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With A Little Help From
Public Engagement Professionals!

“Leadership in universities should encourage collaboration and flexibility, resembling the improvisational nature of a jazz band rather than a conductor-led orchestra.”

Dr. Oliver VettoriAccreditation and Quality Management + Director Program Management, Teaching and Learning at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, HUMANE Conference 2023

University leaders could benefit a lot from applying methodologies, practices and learnings of the Public Engagement community! This is a personal conclusion after attending the HUMANE Annual Conference, held in cooperation with the European University Alliance on 14-16 June 2023 in Barcelona. The conference brought together European university leaders to reflect on the conference motto: “Leading together: academic leaders and professional service leaders addressing global societal challenges”.

Universities are key players in supporting economic and societal growth, both locally and globally. But despite the increasing demand for tertiary education, public institutional funding is declining as governments grapple with numerous pressing challenges, including the aftermath of the pandemic, climate change, energy crises, and geopolitical tensions.

The conference highlighted the need for higher education institutions to foster collaborations between academic leaders and leaders of professional services. By working closely together, they can steer and deliver strategic agendas that create sustainable societal impact. This transformation requires embracing institutional agility, adopting new governance models, reconciling traditional academic leadership with stakeholder engagement, leveraging diversity for higher impact, and cultivating a positive organizational culture.

Reflections on the Future of Leadership

One of the most interesting moments of the conference was a reflection of leadership in the context of institutional transformation. In all key statements, communication and engagement were essential requirements:

  • “We should lead like musicians in a jazz band, not like conductors of an orchestra”: Conducting an orchestra involves providing direction and structure, with a precise execution of the written score, while being a jazz band musician emphasizes improvisation, collaboration, and individual creativity, creating unique solos and interacting with other band members in real-time. As a jazz musician, one must also possess the awareness of when to step forward and when to let others take the lead.
  • “Leadership is about motivating individuals to work towards a shared goal”: Leadership involves inspiring and empowering team members to contribute their unique perspectives. Good leadership thrives on building meaningful relationships based on expertise, trust, and genuine concern for others.
  • “Personal leadership is not limited to top positions nor to individuals”: Leadership displayed by each member of an organization is crucial for future success. Leadership should not be too person-bound nor overly dependent on specific individuals. Effective organizational design helps mitigate risks and ensures continuity.
  • “We need evolving mental models of leadership”: Adapting and updating our mental models of leadership is necessary to address today’s complex challenges effectively. New leadership models should promote respect over formal authority.
  • “Early-stage training and gentle career planning are needed”: Planning stages of leadership development should begin early in the academic career, allowing for gradual growth and providing adequate training and support.

The Role of Public Engagement Professionals

While the conference did not focus explicitly on this topic, according to the discussions it is obvious that Public Engagement professionals could contribute unique skills and practical experience to the transformation of universities. Their involvement could be particularly valuable in the following areas:

Engaged co-creation for future leaders at the
ScicultureD workshop in Bochum 2023

Bridging the gap between diverse actors and expectations: Public Engagement professionals can facilitate meaningful collaborations between academic leaders, professional service leaders, external stakeholders, and societal actors, enabling universities to address societal challenges more effectively.
Promoting inclusivity and diversity: Public Engagement professionals are experienced in advocating for more inclusive and diverse strategies, breaking away from cultural conformity and fostering innovation and creativity within universities.
Storytelling for impact: Through compelling storytelling and other creative methodologies, Public Engagement professionals can make strategies come alive, helping stakeholders understand the value and relevance of university initiatives. At the same time, stories can help academic leaders to gain a deeper understanding of societal needs and challenges.
Opening up decision-making: By effectively engaging with individual leaders and stakeholders, Public Engagement professionals can support more inclusive decision-making processes, ensuring that change is embraced and meaningful outcomes are achieved collectively.

Overcoming Challenges

While the conference participants were united by a willingness to embrace change, some challenges which could hinder the implementation of a successful transformation were addressed:

Overcoming institutional and individual egos: Leaders at the conference agreed that successful transformation requires humility and the willingness to collaborate and listen to diverse voices, setting aside personal egos. Leaders should not be motivated by positions but by the ability to drive change.
Redefining “academic excellence”: While funders such as the European Commission have already included openness and the co-production of knowledge in the assessment of research excellence, senior academic leaders expressed at the conference that they would not recommend these methodologies to early career researchers since they could hinder career development inside academia. External and internal expectations need to be better aligned to support early career researchers in their personal and professional development.
Widening perspectives: Conferences and other meetings discussing leadership should strive to be more inclusive, showing a wider representation of expertise among keynotes and panelists. Avoiding all-male, 50-plus speaker panels is essential for enacting diversity and ensuring that different perspectives are heard and valued.
Rethinking the significance of rankings: University leaders often seem to prioritize traditional academic values tied to rankings, with an emphasis on publication lists and funding. This focus often hinders the adoption of more open and participatory research approaches. A broader understanding of impact and engagement should be embraced by those who design rankings, but also by leaders inside universities, with an ambition to proactively lead the change.
Promoting internal motivation and training: Institutional transformation today often seems to be imposed from the outside, mainly driven by external factors. Universities need leaders who are motivated to initiate positive change, not just driven by the requirements of funding policies or rankings, but by realizing the broader value of the process for the institution, including academic leadership, staff, researchers and students. Interactive, cross-institutional trainings could empower leaders to become drivers of change and multipliers of innovation for the academic community.

University Leadership and Public Engagement – Changing together!

The HUMANE conference highlighted a strong willingness and motivation of university leaders to foster an institutional culture change, empowering universities to become major actors in transformation. As they strive to make a sustainable impact in innovation ecosystems, universities are aware that extensive leadership capacity and capability are needed, with a new understanding of leadership that is inclusive and participatory.

Collaboration and creativity need new spaces and new methodologies. Practiced here at the SciCultureD Workshop in Bochum 2023

Facing the wicked problems and complex challenges of our time, the involvement of Public Engagement professionals in the redefinition of leadership could enrich this discourse and support the implementation of change. These professionals have substantial experience in bridging the gaps between academia, society, and stakeholders. They can support university leaders in fostering inclusivity and diversity, leveraging storytelling for impact, and opening up decision-making processes to multiple voices.

By joining experiences and skill sets, universities and public engagement professionals can embark on a transformative journey that will enable them to address global societal challenges effectively and increase the impact of research in times of transformation.

Dr. Annette Klinkert
Executive Director European Science Engagement Association, EUSEA
June 2023