UK vice-chancellors are learning what their US counterparts have always known - if you can't raise the cash, you're out
The child's unanswerable question "Mummy, what is that man for?" strikes a chill in the heart of anyone at the top of an organisation. Vice-chancellors know that if every member of their staff was as good as they seemed when appointed, life would be sweet but empty. And who knows if chief executive officers add more value than they subtract from most large companies?
Gordon Brown thinks British universities are badly run. Coming from the Treasury, such talk is cheek; set against British higher education's productivity record - tripling output over 15 years while reducing unit costs by half - the idea that UK higher education management is remotely as bad as that of British industry is a bit much. But it is often thought that they manage these things better elsewhere so a few insights from the US may be worth having.
As with everything else, generalisations mislead. Between the presidency of St John's College, Santa Fe, a liberal arts school of about 400 students, dedicated to the study of the "Great Books", and the presidency of the University of California, nine campuses, 180,000 students, 155,000 faculty, as well as responsibility for the Los Alamos and the Lawrence Livermore defence laboratories, there is something of a gulf. The UC president announced his resignation last week; Richard Atkinson is 73 years old and thought he'd like to see more of his grandchildren and get eight hours sleep a night. It is a measure of his success in steering the UC system through the acrimonious break-up of its affirmative action programme that everyone was genuinely surprised and upset that he thought it time to call it a day.
Few university presidents go on so long or leave amid such goodwill. The nature of the job is against them. The president of every university, public or private, is first and foremost a fundraiser. In private universities, this means going on the road anything up to five days a week to talk to alumni, politicians who influence the way government funds are spent, foundations and corporate donors. In public universities, less comes in from alumni, but keeping the legislature sweet and watching like a hawk to see what is happening to state appropriations for education eat up time. With 44 of the 50 states strapped for cash, this will be a rough few years for heads of public universities.
Most presidents are good and experienced at the job; many have been deans in science and engineering schools where life revolves around bidding for grants. Many have been provosts and know the financial machinery inside out. But all suffer from what, until recently, UK vice-chancellors did not. They have trustees or boards of regents who not only interfere but are quick to fire those who do not run "their" university their way.
This is bad for institutions. It is generally reckoned that it takes a ten-year stint at the top to make a real difference to a university, and the average is a bit over six. Revolving-door presidencies rattle the faculty and encourage those who don't like one new president to obstruct them, knowing another will be along soon. US universities expect incoming presidents to appoint their own deans and provosts too, so rapid change at the top means rapid change everywhere else and a general inability to make and execute policy.
Whether the trustees are the biggest pain depends on something that no UK university has to worry about - sports. Although presidents are paid well, in any school with big sports programmes they make less than their often ego-prone football and basketball coaches. Many presidents have found themselves looking for alternative employment when they have tried to save money on sports, or insist that athletes should act as though they were getting a degree.
Neither is it only huge state schools that give their presidents grief. When Princeton University decided to cut its wrestling team, the alumni rose up in revolt and harassed the president for the best part of five years. High tuition fees don't solve everything.
The people who carry the can do get paid decently. As in the UK, there are anomalies when early retirement leads to pension payments and compensation pushes up yearly salary statistics - the departing president of Williams two years ago cost his college $800,000, and the leaving president of Princeton much the same. But a lot nowadays make well over $500,000 a year. This is good news for the people who really run the place - the provosts - while getting ready, such as Yale's Alison Richard, to move onwards or outwards. They are the unsung heroes and heroines of the piece, combining the role of chief operating officer and chief financial officer, and painstakingly ensuring that their institutions live within their means year after year.
Alan Ryan is fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences, Stanford University.