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Reinventing Universities: The critical role of leadership

Guest post on the President’s blog by Belinda Tynan

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.

António

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