The secret to developing university leaders

Why are certain employers hotbeds for the creation of higher education leaders, asks John Gill

July 7, 2015

What is the secret of developing a pipeline of future leaders? What strategies are employed by the institutions that produce significantly more vice-chancellors and presidents than their rivals?

This was the question we asked in an analysis about the impressive diaspora of university leaders to have emerged from the University of Southampton.

At the time of writing, there were no fewer than six UK vice-chancellors who had learned their management skills at the institution, and a further three who started out there as academics, before going on to become senior managers elsewhere.

It was a striking number to emerge from one university, but it was, at least, a university that was producing this golden generation.

Far more unlikely is the current statistic – which has emerged with two recent appointments – that there are now three UK vice-chancellors who all worked together at Newcastle City Council.

Sir David Bell (vice-chancellor of the University of Reading), Shirley Atkinson (the new vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland) and Tim Blackman (who has just taken over as vice-chancellor of Middlesex University) all worked at the local authority in the early 1990s.

Sir David, who was permanent secretary in the Department of Education prior to taking over at Reading, says that one of the reasons may be Newcastle City Council’s strong focus on social policy and research at the time (the area overseen by Professor Blackman).

“It was also – and is today – a very compact city in which all the key educational figures from bodies such as the council, the universities, the college etc…knew each other,” Sir David says.

“And it was my first experience of seeing, at first hand, the powerful impact that universities could have on all aspects of a city and region – maybe, just maybe, it planted a seed in my mind about a university being an incredibly exciting and interesting place in which to work.”

To return to our earlier analysis of the University of Southampton, the people we spoke to could not come up with an obvious blueprint for churning out a generation of leaders. The truth is, there probably isn’t one.

But they did draw attention to some common threads connecting the success stories, which included setting ambitious goals, encouraging competent staff to leave their comfort zone, and trusting senior managers to get on with the job.

Another key factor was a willingness to stretch younger staff by promoting those who showed potential into positions of responsibility. Read more about this topic here.

John Gill is the editor of Times Higher Education.

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