GLOBAL: The outsider as university leader

Management is management - does it really matter if the person running a university has not risen through its ranks or has only a passing familiarity with the work of its staff? In the business world, chief executives will move from one industry to another. The same is true of the public service with career managers shifting from one government department to another. But in higher education there is a strong feeling that the heads of the world's universities and colleges - the vice-chancellors and presidents - should come from within the sector. That they should have a track record at least in academia and preferably in university and research management.

There are of course notable exceptions. One of the most celebrated was the appointment of John Hood to lead Oxford University. In a sense, he was a double outsider - a New Zealander appointed from outside Oxford's usual circle of likely candidates, and a man whose management experience was gained for the most part in the business world.

Clearly there are times when a university's governing body will think outside the square when appointing a leader. As a Universities UK spokesperson told University World News: "Historically, having an academic background has always been important. The reality nowadays requires vice-chancellors to have a whole range of skills in order to be effective leaders of what is a highly successful sector."

Dr Amanda Goodall has studied the issue closely. In fact, the Leverhulme Fellow at the Warwick Business School and Visiting Fellow in the Socioeconomic Institute of Zurich University is about to publish a book on the subject - Socrates in the Boardroom: Why research universities should be led by top scholars**.

Noting that her work focuses on research universities, rather than teaching-led institutions, she says there is a strong view among university bosses themselves that outsiders should not lead research universities: "I interviewed 26 leaders in universities for my forthcoming book and overwhelmingly, reactions were against placing non-academics into VC positions.

"Interestingly, when I interviewed Richard Sykes, former head of Imperial College London, he had no doubts about his ability to lead the college. Although he is a businessman, he is also a cited scientist. Yet, more recently he told the Financial Times that putting a business person in charge was 'easy to say and difficult to do'."

Goodall argues that universities are knowledge-intensive organisations. Because their core business is knowledge and the core workers are experts, they need a leader who understands their work. She compares universities to law or accounting firm: "Can you ever imagine a top law firm placing a non-lawyer into the top job? Or an accountancy firm putting a journalist in as CEO?"

The world's top research universities are in the United States and the likes of Stanford and MIT would never appoint a business person as head, Goodall says. "These are the best institutions in the world. We should take our lead from them. Instead of putting people who know nothing about universities in to lead them, we should be focusing on encouraging the best scholars to become leaders, and we should be offering high-quality management and leadership training to enable scholars to perform these roles adequately."

Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Tom Traves, says Canadian universities seldom appoint presidents who do not have a track record in academia and in university management.

Typically, Traves says the choice is someone with substantial political experience, perhaps as a cabinet member of a provincial or federal government - an experience which obviously prepares them for the public dimension of the job of dealing with government funding departments as well as with public stakeholders.

Traves is president of Dalhousie University and says such appointees must also demonstrate a profound respect and appreciation for the fundamental mandate of the university concerning teaching and research, or they will never enjoy the support of the academy.

A senior university manager interviewed for this story takes that point further. He says university leaders must have a passion for education. In fact, they should aim to take tertiary education to a new level in terms of its national and international contribution. There are clearly big question marks as to whether someone outside the higher education sector will have that passion.

Meanwhile, Traves says Canadian appointments of people from the business sector are rare: "Largely, I suppose, because of the different organisational cultures which operate in business and university milieus, the former typically being a command culture and the latter being a legislative culture. Obviously exceptional individuals can surmount their backgrounds, but this can be a challenge."

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.

** Socrates in the Boardroom: Why research universities should be led by top scholars, published by Princeton University Press, forthcoming.