Leader: The twilight zone needs its leaders

Middle management occupies an uneasy but vital position between collegial scholars and master-planning senior officials

July 10, 2008

When faculty held a no-confidence vote in an unpopular dean at the University of Toledo recently, the president's answer was one that will strike fear in the hearts of many middle managers. "For several days I thought the best thing to do was to throw (him) under the bus and get on with our agenda," he wrote to his provost.

The only thing stopping him, according to e-mails obtained by students under Ohio's Freedom of Information Act, was that "we can't reward the bad behaviour" displayed by faculty.

When such "bad behaviour" - or rather professionally argumentative culture, as Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, describes it - is the hallmark of academia and when universities are flat organisations, it's no wonder that many academics are reluctant to take on a piggy-in-the-middle role. And with many scholars in the UK not even perceiving themselves as being employees of an institution but rather as being members of a collegiate circle, managing them can be akin to herding cats.

At one time, a head of a department or school used to be seen as a caretaker, elected by colleagues. In some instances, he or she was even press-ganged by other academics keen to block the progress of an unpopular rival candidate. Although some took quite happily to the position, most saw middle management as a career graveyard.

Now as universities evolve and face external pressures such as the need to find additional sources of research funding and attract more students, the middle manager has likewise had to evolve to become a more professional creature. Ambitious vice-chancellors have come to realise that they need these managers to implement their grand schemes.

But the new structures and practices that have accompanied this professionalisation of management are the cause of much anxiety. "We're occupying two cultures: one that is supposed to be collegiate, where everyone pitches in, but also another, where there is a set of targets and expectations, planning statements and strategies," says one academic. Many dismiss this professionalisation as managerialism and view its focus on outcomes as a threat to academic freedom, while grumbles about the increase in bureaucracy are becoming a familiar refrain on campus.

The challenge for higher education is how to harness the collegiality that allows the academy to maintain its spirit of inquiry with the need for management that is responsive and modern.

And that means leadership. As that old grandaddy of modern management Peter Drucker once said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." Unfortunately, things don't look that good for universities in that regard. When a survey by Coventry University asked 2,300 employees across ten sectors about the leadership styles of senior managers in their organisations, "the results for higher education were far from flattering and (were) among the worst of any sector we analysed", the researchers said. "Their leadership was perceived to be 'predominantly reactive, secretive, inconsistent, demotivating, controlling and indecisive'."

But all those middle managers worried about their leadership skills can take comfort from the words of a letter writer to Times Higher Education, who helpfully pointed out that maybe it isn't their fault, "it could simply be that academics are more deficient in followership skills than workers in other sectors".

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