Some views on administrators and academics as university leaders
Geoffrey Williams has recently 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’ more exclusive approach. All of this echoes an earlier post on the issue of whether academics do indeed make the best university leaders and in particular why it is unhelpful to focus solely on this issue of who is better equipped to lead:
…if a university simply disregards the importance of 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.
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.