The Imperfect University: who should lead universities?

Academics make the best university leaders

Or do they? For the first piece in this series I thought it would be appropriate to revisit and develop a post from early in 2011 on leadership in universities. The focus here is very much on the who rather than the how of university leadership – that’s a much bigger topic we’ll come back to in due course.

Amanda Goodall, who has done a lot of work on this, recently published a brief piece on why academics make the best university leaders. It’s a powerful argument and it is difficult to disagree with Goodall’s thesis – top universities do need top academics to lead them. Goodall’s recent book, Socrates in the Boardroom, makes this quite compelling case in more detail.

And yet. There is a suggestion here that it is sufficient simply to appoint a top academic. That, somehow, everything will come good if only the university can find the right leader, someone with the strongest academic credentials, with the most citations:

Why should scholars lead universities? In short, it is because the knowledge acquired through having been a career academic, provides the necessary wisdom to make the right decisions when that person becomes a leader.

The core business of universities is research and teaching. My research suggests that in specialist organisations, such as universities, experts not managers make the best leaders and that the performance of universities improves if they are led by presidents, vice-chancellors or rectors who are outstanding scholars.

Take Queen Mary, University of London. It went from 48th position in the Times Higher Education RAE ranking in 2001 to 13th in 2008. Who led Queen Mary? Adrian Smith, one of the most distinguished academic leaders in post at the time.

My research shows that the higher up a university is ranked globally, the more likely it is that the citations of its president will also be high. In other words, better universities appoint better researchers to lead them. Interestingly, US universities select more distinguished academics as leaders compared with universities in Europe and the rest of the world.

It is not only current performance that is affected. The research shows that the higher a president’s lifetime citations, the more likely it is that the university will improve its performance in future research assessment exercises. Why?

Leaders who are scholars have a deep understanding of the core business and, therefore, are more likely to create the right conditions under which other scholars will thrive. Similarly, professional managers will create the necessary conditions for other managers. These are not interchangeable situations.

The outstanding scholar leader is therefore arguably necessary to create the conditions for success but might not be sufficient. Goodall also argues that:

An administration beset with burdensome managerial processes will likely have a negative impact on the productivity of researchers

Again, agreed, but if a university simply disregards the importance of developing a first class administration to support first class teaching and world-leading research then it will end up with disorganised, chaotic and expensive processes which hinder rather than help – it is this scenario which has the most negative impact on the productivity of researchers. It’s like building an excellent football team but paying no attention to the pitch, stadium or finances. You might perform well for a time but not sustainably. And sooner or later those star players will get fed up with washing their own kit, selling programmes and clearing up the stands after the game.

There is also the suggestion here that if only the “power” of the manager could be reduced then academics would be free to deliver on the core business:

The increase in managerial processes is correlated with a rise in the number of university managers: between the years 2003-04 and 2008-09, the number of managers employed in British universities increased from 10,740 to 14,250 (up 33%). During the same period, academic staff rose in numbers from 106, 900 to 116,495 (up 10%) and students rose from 220, 0180 to 239,605 (up 9%), according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that specialists in universities – academics – should be expected to concede power to generalists, or managers.

The category of managers identified here makes up only around 7-8% of all non-academic staff in universities and the HESA data doesn’t reflect differences in the way institutions record different kinds of professional staff. For example, some universities will now describe the most junior non-academic staff, who might previously have been categorised as secretaries, as managers, simply because of general moves away from more traditional nomenclature.

However, the key question here is what are these managers doing? In the best institutions, their primary concern is to support and encourage the best academics to do what they do best, to minimise the distractions and to reduce the unwelcome and bureaucratic incursions of the state into academic life.

Top leaders need top lieutenants too. Leaders need to be free to lead and therefore need to focus on the core business as Goodall says. To enable this to happen, the management needs to be strong, supportive and effective. Not dominant but a key element of the infrastructure for success.

Two other views on administrators and academics as university leaders

Geoffrey Williams has argued that administrators cannot deliver enlightened management in universities. According to Williams only academics can do so:

Administration, like death and taxes, has always been here. Universities need enlightened management; the reality is that only faculty can provide this. Universities also require and employ professional managers. The situation is similar to that in hospitals, another world that requires great dedication from its staff. As everyone knows, if you leave a hospital solely in the hands of professional administrators, the patient is forgotten. Likewise, if you leave a university solely in the hands of a professional manager, there is a risk that both students and research will no longer be to the fore.

David Allen offers a rather different perspective:

Only about one in three employees of universities are academics, but given the academic purpose of universities they tend to have the biggest input in shaping the job and person description, at least in general terms, for VC and other leadership appointments. I take it as a given that senior managers in universities, even if they are not academics, must be able to empathise with academic values and to create strong, positive relations with academic colleagues. Universities are not and should not be command and control organisations. Managers need to proceed by persuasion and the force of the evidenced better argument. Creativity, tension, individuality and resistance to change are often embedded in the academic DNA. Academics have many and varied strategies to bypass managerial processes and edicts which they perceive to inhibit their activities and it is clearly more difficult for a manager who lacks academic credibility to achieve acceptance. A VC/DVC/PVC with an academic pedigree starts higher up the grid and has more of a reservoir of goodwill when difficult choices have to be made. This needs to be balanced with the changing requirements for Vice-Chancellors to be credible with business, not least in relation to fundraising. Academic credibility needs perhaps to be balanced more with other requirements for senior management success rather than as a sine qua non and a barrier to entry to the competition for otherwise well qualified candidates. This would increase the talent pool available for consideration from both within and outwith the sector.

Allen argues sensibly for an open minded approach to recruiting university leaders rather than Williams’ (and Goodall’s) more exclusive approach. All of this suggests it is perhaps unhelpful to focus solely on this issue of who is better equipped to lead and look at the broader picture of how the conditions for institutional success are created, developed and sustained. And there are examples of a number of institutions, admittedly a handful, where vice-chancellors have been appointed from non-academic backgrounds.

Not a solo effort

So, whilst I might remain mildly annoyed at the suggestion that someone like me could only ever offer benighted misdirection to a university, what really irks about all of this is the idea of mutual exclusivity: whatever the background of the leader, s/he will not be acting alone and will have a team of colleagues working with her/him to deliver success. Universities may well often best be led by leading academics but no one individual, whatever their background, is going to be able to do everything on their own. Universities are just too big, complex and diverse.