Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence

A survey of strategies used by US institutions in hard times gives John Coyne a helpful heads-up

October 29, 2009

The debate over the future of higher education in the UK is in full swing, thrown into sharp relief as the Government struggles with the debt overhang from the recession and the inevitable restrictions on spending. The fees review is an inevitable catalyst for a wider examination of the role, nature and financing of higher education in the UK. This volume by James Martin, James E. Samels and associates, which explores the experiences of the "stressed universities and colleges" in the US, is a very timely if sometimes frightening volume. All university leaders will find it a handy reference.

The UK sector has a simple "business model", with the majority of universities being modest variations on the same theme. They have characterised themselves externally as "cut from the same cloth" and have had similar outlooks, priorities and decision variables. The American system is very different. There are more than 4,000 institutions, many regulatory regimes, greater variability between universities in terms of mission and orientation and a significant private sector. In the British sector, the funding sources - the public purse, student fees and benefaction - are split approximately 60:30:10, while in the US it is 33:34:33. This very different mix adds to the complexity of the American sector and produces a richer mix of decision variables that university leaderships must cope with. This diversity is admirably represented in the book. While this may lead to the view that lessons learnt in the US would have little resonance in the UK, you need only remind yourself of the direction of travel in the UK to sit up and take notice. This volume could be Marley's ghost giving us a snapshot of our collective future.

The book is not an easy read. It is not easy in the sense of having a flow of argument that consistently builds to a clear and well-defined conclusion. It does not. The chapters, complete in themselves, can be repetitive and occasionally contradictory. But that does not detract from their utility, and I am sure the volume is designed to be dipped into. Moreover, it is not an easy read for the university leader because there are so many echoes of places you have been (metaphorically speaking), things you have done and, more importantly, things you wished you had done.

The organisation of the book is straightforward and logical - define risk, analyse it, understand who it affects (and how), and then distil from experience the strategies that work. Conclude with a synthesis and there you have it - the university leader's essential bedtime companion. Be warned, however: as a night-time read it may well induce sleep or nightmares, depending on how your day has gone.

In the opening chapter on defining risk, there are no fewer than five "drivers", 20 "at-risk indicators" and 10 "new skills for leaders" before you reach page 30 - and the density of advice then picks up pace from this leisurely start. The book's style, with its emphasis on checklists, what-to-do lists, advice lists, skills lists and indeed lists of lists can be irritating when, as a reviewer, you read the whole thing more or less in one go. However, if you selectively tease out issues and provide yourself with your own institutional reality check against the experiences covered, particularly in the fourth section, "Strategies that work", this can be a very useful guide.

Michael Townsley's chapter, "Financial leadership", is a typical example. It provides sound contextual financial advice, not only on what to look for but also how to go about the analysis and evaluation of options. It is comprehensive, detailed and rational. However, elsewhere you are advised that stressed universities tend to underinvest in the right people to lead key functions. I was left with the conclusion that if you don't have a finance director able to follow Townsley's model without being told, then you are in trouble. Happily, I do!

This experience is typical of the volume. I found myself cross-referencing, leaping backwards and forwards, validating some statements and finding others contradicted. Nevertheless, I did find it strangely engaging, and took away validation for my own conclusions that to be successful you have to have clarity of purpose, driven forward by the best people you can find who are aware of the markets in which they operate, and you must believe that universities have to make sense both in what they do academically and as sustainable business entities.

I also took away a warning that universities need to be effective in their decision-making - Townsley notes that the sector tends to complicate the task by a "cumbersome, hierarchical and consensual decision-making structure (that) is slow to react (and) is unable to clearly articulate its goals". The UK university sector certainly will not overcome the challenges ahead unless we get this right.

Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence

By James Martin, James E. Samels and associates

The Johns Hopkins University Press

328pp, £24.00

ISBN 9780801890680

Published 13 January 2009

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