UK: Academics make the best university leaders

What makes a good university leader? Some people argue that what a university leader needs is primarily high managerial ability allied merely to some acceptable minimum level of technical ability. In contrast, my central argument is that where expert knowledge is the key factor that characterises an organisation's core business, it is expert knowledge that should also be key in the selection of its leader.

The problem is that in recent years the former argument has tended to trump the latter for a variety of reasons.

In many countries, including the UK, universities have been exposed to a range of cumbersome management practices, and academics have experienced the pressures of external accountability and a continuous cycle of performance monitoring and quality audits.

In a review of Tony Blair's era in the journal Nature, Robert May, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, expressed fears that the "extreme growth of bureaucracy - too often masquerading as accountability", has ballooned out of all necessity. The suggestion is that managerial systems have become a means in themselves, rather than a means to an end.

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 interesting here to consider what happens in other comparable organisations. For example, how likely is it that a major law firm would hire a non-lawyer (or an unsuccessful lawyer) as head of firm? Very unlikely, I would argue. Power always resides with the lawyers, the specialists.

Consulting firms also share our collegial culture, indeed universities often call on firms such as McKinsey's to help with the recruitment of leaders. Some recruiters have placed managers and occasionally those from a non-university background into vice-chancellorships. However, be assured that McKinsey's would never promote into a leadership position anyone from outside consulting or even their firm; and, furthermore, only those thought to be among the best consultants would be considered.

In a similar vein, we would expect our university's human resource director to be an expert in human resources, our chief financial officer to specialise in financial matters, and our chefs to know something about cooking.

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

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.

An administration beset with burdensome managerial processes will likely have a negative impact on the productivity of researchers. Ultimately, those who can, will leave for another institution, or country, and the best students, as in the past, will refuse to enter academe.

This is inefficient for both students and nations' economies, especially during times of financial crises and climatic challenges.

* Dr Amanda Goodall is Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School. She is author of Socrates In the Boardroom: Why research universities should be led by top scholars, 2009, Princeton University Press.