Vice-chancellors’ partners are the unsung heroes

Malcolm Gillies on the challenges facing university leaders’ significant others

June 26, 2014

What do we expect from the chief executive’s “significant other”? By that I mean partner, wife, husband, chief lover…let’s just say, consort. Lord Browne of Madingley’s The Glass Closet, published last month, raises many enduring issues about business leadership that are also relevant to university chiefs and their loved ones.

I don’t mean Lord Browne’s gay-straight analysis of his own private-public life, fascinating though that is. But his contention that it is possible to bring the professional and the personal aspects of the executive’s life into a more “productive balance” than when he was the hugely successful, but closeted, chief executive of BP.

Of course, the view of the male vice-chancellor and the homely, dedicated female consort – also, the old vicar’s or headmaster’s stereotype – is receding into history. Now there are consorts of all sorts and attitudes: bankers, lawyers, academics, homemakers, “creatives”, politicians, even fellow chief executives. It becomes difficult sometimes to know who is really consorting with or for whom.

You may have to account for every tack in the wall, unconsumed chicken breast or ‘private’ usage of space or time

Nonetheless, the chief executive’s consort remains one of the most shadowy, in fact closeted, roles in higher education. The consort often leads the audience from the front row at graduations, yet says nothing; seeks out less confident students or alumni at receptions; and entertains dreary but important officials while everyone else parties.

The consort sometimes knows more of an institution’s secrets than even the vice-chancellor, often is covered by a special university regulation concerning “legitimate reimbursements”, but rarely appears on the payroll. Yet this is the person who can become the crucial go-between at moments of acute institutional crisis, such as when vice-chancellors unknowingly bump into their “use-by date”.

Shadowy, too, because while vice-chancellors are constantly in the news (and feel quite miffed if they are not), the consorts beside them are silent, if not actually invisible. They feature only if they do, say, wear, or cost something sensational. Their news coverage can only be guaranteed if they suddenly usurp the place of the previous consort in dramatic circumstances, such as being 22 years old and becoming pregnant.

From the executive and consort’s viewpoint there are two types of university: those with a 9-to-5 ethos, and those with a 24/7 expectation. Big, modern, commuter, secular and urban universities tend now more towards the former; smaller, more regional, older, faith-based and more residential universities to the latter. What is expected of the vice-chancellor, and hence, consort and family, is very different between the two.

In the 9-to-5 institution, you and your consort can just about live Lord Browne’s circumscribed “professional” life, if you want. With much planning you can hold to the “personal” self after hours. In the 24/7 environment, the professional and the personal become hopelessly intertwined, whether you like it or not. I know. I was the teenage son of the headmistress of a small-town Presbyterian girls’ boarding school!

The most usual sign of the 24/7 role is that the vice-chancellor is required to live, with family, in The University Residence. And frequently to entertain a stipulated range of institutional stakeholders in return for that privilege. The superficially posh house-with-help comes at a high price. It is not your home. It is regularly commandeered for institutional purposes.

You may have to account for every tack in the wall, unconsumed chicken breast or “private” usage of space or time. That’s fine, maybe, if you are the employee, but what of the consort or the family who find themselves, by someone else’s contract, living in a goldfish bowl?

In such 24/7 institutions, where positional and personal matters are jumbled, the attributes of the consort may even be relevant to gaining the top job in the first place. One of the best university histories (The Making of The Australian National University: 1946-1996, by Stephen Foster and Margaret Varghese) – best, I say, because it tells you all sorts of things you shouldn’t really know – unashamedly leaks the assessments of candidates for that university’s first vice-chancellorship.

All candidates were initially found wanting: one was “too English”; another “too Australian” (but, notwithstanding, eventually scored the job); a third was “not an administrator”. A fourth, most damningly of all, was “too good a researcher”. The remainder were variously “too short”, “having no academic background” and “too old and difficult”. Finally, coup de grâce, an Oxford don was ruled out because he had “a really terrifying wife”. Vice-chancellors, it seems, need to be bright but not too bright, and with consorts who won’t steal their thunder.

I think we now know better than ever what we need professionally from our vice-chancellors. The current challenge is to hold selection committees to that professional brief, and not be swayed by their individual sets of personal values. For there is scant agreement on what we now want in personal terms from university leaders, and their loved ones.

Is the chief executive, or their family, meant to model something? Should consorts be tokens, or trailblazers, but of what? If we eschew the personal, don’t we just reinforce the “don’t ask, don’t tell” world that Lord Browne rightly now rails against?

In an age of risk registers and mitigations, however, are our personal selves best just left hanging in the closet?

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