Enlarging our insights into global university presidents

Global university presidents play a huge role in running institutions, designing academic work, contributing to social affairs and engaging internationally. Yet most of what the world knows about university presidents has focused on leaders at ‘world-class’ institutions, as defined using bibliometrics.

In our new book we reveal the value of taking a much larger view and zooming out to investigate presidents from a broader array of countries and institutions.

Global University President Leadership presents in-depth discussions with leaders from 19 globally focused universities from 13 countries and draws on an international symposium and survey of existing research.

We discover there is no uniform path into the presidency, that presidents and their executive teams deploy a complex tapestry of tactics to lead, and that they are playing an increasing role not just in spearheading academic initiatives but in contributing to much broader social issues.

What matters to international presidents?

Reading the interviews reveals a consensus among presidents about the importance of communication, the irrelevance of academic discipline to leadership and the value of global collaboration. These are all vital points given ongoing campus closures, generational turnover in leadership and disruptions to international travel and collaboration.

In their own words the presidents shed light on the value of relationships to high-level leadership. They relate lobbying and brokering with a wide range of stakeholders, affirming the importance of dealing with a myriad of uncertain externalities.

They discuss the vital role of communication in coordinating external situations and pressures, engaging in the strategic design of their university, building plans and speaking to and interacting with large numbers of staff and stakeholders.

Although they run institutions structured by academic disciplines, presidents are clearly fascinated by interdisciplinarity. Most of the presidents reflect deeply on how innovative and dynamic institutional structures can impel not just better financial returns but also new kinds of thinking, partnering and contribution.

They relate the importance of intertwining disciplinary viewpoints in ways that enable students to better understand complexities. Many remarked on the importance of complexity and uncertainty. Through a range of mechanisms they seek to create interdisciplinary communities which more easily synchronise with society.

Global cooperation

As their own institutional roles convey, presidents place great importance on global cooperation, though in different ways. Case studies from Asia, Europe, Oceania, North America and Africa reveal significant differences in mission and positioning between universities from developed and developing countries.

When presidents from developed countries talk about mission, they emphasise the importance of the university as an independent and free academic community in society.

Presidents from developing countries place greater emphasis on constructing academic infrastructure, mitigating corruption, hiring and retaining the workforce and finding ways to align local relevance with global impact.

Presidents probed into the devotion of their universities to making contributions to local communities and human society. They concentrated on community-driven research, training future social leaders and citizens, promoting lifelong learning through massive online education and breaking through political barriers to tackle common human challenges.

Issues including climate actions, reducing inequality and spreading scientific ideas were particularly touched on in interviews.

The research contributes insights that help presidents understand their peers and their work, deepen international engagement and collaboration, inform the development of future presidents and propel international research.

It focuses on presenting the ideas and telling the stories of presidents, in their own words. These words are unique. They reveal precious insights from the vantage point of the presidential office and delve further to show how presidents think and feel about their role and the major issues they confront.

Learning about global university presidents is becoming more important given the changing political economy of higher education in many countries whereby the locus of power and responsibility is shifting from systems to institutions, emphasising the work of university leaders. It is particularly the case, of course, that global university presidents are operating in ‘post-systemic’ ways.

As the presidents note, particularly during times of crisis and change, the world needs platforms for developing dialogue about university leadership. This needs to go beyond polished corporate documents and should include platforms for talking deeply about universities.

Professor Hamish Coates is director of the higher education research division at the Institute of Education, Tsinghua University, China. Xi Hong is a doctoral student (2021). Global University President Leadership: Insights on higher education futures by Hamish Coates, Zheping Xie and Wen Wen is published by Routledge (2021). Coates’ other recent books include Higher Education Design: Big deal partnerships, technologies and capabilities; A Turning Point for Chinese Higher Education: Developing hybrid education at Tsinghua University; and Global Student Engagement: Policy insights and international research perspectives.