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.

Creating Campus International Allies is Essential in Challenging Times

Widener U International

By Kandy Turner, Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad and Dr. Denise Gifford, Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania.

As the number of U.S. high school students stagnates, universities are looking to international students to fill the seats. However, competition is high, and international students are savvy customers who weigh the options in the U.S. and abroad. More countries are entering the global higher education market and enticing students away from the U.S., and other countries, like those in the Middle East, are cutting back on scholarships abroad and opening more institutions at home. The latest Open Doors report shows that first-time international enrollees are down 3% from 2016 (Open Doors, 2018), and all signs point to this being a trend that will continue. A perceived lack of U.S. professional opportunities post-graduation for International student graduates will likely accelerate the downturn, particularly with tightened immigration regulations looming. Therefore, a focus on retention of every International student is critical.

Institutions have long measured retention rates vis-à -vis Tinto’s Theory of Departure (1975) but only recently have they begun looking at retention rates for international students. Literature on the needs of international students are plentiful, but research on how institutions are meeting those needs are scant. Services for international students historically meant basic immigration advising, orientation, and perhaps some help adjusting to the culture and life in the U.S., and, if they were lucky, the occasional outing. Fortunately, universities are beginning to expand their services to provide more support for academic writing and adjustment to U.S. classroom culture, peer mentoring and other programs to connect new international students with current international or domestic students, help understanding medical insurance, a wide array of social activities, and even support for spouses and families. However, even this is not enough. It is crucial to develop allies among colleagues and students on campus who understand and embrace international students and can help create a broadly welcoming campus climate. The challenge is that current staff and faculty may have limited international experience and limited involvement with international students, and therefore may not be quick to buy-in to the need to provide additional or altered services to this population. For a variety of reasons, many outstanding professors may have had little global exposure, and this lack of experience by faculty may cause them to, unintentionally, not understand the challenges inherent in speaking and studying in a second or third language amidst adapting and residing in a totally new culture. University staff also may have limited International experience and can be less comfortable with International students outside of the necessary but limited professional interaction. Creating a mix of opportunities for campus community members to interact with students from outside our borders is the foundation of creating International campus allies.

International Student Retention is a Campus-Wide Responsibility

At Widener, creating allies for our International students starts with a message that retention is everyone’s job and retention is the goal of every meeting with every student, something the university’s president emphasizes regularly. In student affairs, retention efforts have focused on connecting international students to the university throughout of class activities, time with faculty and staff outside the classroom, and connections with U.S. peers. The Office of International Student Services (ISS) staffed with a Director, an Assistant Director, and part-time secretary hosts over 30 programs a semester. Participation is not limited to international students; in fact, U.S. students are encouraged to attend, mingle and develop friendships with the international students during these programs. In past years, domestic students at Widener missed out on the opportunity to mix with International students in out-of-class activities whereas now every program is planned for a mix of domestic and International students so that each become more culturally adept by interacting with the other.

Student International Allies: E-Mentor Program and Orientation Group Interface

The creation of campus allies is intentional and starts before the students even arrive with an e-mentor program. Current students, international and domestic, are paired with incoming students, a student peer mentor, with whom they communicate regularly over the summer. Those conversations often result in strong friendships that continue into the students’ lives on campus. At the on-campus orientation, the international students join two other pre-orientation programs which draw primarily domestic students. They attend a picnic together and meet the same groups again during Welcome Week for a lunch cruise along the Delaware River. The students from these pre-Orientation programs; Project Lead and 1821 Experience are prepped by their staff leaders, the Office of Civic Engagement and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, to engage with the international students. Students in each group are new to the university and merging these diverse groups early seems a natural fit, and everyone benefits. The local students, many of whom have never left the metro area, become more aware of the world, and the international students have a peer to help them navigate the transition. By spending time with the international students, the local students become allies in the effort to internationalize the campus. They tend to spread the word, bring their friends to events, and introduce more U.S. students to the international students. International students are also encouraged to attend events sponsored by Student Life and other departments, and the Office of International Students sends out a weekly e-newsletter with a list of events happening around campus and in the community. Other departments benefit from the free advertising, and the international students are more likely to attend because the ISS office encouraged them to do so.

Campus Staff and Faculty: Allies Created by Anywhere PA

One of the strongest ally building programs ISS offers is a signature, high impact practice program called “Anywhere PA.” Keenly aware that most international students never set foot inside an American home, ISS staff decided to ask some of their colleagues if they would be willing to host a small group of international students in their home and then show them around their community. Staff and faculty on campus who had already shown support for the international community were the first to agree. The results were fantastic. The students relished the glimpse into U.S. daily life—particularly the pets and children of the Widener employee—and enjoyed exploring different sections of Philadelphia and the suburbs. Students participate in whatever the family typically finds enjoyable during evening and weekend hours. Activities have included watching a Phillies game with family members while cheering along with the group and eating traditional game day snack fare. Decorating picture frames with glue guns and décor items from the region was the activity at another home where crafts are a common activity and when finished students posed for a group picture with the host and inserted it in their handmade frame for a permanent memento of the day. All in all, the faculty and staff appreciate hosting the students in their homes and getting to know them. It allows them to be on a personal name basis with a group of International students, but it also makes them better allies. The program has continued to expand. More and more faculty and staff have served as hosts with equally positive results. Now, ISS staff plugs the “Anywhere PA” program at every available opportunity, and there is a waitlist of faculty and staff eager to participate in future years.

Increased Campus Allies Fuel Enhanced International Focus

Broader conversations are beginning across campus, and more stakeholders are coming to the table. This year Widener internally formed an International Taskforce with faculty and administrators across campus to work on projects related to international students and education aboard efforts on campus. Membership is pulled broadly around campus and includes student affairs, enrollment management, admissions, faculty, and graduate programs. The goals of the task force are twofold: to work on projects related to internationalization and to spread the word about international initiatives already happening on campus. Education abroad experiences for students are expanding as U.S. students increasingly expect to have a global or cultural experience as part of their undergraduate education. Widener recently joined the National Student Exchange which offers opportunities for exchange within the U.S. (including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands) and Canada. For a student who is attending university within 50 miles of their Pennsylvania home, a semester experience at a university in Montana or Arizona can be an extraordinarily different cultural experience, albeit still within the US. The ISS Director, who also serves as the study abroad coordinator, is developing an enhanced offering of semester-long study abroad programs, and the Office of Global Engagement, headed by the Dean of Students, is offering more support for faculty to do faculty-led short-term programs, including to a Widener-owned property in Costa Rica. These efforts are crucial to recruitment and retention efforts.

Students retain at institutions where they feel supported and that they matter, and as tuition prices continue to rise, students are expecting more services in exchange for the price tag. At Widener, the retention of every International student is the goal, and this means ensuring the personal touch, supporting each students, listening to them, improving and modifying services and programs to meet their educational and developmental goals, and building allies across campus to ensure we have a welcoming international climate during this challenging time.

Kandy K. TurnerKandy Turner is Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad at Widener University in Pennsylvania . Kandy has 12 years of experience in International Education. She serves as PDSO/RO, coordinator of the National Student Exchange, and adviser for international students and scholars as well as study abroad students. Kandy is pursuing her doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership, and her dissertation focuses on international student identity development.



Denise Gifford for article

Dr. Denise Gifford joined Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania in  2010 upon her return from International Student Affairs work in the Middle East.  Previously she served as the first woman Dean of Students at Zayed University dedicated to the higher education of Emirati women located in Dubai & Abu Dhabi. Her Ed.D is in Political Higher Education Policy & Evaluation, University of Kentucky and is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.



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