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July 2001
Volume 8 • Number 3


Factors Related to Employee Perception of Their Leaders’ Commitment to Implement Continuous Quality Improvement

by Lee Jones, Florida State University

The difficult role of today’s leaders in higher education is to look carefully at the critical processes of the university and define a clear vision and mission. The role employees play is significant in shaping the mission of the university. Some universities have focused their quality initiatives without the benefit of feedback and support from all levels of the academy. The purpose of this study was to investigate factors related to how frontline employees within a large Midwestern university perceive their leaders’ commitment toward implementing continuous quality improvement on the job. Investigating these factors provides a framework for how leaders and frontline employees might come to create a shared vision for organizational outcomes. The major findings of this study suggest that leaders within higher education will have to alter the way they manage to ensure that a climate is developed that will include the knowledge and skills of all employees within the organization.

Key words: frontline employees, leadership, quality


There is growing unrest about the quality of higher education from local, state, and federal levels of government. Poorly prepared college graduates, uninformed professionals, outdated instructional methods, dysfunctional workflow processes, and leader unwillingness and inability to change are just a few of the challenges that higher education is experiencing. Other challenges include a major dispute over the mission of the university; meeting the needs of a more diverse student population; the mistrust that many external constituencies have of the university; and fiscal exigency (Cornesky, et al. 1991). There is a major erosion of confidence in the leadership and the quality of higher education in this country. Respect for colleges and universities is in grave danger.
Universities are generally seen as large enterprises that have assets in excess of a billion dollars. The faculty and administrative staffs of America’s universities are the largest group of intellectuals in any formal educational setting. Although universities spend millions of dollars for faculty and administrative salaries, universities are still an enigma and a paradox (Anderson and Meyerson 1992). Many within the university do not know where the university is headed. The problems within universities are not necessarily with faculty/staff salaries, but rather with the university’s unwillingness to respond to the needs of society and leaders who are unable to respond to change.

In the past decade, higher education seemingly settled into a conglomerate of intellectual islands where the educational and social needs of a variety of students were met. During the beginning of the 1980s, higher education enjoyed what many in the academy called “fiscal flexibility” (Anderson and Meyerson 1992). The academy had the luxury of sincere collegiality and expanding budgets that resulted in an increase in academic and administrative departmental spending and a leisurely workplace. Universities had no real or pressing issues that threatened their future. In fact, many of the faculty and administrators saw the university as a safe haven where accountability for the academic and administrative performance was not an issue (Selin 1991). The university functioned practically without worry of major external influences.

Like many other profit and nonprofit organizations, higher education has been plagued with criticism about the lack of administrative and academic leadership to manage the academy, given the major transformation that is occurring (Lewis and Smith 1994). Problems with administrative leaders range from their inability to actually manage the changing organizational dynamics to operating a dysfunctional system that is based on fear. The lack of vision, insight, and administrative skill contributes to the lack of formal and informal management training (Martin 1994).

During the rapid growth of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s, unskilled or inefficient managers set the stage for long-term problems associated with strategic planning and development, fiscal management, and organizational development (Cornesky and Andrew 1992). Administrators without leadership qualities or visionary ability generally yield to their fear of the unknown when confronted with change. These and other problems with higher education’s leadership affect how employees view the organization and the level of trust they have in their leaders’ ability to manage them. Keith and Girling (1991) suggest that universities can no longer ignore the public’s criticism of their leadership as a mere expression of “intellectual shallowness.”
Deming (1986), Juran (1988), and Crosby (1990) have been a few of the leading pioneers and scholars in the quality movement. They offer theoretical foundations and many practical techniques on how the university can be transformed. Implementing the quality techniques offered by these scholars will lead to self-directed organizations that have: a defined mission; organized processes for implementing goals and objectives; value-driven leaders who believe in the human potential and who makes things happen;
commitment to customer satisfaction; and the effective means for ensuring quality throughout the organization (Bonstingl 1993).

There are at least four major assumptions that are the basis for why universities and public colleges must change and consider implementing continuous quality improvement initiatives (Lewis and Smith 1994). These are as follows:

  1. Continuous quality improvement builds on the traditions of concern for quality that has characterized higher education in the United States and throughout the world.
  2. Continuous quality improvement recognizes the need for the continuous development of the people who are a part of the higher education system, whether faculty, staff, or students.
  3. Continuous quality improvement involves principles applicable to institutional administration and classroom teaching, thus bridging the gap between traditionally separate parts of the system.
  4. Continuous quality improvement helps universities meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.