens when I am really excited and inspired. There are so many passages that I could have chosen to be discussed. The reason why I have picked the business model topic is because it is truly essential when talking about the transformation of higher education. If there is one thing that I have learned in three years as an entrepreneur and especially inside the startup bubble: business model, business model, business model... Back when I was still a student and thinking about a McKinsey career, I was arrogant to think that this does not matter. For me, it was always the people that came first because I knew that the best product or anything will not work in the end, if you do not know how to read and lead people. So, I basically refused to advance my core business skills, including number crunching.

This was stupid and ignorant.

Business model and people is the equation, not or. And it is indeed the business model of traditional universities which is falling apart without many leaders having noticed or acknowleged it. This was the case long before Covid but the trend towards online teaching during the pandemic has made it even more pressing. The same can be said about all the EdTech competitors in the private education market which I once found thrilling and now regard as deeply scary for the future of democracy. It would be stupid to say that just because you are a business consultant, you always have the ultimate solution to these problems. But what you definitely have is the awareness that this aspect, the one of a sustainable business model, is crucial and needs a lot of thinking. And, at least after a while in consulting, you have much strategic experience and the stamina to execute solutions, no matter how much wind is blowing you in the face. This is already the problem of many traditional university leaders — even if they come from business school faculties. Because scholars hardly ever get to see practice in some operational role, they do not think in business models either. Or they do but they have no creativity whatsoever to spontaneously modify models they know from theory according to present changes in the environment.

Of course, I am playing with stereotypes here and this is something that Beardsley also does brilliantly. He always makes it clear when stereotypes get in the way of his argument and he describes how stereotypes of the respective “other,” got in his way when trying to become what he was at the time writing and still is: dean of a business school. Still, as he also points out, stereotypes have reasons and when I say that the lack of a suitable business model is the major reason why the liberal arts continue to die (even in Germany where private universities are not the norm), that is not a stereotype or some crisis discourse — it is a fact and he, as well as I in my book, is showing the figures. This is the balance that we need because it is the only one that works: the hard and the soft facts alongside each other. You cannot manage an institution responsibly if you ignore one of these sides. And nontraditional leaders are the people who bring a lot of expertise and practice to the table to always keep their eyes on all priorities that matter to make sure that necessary change gets implemented without sacrificing the strenghts of “traditional” education.

2. Change Managers

Beardsley 109

I am sorry to draw so many parallels to my own book this time but I simply have to because they are so striking. Another one of them is: change management. Yes, change management might sound like an “80s” term for some young and hip “sustainable transformation leaders” in corporations . Whatever the fancy name these people are using nowadays, the thing they all aim at is change which needs to be managed. And there are theories and a lot of research on how to do it wisely. And these best practices have not changed much just because there is digitalization now. This is exactly what strong leaders are capable of doing — they change the organization in a time of rapid outside transformation and instability. Since I have written about change many times before, I simply have to underline this topic.

The skill that needs to be mentioned as the one that is indispensable in change processes, as in any management function really, is communication. Management is communication more or less. And this is exactly where the liberal arts students and graduates have their biggests strengths. People with the best people and cultural skills are the ones who can become excellent change managers, just like they have brilliant consulting skills. You can teach anybody number crunching and frameworks if a person sees value in it and invests time to learn it (given some minimum IQ level, of course). It will take some months, even years, but it is doable. Communication, empathy, deep cultural understanding, sensitivity, humanism, and “connecting the dots” thinking — all these things you cannot just teach someone easily within a short period of time. It requires long-term personal growth and reflection, as taught via the Socratic method which Beardsley also mentions. This is exactly why you need the liberal arts. But it makes sense to also look at their origins.

3. Religion and the Liberal Arts

Beardsley 134

I have no idea how often I have talked and written about the liberal arts already on this blog and elsewhere but I feel that Beardsley is my buddy on this matter. Quite recently, however, and you might have noticed this as well, I also dove into theological and religious issues. Part of this is my personal development process but there is also a very clear connection that many people in this highly secularized world do not realize anymore: faith matters — in life, in business, and in education. Theology was the origin of higher education even before the first universities were invented in Europe. And philosophy, which stood at the center of the traditional seven liberal arts subjects, was more or less inseparable from theology at some point. In other words, the fact that religion is quickly disappearing from our education radar is a very recent phenomenon in human history and it is highly troublesome. And I mean this not only in the context of education but also in business practice. Economic actors who have no stable reference point to base some “inalienable” values on (to refer to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson), will continue to destroy more than they create. This is why religion, even broadly defined as spirituality, matters.

As Beardsley shares in this passage above, the data show that religious institutions are at least a bit more inclined to hiring nontraditional leaders but he also shares that the reasons for this are more or less oblique. There are two observations that I just made recently which, in this context, might deserve more research: 1) The connection between successful business leadership (executive and entrepreneurial) and spirituality: There is research on this but I am deeply convinced that we need to do more in the current startup age. 2) The fact that church institutions have always been among the most innovative management tranformers: You might not think this but look at the monasteries of the Middle Ages, for example. They were the first “startups” of the time with immense growth rates and their management structures would not have succeeded had they not been transformational and visionary.

You see I can hardly stop without already diving into my own ideas. Let me just finish with one important thought: Beardsley writes all this in the U.S. context, even though he spent much of his McKinsey career in Europe and on planes taking him to almost every corner of the world. This is understandable because his research is on the U.S. and as with every research, it needs to be clearly defined in scope and purpose (somewhat “MECE” for the Mackies :o)). Still, I have not read any research in the past years which is so desperately needed in Europe in exactly the same way — because we need similar solutions despite all systemic differences across the Atlantic. And I will do everything in my power to further pursue and promote this in Germany. We were once the cradle of liberal education in the heart of Europe and we have gambled with and mostly lost this privilege. Yes, the Bologna reform has turned into the biggest mess ever and it is certainly not just “our fault” alone. But it is our responsibility to fix the situation and our institutions. Nontraditional leaders are desperately needed game changers for achieving the turnaround and to function as uniting forces in our deeply fragmented and polarized world.

“In short, no leader who is capable of leading a college or university effectively should be discouraged from considering that career. In a time of turbulent change, new legions of talent should be encouraged and cultivated. Rather than seizing on the dissimilar backgrounds that divide leaders, we should be focusing on the belief in the power of education, and the hope for stronger institutions, that unite us all.” (Beardsley 196)

Reflection Questions

1) When you went to college or university (if you did), did you ever wonder about how this place was run and which career path the people running it might have walked?

2) If you were to become a leader in higher education, which university would you apply at? Why?

3) What are the potential risks of having people from the business world manage universities according to your opinion?