GLOBAL: Huge demands on today's vice-chancellors

It's a bird, it's a's Super-scholar! Leadership of universities today, especially large, complex and transforming institutions, is hugely demanding. To succeed, experts say, a vice-chancellor, principal, rector or president must be a strategic visionary, a change-manager and negotiator, fund-raiser, public figure and the bold, jet-setting workaholic chief executive of an unwieldy organisation staffed with critical minds and big egos. Ideally, he or she should also be a respected academic.

Not surprisingly, combinations of such qualities in one individual are difficult to come by. So universities have turned to head-hunters and the world in their search for leaders for what are in reality major corporations that spend billions of dollars, employ thousands of staff, have a high public profile and operate in a competitive global environment.

Gone are the days of crusty academics in ivory towers cutting up a generous public funding pie over high tea. "Higher education institutions", said a Universities UK spokesperson, "are highly complex businesses with an annual turnover of over £100 million (US$147million), and are now operating in an increasingly competitive global market."

Among the talents and skills identified in recent years by vice-chancellors as critical to their work are strategic leadership, management experience, the ability to understand and operate effectively in local, national and international environments, and the academic credentials and experience needed to understand a university and earn the respect of its scholars.

It is hard, stressful work which some vice-chancellors say requires genuine leadership ability more than just good management skills. And with the internationalisation of higher education proceeding apace, possessing international experience has become a plus.

"Vice-chancellors," said Professor Brian O'Connell, head of South Africa's University of the Western Cape, "must be strong and strategic leaders. They must accept a public role. They must be incredibly well-connected, especially with respect to donors.

"[They] must also be very good with people. University leaders need to be builders, bringing people together and attracting people. They must be resilient, not display ego and understand that in all probability they will be in eternal contestation with clever, forceful individuals each convinced that their programme is the most significant in the organisation."

These dynamics, O'Connell said, make sturdy strategies essential: "A strategic framework facilitates decision-making - without one you are subject to the vagaries of clamouring voices, and whichever is the most forceful will win the day. A vice-chancellor is protected by the clarity of a strategic perspective created in a collaborative process, not imposed."

Last month, applications closed for the job of vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria, one of the UK's newest universities. They were looking for someone to lead with conviction and skill: "a person with an exceptional record of delivery and change management, communication and team-working skills who would demonstrate strategic thinking, a strong intellect and personal track record that will command the respect of all our stakeholders".

Graham Ewing, 'principal' at EQI Global, a recruitment company that has helped fill many senior higher education positions, has said that today's leaders needed to be smart, able to understand and organise complex systems and deliver on a plan, have excellent relationship skills, vision, the ability to calculate risk and the courage to make difficult decisions.

Alice Sena Lamptey, head of the Working Group on Higher Education at the Ghana-based Association for the Development of Education in Africa, identified vision as a critical quality of vice-chancellors today.

"As in the business sector, university leaders need to have long antennae with which they scan the environment, understanding how internal and external environments are changing and how best their institution might respond," Lamptey explained.

Sir Graeme Davies, whose career has spanned four vice-chancellorships including current leadership of the University of London, said that being an engineer was likely connected to his interest in management - and it was probably no coincidence that many universities were headed by engineers.

Running a university, Davies argued, was somewhat like being a design engineer who must identify a need, conduct an analysis, consider how to manufacture the solution and manage the contract. Vice-chancellors, like engineers, had to pull together different streams of work. "It is intellectually extremely interesting and rewarding, and secondly it is actually very creative," he told New Zealand Education Review.

Also critical today is the ability to raise funds. While this has long been a key factor in the success of university presidents in America, where institutions depend heavily on donations - in 2007, philanthropy comprised 40% of Harvard's budget - the ability to secure funding has become increasingly important elsewhere in the developed and developing worlds.

As Newsweek pointed out in August, when Cambridge University appointed former Yale provost Professor Alison Richard as vice-chancellor five years before, her selection was part of a 10-year, $2 billion development plan "and the university publicly stressed the fact that in her previous job she'd overseen a major strengthening of Yale's financial position".

Fund-raising helps to cover what are sometimes enormous salaries. As our article on university bosses' salaries reports in this edition of University World News, remuneration packages can go as high as $2.8 million in the US, and packages in excess of $1 million are not uncommon among that country's private, research-intensive institutions.

Professor Philip Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, said: "University presidents are more and more being called on to be a combination of CEOs and fund-raisers, especially in the United States."

But Altbach added: "This is in my view a serious problem since top university leadership tends to ignore the academic values that drive all successful universities."