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USC case study and "Contrarian's Guide to Leadership"

ContrariansGuideLeadershipI've just finished reading The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership by former USC president Steven Sample as part of the Emerging Leaders seminar at SMU (a semester-long seminar led by SMU provost, presenting various administrative units of the university to mid-career SMU profs who might take on leadership positions) so I figured I'd write a few comments about it. (Sample was USC's president from 1991 to 2010 and passed away in March of this year [2016] at age 75. He is widely credited with transforming the university into a national research powerhouse. You can read his obituary in the Los Angeles Times here and the In Memoriam posted on the USC website here.)

I most liked the specificity of Sample's insights - it was obvious he had spent many years reflecting upon his laws of leadership. Advice includes seeing the shades of gray in every situation, never undercutting your senior people, advocating open communication with structured decision-making (meaning people can complain to the president, but any investigation into the complaint will go through the proper channel), delay making decisions as long as it is appropriate. He has also very sharp insights into the fact that people around you have their own agenda and advocates always maintaining one's intellectual independence (with the need for leaders to lead without being used or used up by experts), but also doing everything you can to make your direct reports succeed, among other things. 

My favorite anecdote was on USC's reaction to the riots in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers who had beaten a motorist named Rodney King. USC itself was spared by the riots but the entire neighborhood was engulfed in protests and university leaders expected arson, looting and beatings. They had not a specific emergency plan in place for riots (and perhaps that's something university leaders should prepare these days) but they had one for a catastrophic earthquake, and one of the university's vice presidents decided that the situation looked like an earthquake to him, so that "students from outlying housing were brought in to temporary quarters in the central campus, every university police officer and all physical plant staff were called back to active duty.... observers with radios were placed atop strategic buildings" and more. (p.80)

I also liked his comments on hiring practices. He quotes an old saw: "A's hire A-minuses, and B's hire Cs." He also expands on it by describing a more complex formula provided to him by his former colleague Harry Williams. Basically, (this is paraphrased from p.123) people at the 99th percentile of overall competence will hire people who are 99% as good as themselves, or at the 98th percentile on an absolute scale. Those people will hire people who are 98% as good as themselves, or at the 96th percentile. At the fourth level of the organization, employees will still be at the 92nd percentile of competence. But if the top person is at the 90th percentile of competence, he will hire people who are 90% as good as he is or at the 81st percentile, and by the fourth level employees will only be at the 43rd percentile of overall competence. Now, Sample is clear this is only "pseudoscience rising to the level of myth, which then helps us make sense of a complex human phenomenon."

The most interesting part of the book is the last chapter, about the USC case study. It describes USC's evolution over the first decade of Sample's leadership - his tenure up to the moment he wrote the book. Things he did include (the book chapter contains more):

  • arranging for a transition period (interregnum) of 4 months so that he could "think free, think gray and listen gray, hearing extensively from members of the USC community",
  • creating a role and mission statement, followed by a brief strategic plan for SMU focusing on only 4 priorities, with the overarching goal "to become in fact and in reputation one of the ten leading private research universities in America,"
  • improving undergraduate education at USC
    • improving undergraduate student selectivity (and battling high dropout rates and low graduation rates), by eliminating need-blind admissions for the weaker applicants, increasing the grant component [decreasing the loan component] of the need-based aid packages for the better applicants, "inaugurat[ing] an extensive program of merit-based aid" and "reduc[ing] the target size of [the] freshman class by 500 students relative to its historic maximum."
    • developing a six-course core curriculum required of all undergrads and taught for the most part by senior faculty in small classes (a very contrarian approach, since conventional wisdom states that teaching assistants should teach such courses or senior faculty should teach very large classes),
    • encouraging students to stretch mentally by picking minors very far removed from their majors instead of closely connected, also introducing a Renaissance Scholars Program "to honor those students who are especially successful at pursuing two or more widely separated fields of study".
  • strengthening USC's research mission 
    • (this is where Sharp shows his brilliance) "First was the realization that postdoctoral education was quickly replacing doctoral education as the terminal academic credential in the natural sciences, psychology and selected fields of engineering. Thus, in advance of most other universities, USC realized that postdoctoral education would be an increasingly important factor in determining both the quality and quantity of sponsored research at leading research universities."
    • emphasizing interdisciplinary projects and exploiting USC's location in Los Angeles and Southern California (both for research projects but also community outreach). 
  • developing new disciplinary and interdisciplinary strengths, for instance in advancing the medical school (done without owning/operating their major teaching hospitals, also a contrarian strategy) and fostering the five professional schools related to the arts. 
  • improving fundraising.

I particularly like the point he made about postdoctoral education. Postdocs are already trained and, at least in engineering, have a shorter time horizon than PhD students. (My friends in science at MIT ended up doing postdocs as long as their graduate studies, so that clearly isn't true in all disciplines.) For a university that seeks to rise through the ranks today and is committed to providing superior mentoring opportunities for its postdocs, strengthening postdoc involvement can generate published papers sooner and thus increase the visibility of the university faster, in turn improving recruitment of doctoral students. Obviously it won't directly affect the rankings of doctoral programs but it helps set the tone for research programs. Recruiting good postdocs is also going to be a challenge, but universities that can find a competitive advantage in their mentoring programs and/or their environment can leverage their position for great impact. It is quite remarkable that Sample had those insights as early as the 1990s. 

The one thing I would add to Sample's mention of USC's strategic goals is that those goals must be presented to people in the trenches in ways that are relevant for them and make everyone a team player. For instance, if you want to increase research expenditures, this is going to mean different things to an English department and a Mechanical Engineering department. It is important to tailor the message to one's audience. But the conversion of strategic goals into a roadmap probably would be up to the president's direct reports rather than him, so it's not a surprise that he doesn't talk much about the tactical side of USC's rise to national prominence. 

For readers interested in other books on leadership in higher education, Leadership in Higher Education is a series of interviews with university presidents. More background information about the universities and the interviewees would have been useful, the font is very small and the book is a bit dry but it's quite a good read nonetheless. For the biography of a university president, I recommend Holding the Center by Howard Johnson (MIT president from 1966 to 1971 and chairman to the MIT corporation from 1971 to 1983). 

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