UK: Top scholars should lead research universities

Research universities should be led by brilliant scholars and not merely
talented managers, says Warwick University fellow Amanda Goodall. It is not sufficient for leaders to have management skills alone, Goodall states in a new book.

In Socrates in the Boardroom: why research universities should be led by top scholars*, Goodall challenges the orthodoxy of "managerialism" which began in the Thatcher era and continued during the Blair decade.

"This research is motivated in part by the recent emphasis on 'managerialism' in universities and more widely in the public sectors in a number of countries," she says.

Using a mix of empirical research of 100 universities and interviews with 26 of their leaders in the UK and the US, she concludes that institutions led by highly regarded academics perform better.

Goodall gives four reasons why leaders should be able scholars. They are more credible to academic colleagues and appear more legitimate which, in turn, extends a leader's power and influence. A top scholar provides a leader with a deep understanding and expert knowledge about the core business of universities which informs decision-making and strategic priorities. The leader sets the quality threshold: "The standard bearer has first set the standard that is to be enforced."

Finally, she says a leader who is a researcher sends a signal to the faculty that he or she shares their scholarly values, and that research success is important to the institution. It also transmits an external signal to potential job candidates, donors, alumni and students.

When Goodall asked Patrick Harker, University of Delaware President, if non-academics could lead research universities, he replied: "To be the leader of a jazz group you have to be able to play. That is true of higher education as well. You might not be in the classroom or laboratory now but it helps if you have been there."

One UK vice-chancellor told her: "A successful international businessman should be appointed as CEO into an international business. An editor of the Financial Times will have been a competent journalist. A vice-chancellor of a university must have been an academic to understand the culture. Universities are profoundly intellectual and can only be led by an academic."

Eric Thomas, Vice-chancellor of Bristol University, compared leadership in higher education with other sectors. He suggested that Britain's National Health Service had suffered because it placed managers with no medical background into leadership posts.

Thomas added: "It is healthy for the sector that most university leaders have their roots in academe. Furthermore, most will argue that higher education is one of the UK's success stories - hardly overpowering evidence of a leadership deficit."

Goodall thinks her findings will be of interest to other organisations outside academe such as law and accounting firms, the arts and sports, and any other knowledge-based business. She also hopes they will reach politicians and educational policy makers.

* Socrates in the Boardroom by Amanda Goodall, Princeton University Press