Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President

Sir Drummond Bone warms to a sensitive account of the pressures incurred in leading a university

February 3, 2011

I began by being slightly irritated both by the Princeton University context of this user's manual for university presidents (Princeton is, as the author admits, sui generis) and on the other hand, and almost in contradiction, by its common-sense approach, which made for a "so what?" shrug of the shoulders initially. I ended up feeling that at the very least this is a sensible and sensitive account of the job, and that unquestionably the author is a decent human being.

I suspect that the audience will be limited, though, not even to those aspiring to the job of university president or vice-chancellor, but to those already in it - like a computer manual, it won't make much sense or seem real until you are actually sitting at the keyboard. William Bowen has written often around this topic, but this is a personal hands-on account.

Some of the subject matter is clearly not just Princeton but US-specific - athletics directors for one, tenure for another, and the particular slant on religious issues a third. There is less on fundraising than we might expect (it turns up only in chapter nine with wise words, particularly on the management of donors post-donation) and more on management than leadership.

Despite the differences, much will ring familiarly in the UK. There are some powerful examples of the political difficulties involved in hosting controversial visiting speakers, for example. Bowen's view is that the institution should not take positions outside of direct educational issues, precisely in order to allow its members to do so: "To abstain is both a legitimate and appropriate action ... when the issue is not central to the institution's educational mission" - a view he also applies to the difficulties surrounding politically sensitive investment decisions. And bad behaviour towards visiting speakers cannot always be prevented, but it should always be used to galvanise the majority.

On a different plane, Gresham's Law of Faculty Governance raises an acknowledging smile: "malcontents...drive away the faculty you want to involve". His advice on alumni malcontents, too (react but don't become obsessed), reminds me personally of troubles at t'mill, as does his account of a bomb threat (he announced the threat to the audience, I did not - we all lived, thank the Lord).

Bowen originally came to university administration to "reform an antiquated budgetary process in what now seems like another age" - and so did I and, I suspect, many of my former colleagues. His advice is sharp: incrementalism in cuts or in expansion doesn't always work; be transparent but realise that even cost-benefit analysis should be subject to cost-benefit analysis; in thinking about new support facilities consider whether a multimillion-pound student facility really does add to the educational experience; don't think a university should do all disciplines; don't be tempted by the latest centre, because universities are very bad at "killing things" once started. But even more striking is his insistence that "universities are fundamentally different from government agencies, churches, business organizations, labor organizations, political parties ..." and so on, in the sense that they exist to create a space for thought rather than existing to create a product or a specific set of behaviours. It is "intrinsically harder" for some areas to balance their budgets and that should be recognised - as should the fact that some budgetary decisions have a symbolic value beyond any money saved.

And then there are the words of more personal advice to heads of institutions, most of which we sort of know but need always to remember (and don't always) - "The absence of any mistakes would imply that there is too little risk-taking; fix (HR) problems faster; think carefully before committing personal moral capital; work from your outbox not the inbox; leave when the band is still at least sort of playing; and be very careful about your own salary and perks" - all presented as lived experience, with sometimes painful examples. This last is what makes the book in the end so sympathetic - these are lessons learned sometimes the hard way, and Bowen is quite prepared to admit it.

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President
By William G. Bowen
Princeton University Press, 168pp, £16.95
ISBN 9780691149622
Published 29 December 2010

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