Best Practices — My Trip to Kazakhstan Confirmed Academic Leadership Principles are Global

Jones articleBy Dr. Steve Jones February 24, 2020 – I felt honored and privileged to conduct in August 2019 an interactive workshop on Academic Leadership for vice presidents, deans, department heads, and directors at Kimep University (KU) in Almaty, Kazakhstan. KU is a Western-style English-language institution nestled on the northern slopes of the Tian Shan Mountains in that Central Asian country, which for 62 years (1929-91) operated under Soviet rule.

A former colleague of mine at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dr. Timothy Barnett, Ph.D., is KU Provost and General Deputy to the President. He invited me to develop and deliver the workshop, and graciously hosted my week in Kazakhstan, my first visit to the country, 11 time zones east of my Alabama residence. My purpose with this article is to share the following with you:

  • My assumptions about KU
  • The alignment of my impressions with reality
  • Lessons learned and their applicability globally

My Assumptions about Kimep University

From the website: KIMEP is a private, non-profit university offering credit-based, North American-style bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree curricula. Undergraduate enrollment shows as 2,737; graduate at 584. I’ve led US private institutions and a regional state university in that same size range. Dr. Barnett provided insight beyond what the website reported. I came to Almaty expecting to see an institution dealing with many of the same issues confronting small and mid-size private and public colleges and universities in the US. Among the issues I anticipated: enrollment falling short of targets; resultant revenue lagging; the preponderance of first-generation students; little engagement with local/regional business and industry; difficulty in attracting (and retaining) faculty; flagging faculty and staff morale; deferred maintenance backlog.

 Alignment of Assumptions with Reality

I wasn’t far off the mark; I affirmed most of my assumptions. Except for richly endowed, highly selective institutions, the conditions and circumstances I anticipated are generally universal. I won’t elaborate on Kimep University’s particular situation. Allow me instead to expand on what surprised me or proved particularly noteworthy.

Leadership — I should not have been surprised that many of the deans, directors, and chairs see their role as something other than as a leader. Instead, manager or administrator may be a better term for their self-perception. Handling the reporting; convening meetings; operating within the budget. I saw little direct evidence of strategic thinking, inspiration and motivation, aspirational visioning. We discussed those elements at length in our workshop.

Although formal education and experiential learning marked my private industry sector advancement into leadership (preceding my higher education career), such is not common in higher education. For example, a faculty member often enters administrative and leadership realms with little direct leadership training and preparation. We addressed the essence, the fundamentals of managing and leading at Kimep:

  • You manage things; you lead people. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
  • Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. General George Patton
  • Lead and inspire people. Don’t try to manage and manipulate them. Inventories can be managed, but people must be led. Ross Perot
  • Leadership is the key to 99 percent of all successful efforts. Erskine Bowles
  • Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better. Bill Bradley
  • Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing. Tom Peters

Too basic? I don’t think so, whether in Kazakhstan or at any college or university.

Advancement and Development – Kazakhstan is still recovering from 62 years under Soviet rule. Generating resources from gifts and donations constitutes a major function of leadership positions here in the US, especially at the executive level. The concept is still foreign to even a Western-style university like Kimep in the former Soviet bloc. I urged senior administration at Kimep to explore whether the time is right to venture into that arena.

Grants and Contracts – During my tenure as Chancellor at The University of Alaska Fairbanks, that state’s Land Grant University, grants and contracts accounted for better than a quarter of our annual operating budget. As with advancement and development, the concept is foreign to Kimep. Once again, I suggested that Kimep executives evaluate the potential for such endeavors.

Community Engagement – I served 2001-2004 as NC State University’s first Vice-Chancellor for Extension, Engagement, and Economic Development. I saw no evidence of such an orientation or function at Kimep University. Almaty, a seemingly vibrant city of approximately two million, served as the country’s capital during the Soviet era. Almaty continues as the major commercial and cultural center of Kazakhstan, as well as its most populous and most cosmopolitan city. Is there an opportunity to further engage with the city and its people in a manner that is reciprocal and meaningful?

Relationships with Business and Industry – Among responsibilities at NC State, my portfolio included Centennial Campus, a 1,700-acre research and engagement campus established to promote intense interaction among the university, business, and industry communities. Kimep University struck me as an enclave onto itself. Again, I urged senior leadership to consider whether now is the time to reach beyond campus.

I made clear to those with whom I interacted that I was not there to provide answers but to pose questions and encourage exploration. Kimep, already acknowledged as Kazakhstan’s top university and a leading institution in Central Asia, aspires to be globally recognized. I hoped our discussion might help lead them to that eventuality.

Lessons Learned and Their Applicability Globally

Allow me to share two conclusions I drew years ago about higher education. First, although not without exception, every university worldwide has essentially the same mission statement. Kimep’s mission: To develop well-educated citizens to improve the quality of life in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and beyond… through teaching, research, learning, community service, and the advancement of knowledge in… business, social sciences, law, languages, and other fields. I am not disparaging the noble cause, just observing that a modern-day university in Central Asia is aligned with the mission of Fairmont State University, where I served as Interim President:  Fairmont State University is a comprehensive, regional university committed to educating global citizen leaders in an environment distinguished by a commitment to excellence, student success, and transformational impact. No, not verbatim, yet the spirit, intent, and noble causes are consonant.

My second conclusion: every university on the planet (well, at least through my review of many university CEO position announcements) seeks the same leader characteristics and requirements. My point in offering my two conclusions is to suggest that aside from the richly endowed selective universities scattered here and there, the global university community shares a common set of problems, opportunities, and dilemmas. Kimep University is no different.

I stressed to the Kimep workshop participants the following universally applicable academic leadership principles:

  • Test every decision and all endeavors against the Mission, which must be clear, concise, and rock solid… even if similar across most universities
  • Recognize that all we do within any university constitutes a Shared Domain – we are all in this together
  • Operate in Common Cause with positive inclination

Leaders think and talk about the solutions. Followers think and talk about the problems. Brian Tracy

  • Perform in a manner that is Vision-oriented

The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet. Reverend Theodore Hesburgh

The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision. Ken Blanchard

  • Strategic Imperatives need to be stated and pursued.

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. Warren Bennis

  • All actions should be (must be) Passion-fueled; Purpose-driven

To have long term success as a coach or in any position of leadership, you have to be obsessed in some way. Pat Riley

A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position. John Maxwell

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Anonymous

  • All actions are best undertaken when they are results-directed
  • And budget-controlled
  • Never remove the Pressure to Perform, underwritten by accountability

I contend that every university, wherever it is located, must follow at least the following seven strategic imperatives. Fidelity to them, doesn’t assure success. Ignoring them does, however, guarantee failure:

  • Nothing is more important than appointing the right people to leadership positions…
  • And preparing, guiding, and enabling them to lead
  • Mission stands as the organizational guiding star… navigate by it
  • There is always room for improvement
  • Surviving and thriving require good decisions and constant action
  • Standing still means falling behind
  • Life and death operate hand-in-hand; not all universities can or will survive

Nature’s laws apply to all universities. In all endeavors, whether among human enterprises or natural ecosystems, there will always be winners and losers. Only the fittest thrive and excel. As much as some might refuse to accept, Nature assures that to the victor goes the spoils.

Summary Reflections

I accepted my Kimep University assignment with trepidation, to no small extent fearing that I could offer little to a university in a country I had never visited. Yet, I found fulfillment, exhilaration, and satisfaction in my week on-site. My experience in US-based academic leadership prepared me well for my Central Asia venture. I hope in retrospect that I offered as much as I learned. I am convinced that Kimep is in good senior executive hands. I urged the senior team to accept and embrace the identified strategic imperatives. I’d welcome a chance to return in 2021 to monitor progress and offer continued assistance.

I learned that Kimep University and the institutions of my immediate experience are far more alike than different. All aspire to survive and thrive. All are constrained or empowered by the same basic imperatives. No other factor in the future equation for sustained success (or ultimate failure) is weighted more heavily than leadership.

As universities here in the US (or globally) deal with turbulent seas, these same leadership principles and strategic imperatives will determine, in large part, whether the institution sinks, frantically treads water, or sails smoothly forward. Some will submerge; others will continue flailing. Those with competent leaders have the best chance of hoisting the sails, catching the breeze, and making it to the desired port. Competent leaders are those who embrace these core principles and pursue strategic imperatives… as they work closely with faculty, staff, students, and stakeholders.

Steven JonesDr.  Steve Jones is the President/CEO of Great Blue Heron in Madison Alabama, which is a consulting firm dedicated to applying nature’s wisdom to living, learning, serving, and leading. Dr. Jones also serves on the Advisory Council of Edu Alliance Group. Steve is also well known as a university administrator and has worked in senior higher education positions for over 30 years.

He has been a President and Chancellor at four institutions, Fairmont State University (Interim), Antioch University New England (Campus President) Urbana University in Ohio (President) and The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) (Chancellor).  He is a published author and written in a number of academic publications and journals. He is also a founding board member of the Alabama State Parks Foundation and the Nature Based Leadership Institute.

Growing A President – A Personal Journey, the path less traveled

davisson tom-1By Tom Davisson February 10, 2020 – Who and how a person becomes a university president has always been something of an enigma, and what are their day-to-day activities? The answer is generally as varied as the number of presidents. Here are some profile facts from the 2017 American College President Study from the American Council of Education.

The fact is a modern-day President comes from a wide variety of career tracks, and the position is highly demanding and stressful, which requires the ability to navigate the internal and external worlds addressing students, parents, faculty, industry, politicians, media, and a wide variety of funders. It is not surprising the average tenure of a President is declining.

So why does one aspire to such a time-consuming, and often strenuous position, and what path does one take to achieve such a position? Historically a President was usually filled by a member of the faculty. Since most colleges/universities were started to increase the knowledge of the population, it made sense that members of the academy would be best suited to lead the institution. Occasionally non-faculty would ascend to the position through alternate paths, but that was an exception.

Today we are seeing the model change significantly. As the chart below shows, faculty is still the top recruiting ground however alternative pathways are now routinely used. External candidates such as politicians, business leaders, fundraisers, and marketing professionals are often finalists, as are academic administrators and Dean’s.  The thinking is that the position is not as academically related as it was previously, and new skill sets are now needed. Skills such as fundraising, lobbying, public relations, recruiting, and management skills are critical to a president’s and university’s success.


There is an internal administrative avenue that is often overlooked, and that is the Student Services track in which only 5% of the current President’s held a senior student services position. I can speak personally of such a journey.

Each President has their own unique journey to the position, here is my path. I was a first-generation college student from a lower-income family from a small town in Ohio.  I began my studies at the University of Rio Grande in Ohio in 1968 and graduated in 1972 with a degree in secondary education. While I did have plenty of emotional support from my family, financial support was minimal. Thank goodness for student loans, institutional scholarship dollars, and on-campus employment was available. I was a residence hall counselor for room and board, worked in the bookstore for free used books, a sports editor for the college newspaper, and worked at a local restaurant for free food and pocket money. For many first-generation college students having to work multiple jobs and be a full-time student is a normal way of life and has been that way for generations.

I say this as it laid the groundwork for my professional career. After working for the state on workforce training programs, I was hired by a national higher education organization. I started in the student services area. The position was responsible for student housing, student activities, helping students find p/t employment, etc. I found student services, something I really loved to do.  The majority of trustees and faculty have little understanding of student services and its complexity. Students’ issues range from fear of failure, problems at home, financial, mental health and student services officers are on the front line.

I was fortunate my career path came from this area in which I received promotions become a Dean of Students before moving to an Executive Vice President and eventually a President.

As Dean of Students, I became aware of how little authority I had to make needed changes. How was I going to tell faculty or Registrar to do something I felt needed to happen to help a student? I had the responsibility of assisting students to overcome their obstacles and complete their educational goals, but I had little authority to make needed changes. I was very naïve! So, what was I to do? This is where I began my journey of learning how to request not demand, to implore not threaten, and to be patient. I had to learn to “sell,” not “tell” people. That skill, I was to learn, was going to be one of my best friends throughout my 47-year career in higher education. It allowed me to move up the organizational ladders to VP, SR. VP., Exec. VP. C.O.O., and President.

When finally reaching the position of President, I found these skills to be as, if not more, important than my Student Services days. While I did have the administrative authority to direct people to do my “bidding,” working in Student Services taught me it is much better to “sell” than simply “tell”! Letting people in on the “why,” and allowing them to help me find the “how” has been one of my best tools over the years. These same skills transferred into the new areas of fundraising and the political arena. As a President’s time is split between the issues of internal and external and the experience of a well-rounded leader provides a foundation for success.

That critical lesson was ingrained in me during my Student Services days. So, as Boards of Trustees and search firms look to fill this key position, I strongly recommend they not overlook the answer that may be right in front of them, their Student Services Department.

So, if you are considering a path to a Presidency, think about Student Services as one-stop along that journey. If you are now a President, or in senior leadership, don’t overlook your leaders in your Student Services area. They can give you great insight about your students and their thinking that could help you learn where and how to find more students just like them.


Tom Davisson is a Partner with Edu Alliance Group, Inc a international higher education consultancy firm. He recently retired from Sullivan University System as 30 years, as Executive VP and COO. Prior to joining Sullivan, Tom was President of DeVry University DuPage and Area President of all DeVry Chicago area Campuses.

Tom is one of the leading experts in the area of higher education institutions, bridging the gap between education and the workforce. He has served on and chaired visiting committees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges both in the US and in 5 other countries. He is a Trustee Emeritus the University of Rio Grande in Ohio.

Tom has more than 47 years of experience in senior higher education administration experience. He also serves on numerous non-profit boards.