Reinventing Universities: The critical role of leadership

April 27, 2016 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

At the start of my academic career, some 25 years ago, I had the chance of working closely with Professor José Enes (1924-2013), then the Vice-rector of the Portuguese open university, Universidade Aberta (UAb). José Enes was one of the most important Portuguese philosophers of the 20th century and I had the honour of being his «last» assistant. Although very intense, our collaboration at UAb lasted only for three years. However, soon after his retirement we continued working together for several years. He invited me to help him organize the accreditation process of the University degrees in Philosophy in our country and we've assured it for the initial two full cycles. Professor Enes presided the evaluation committee and I was its Secretary and rapporteur. Afterwards, we remained very close friends until his death. Roberto Carneiro, EDEN Senior Fellow, was another of his great friends and admirers.

José Enes was a great philosopher and a gentle and kind human being. But, he was also an outstanding academic and an inspiring leader with an acute strategic vision. Enes masterminded the creation of the University of the Azores, of which he was the founding Rector, and was involved in the launch of the Portuguese Catholic University, where he was the first Vice-rector, amongst other initiatives. However, the most important feature I would like to evoke in this post is that Professor Enes combined as an academic leader a set of features and experiences which allowed him to build a holistic but also deep understanding of what universities are and how they should be governed.

In fact, he was a researcher who also did research about education and the historical role of universities, at the same time as a teacher who continuously reflected upon his teaching methods and how students learn, and a leader who never stopped questioning the deep meaning and social purpose of the university institution. On top of that, Enes was passionate about technology and its potential uses. He managed to articulate all of these different dimensions in an integrated philosophically-grounded vision.

We all know that leadership plays a critical role in modernising Universities for the digital age. However, inspirational leadership alone is not enough. As the example of José Enes demonstrates, in order to be effective, truly transformational leadership has to include a combination of strategic thinking, a deep understanding of what the essence, purpose, values and dynamics of these institutions are and the knowledge of their social and cultural context. To these should be added a touch of warmth and care as well.

In order to share a personal insight on these complex processes, I've invited today my dear friend Belinda Tynan to contribute to the EDEN President's Blog. Belinda is a widely-known expert and a much experienced institutional leader. She is just completing her task as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, where she has lead an important transformation process. As you most surely know, Belinda was until very recently a member of EDEN's Executive Committee too. She will be returning now to her native Australia, but I'm proud to share with you that she will stay in our professional EDEN circle as an individual member.

In her beautiful reflection, Belinda reviews the different styles of leadership, shares insights on her rich personal experiences as follower and leader and analyses the impact executive officers can have today in complex organisations such as a University in the midst of the current challenges of our field. Finally, she reminds us of the importance of context in institutional transformational processes. I hope you'll enjoy reading this wonderful and moving personal account.




As I write this in the twilight of my departure from the Open University I am reflective of what has been achieved and the impact one can have as an executive officer of a University. I have been fortunate to have worked in three universities now which have as their focus distance, open and online higher education. Each has had their peculiarities, challenges and opportunities. In each - in a variety of senior roles - I have learned many lessons over the ten years or so from the perspective of being both a follower and leader and gained a very deep appreciation of the importance of context. I also remain concerned that our field has failed to come together in a way that can solve the big problems that we all encounter. Particularly retention and progression.

Across my career I have observed and experienced tyrannical, inspirational and lacklustre leadership. There are many stories that I could tell - we all have them. They are stories which are linked to personal values, aspirations, disappointments and moments best forgotten - the embarrassments. These stories, of course, are one view, my view, of what often is a complex multi-stakeholder set of narratives. On the whole, I reflect that whether you are a follower or are the leader that these labels are just that. I would caution that authority, power and ‘show-bagging’ are to be handled with care. On the one hand, as a leader, you can do great good. Harnessing the energy of others, being persuasive and an advocate for example. On the other hand, you can equally do great damage by limiting others’ potential, being autocratic and not providing a clear inspirational message and direction of travel. In leadership roles you can also spend a lot of time telling others how good you are, how good other things are, skirting across the big themes, being provocative etc. all resulting in no impact at all - this is what I call ‘show-bagging’. It rarely gets you anywhere other than a reputation for being shallow, without substance and somewhat of a ‘tip’ without the ‘iceberg’!

It has been a personal quest of mine, as glib as it might sound, to do no harm with either authority or power. And, to hear - not listen but actually hear. Have I been successful? That will be the judgement of my peers. Can I sleep at night? Yes - although I have some cringe worthy moments that remind me that I am human. Have I been a ‘show- bagger’? Sometimes, we probably all have been at times - it can come with the territory of leading but I aspire to be sincere and to keep it simple. Now, as a follower, I was in my early career looking for inspiration, passion and commitment - not too much to ask for really.

Belinda Tynan with @Phoenix_USQ (Phoenix the cat) on her last day as PVC at the USQ

Working within the field of distance, online and open education has sat very strongly with my own value sets, particularly its contribution to the Millennium Development Goals and past policies around education for all. We all know that there are more learners than there are bricks and that our field offers an opportunity - but it isn't an opportunity if learners continue to drop out or fail in the numbers which they currently do. This is the moment for us all to step up to the challenge and ensure that distance, online and open learners are successful in achieving their aspirations. That is why I have been working in distance, open and online education for the past 15 years. It is important work.

We are all followers and leaders, we are all different and our journeys will be unique. What we can do though is work together to address the challenges that face us all. We need to support each other’s journeys and support the field within complex times in new ways. There is a need for us to be even more robust than we are in our education research and evaluation endeavours. Large scale or meta-analysis of teaching practices that bring our scholarship to light are critical. For example, what do we ‘actually’ know as a field of retention and progression or the impact of learning design on students learning gain in distance, open and online education? Just two examples. We skip quickly to new shiny areas such as MOOCs or analytics - starting afresh. Of course this is fine too as there is room for all interests. However, it is important that we pull through our knowledge and become better advocates for our field.

As I move on from the Open University I won’t be moving on from my passion of the field - rather I will be taking a new perspective - from the other side per se in a mainstream University which is in partnership with other Universities to deliver online education through Open Universities Australia. The problems will be the same though - so working together is the only way in which I can see we can solve issues that cut across contexts - whether you are open, online, by distance, commercial or private. Oh, and I’ll keep working on learning the errors of my ways from those cringe worthy moments that I continue to have!


Professor Belinda Tynan holds the role of Pro Vice-Chancellor PVC Learning and Teaching at the Open University. Her previous roles have included, Pro Vice-Chancellor Learning, Teaching and Quality at the University of Southern Queensland, and Director of the research centre DEHub at the University of New England. Professor Tynan leads the sub-units of Learning and Teaching, the Open Media Unit, Learning and Teaching Solutions and the University Library which provide leadership and support for the University strategic objectives for the creation of exciting and innovative learning experiences. She is an active researcher and supervisor of doctoral students. Her research interests are concentrated in the field of distance education and sub-topics of academic workload, student voices and academic professional development. She has more than thirty years of experience in the education sector in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. She was awarded her PFHEA. Read more here.