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Deltas, Not Pipelines

A more organic way to develop academic leaders

By Jerry Schnepp, W. John Koolage, M. Elise Radina, and Jolie A. Sheffer

October 20, 2022

For at least a decade, academic institutions have sought to establish leadership development pipelines similar to those found in corporations. Following this model, administrators often identify faculty who possess the skills, talents, or critical perspectives for leadership positions, then encourage and support them as they move into those roles. Administrators generally expect those faculty leaders to continually devote more time to administrative appointments, such as chair of a department or an associate dean, and less to teaching and research until their efforts focus almost entirely on administration. This model is predicated on the idea that all leaders want to move out of research and teaching, which turns off many potential leaders who want new challenges but are not committed to a solely administrative pathway. A better model for advancing leaders in academia looks less like a pipeline, with a rigidly defined route, and more like a river delta, where leadership opportunities and resources become available organically where they will be most effective.

One problem with the pipeline model is that universities are structured very differently from corporations. The pipeline model is designed for the hierarchical organization of a corporation, in which potential leaders typically receive gradual and incremental promotions and short-term opportunities to prove their capabilities. By contrast, academic institutions have rich shared governance structures that distribute authority. In academia, there is an accepted, if not always practiced, norm of both top-down and bottom-up exchange and accountability, as we outlined in a Liberal Education article earlier this year. In the organizational structure of a university, leadership roles typically require a set commitment, such as a three- to five-year term.

An even more fundamental distinction can be found between the typical dispositions, expectations, and skill sets of faculty members and corporate employees. Early-career faculty members, who have prepared for careers as educators and researchers, often do not anticipate the shift to an administrative role. Many faculty members who accept post-tenure leadership positions have yet to develop the skills of middle managers or corporate leaders, whose careers gradually developed in a system with a clearly defined path and expectations for advancement. Instead, these faculty members have experience in designing pedagogy, managing classroom dynamics, and advancing a research agenda. But not all these skills are directly relevant to the role of department chair, which institutions typically use as a testing ground when they are preparing faculty members for administrative leadership positions.

While the department chair role used to be a rotating appointment shared among all faculty for a short period of time, the role is now more frequently a middle management, full-time administrative position focused on assessment, budgeting, and human resources issues.

Accepting a chair position often means a significant redirection of effort, a shift in accountability, and a transformation of professional identity. Currently, most university leadership programs do not focus on developing the needed management skills in advance, which can lead to challenging transitions and sometimes create a mentality that presumes an adversarial relationship between faculty and administrators. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We believe the pipeline model contributes to these challenges by turning the role of chair into an identity rather than a set of flexible skills. The chair position, in many cases, has become the turning point for career advancement. For academics who value autonomy and the freedom to explore, the choice to enter the leadership pipeline is often unappealing. Senior administrators who fail to recognize this constraint will continue to struggle to match the institution’s needs with new leaders.

Senior administrators should recognize that faculty members who focus on research and teaching have already honed valuable leadership skills such as designing meeting agendas, supervising student employees, and adjusting the unit’s mission statement. In addition, content knowledge can have great situational value in leadership opportunities. For example, consider the potential for accounting faculty to provide an internal audit or epidemiologists to advise on-campus health policy. If faculty with these abilities face fewer obstacles in learning administrative skills, such as budgeting and assessment, and can test their leadership skills via low-commitment or shorter-term roles, universities could develop a deeper bench of administrative talent.

Therefore, instead of a pipeline, academic leadership development should function like the National Geographic Society’s definition of a river delta, fanning outward and forming “a series of smaller, shallower channels, called distributaries, that branch off from the mainstream of the river.” In this model, leadership is not piped in but organically emerges, redistributes, and self-nourishes. The delta has multiple tributaries and depths. At the fan, it’s shallow, but that’s where it has the greatest reach and spread. It’s an ecosystem that self-balances. It constantly shifts to accommodate changes in the environment. Deltas are essential for distributing resources and making the surrounding areas most productive. While the pipeline model focuses on how to direct selected individuals to pre-existing “leadership” positions, the delta model fosters an environment that presents opportunities for many kinds of leaders to emerge.

With a distributed leadership development model, faculty members would be able to leverage their strengths and intentionally allocate time to leadership roles and activities when and where they can be most effective. Rather than being pushed through a linear pipeline toward administrative roles, academic leadership development would explicitly involve more of what Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, refers to as a “jungle gym” of career development, where paths are not set or prescribed. That might look like leadership of a task force, clearly defined initiative, or strategic committee, rather than a full-time, multiyear position. These kinds of leadership roles grow out of an opportunity or challenge, like building a new program, and conclude when the task is accomplished. Another example is a collaborative leadership system in which one’s role on a leadership team might scale dynamically to meet the needs of the project.

Offering lower commitment levels for leadership would alleviate some pressure. Instead of being locked into a singular leadership path for several years, individuals might nimbly serve in the role for which they are best suited at various times in their academic careers and as different challenges emerge. Dedicated researchers need not sacrifice passion to serve their institutions. Rather, they should be able to continually redistribute their efforts based on time, resources, and opportunities. For example, a faculty member committed to instructional pedagogy might spearhead a curricular redesign or launch an integrative learning initiative for the entire college or university. Once that project is completed, the individual could return to the classroom with an expanded sense of possibility for student-focused learning across campus or shift into a new administrative role that further builds skills, experience, and passion.

Higher education needs to rethink how it makes leaders. A leadership development model that allows for greater and more flexible participation places value on the skill sets faculty members bring to the institution and cultivates a greater depth of potential leaders from which the institution can draw during times of need, innovation, and change.


  • Jerry Schnepp

    Jerry Schnepp

    Jerry Schnepp is an associate professor and chair of the Computer Science Department at Judson University.

  • W. John Koolage

    W. John Koolage

    W. John Koolage is a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy and the director of general education at Eastern Michigan University. He is also an affiliated faculty member of the Environmental Science and Society Program.

  • M. Elise Radina

    M. Elise Radina

    M. Elise Radina is associate dean of the graduate school at Miami University. She is also an affiliate and steering committee member for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

  • Jolie Sheffer

    Jolie A. Sheffer

    Jolie A. Sheffer is a professor of English and American culture studies and the director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society at Bowling Green State University.