When one thinks of truly outstanding leaders in the world of higher education, they can be counted on a single finger. Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London, says there is only one who was "a global legend in his lifetime. Maybe the only one to be a legend, full stop": Clark Kerr, president of the University of California and a key engineer of the California Master Plan.
As a university leader, he knew his role well and once joked that it had three purposes: to provide sex for the students, football tickets for the alumni and parking for the faculty. His wit helped him to carry himself with grace in both success and failure. When he heard that he had been dismissed by Ronald Reagan, the state's incoming governor, he quipped: "I left the presidency just as I had entered it - fired with enthusiasm."
It's easy to radiate enthusiasm and offer inspiration in the good times, but it's hard to be optimistic for the future when times are tough - as the leadership of UK universities will no doubt discover in coming months, with higher education entering its most turbulent and transformative period for many years. Vice-chancellors will face a real test of strength and courage.
With the coalition government unleashing new market forces, will they resist the temptation to draft in top-rank managers from the private sector to help them cope? Will universities require the managerial expertise of a large company to thrive?
In our cover story, Amanda Goodall, author of Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars, argues that "leaders who have demonstrated their deep commitment to academe are more likely to protect their universities". As almost every university in the UK is currently run by a vice-chancellor with an academic background, some may question the job they have done thus far and, perhaps, wish for new leaders.
Goodall maintains that the job of leading a university is far more demanding than any of us believe and, controversially in these austere times, says that if we want the best we must pay for it. "We do not want 'average' people in leadership positions; we want the best people to defend and represent us," she says. The pay of public sector leaders comes in for a fair amount of criticism from all quarters, but as the activities of universities move from a model of public funding to one where the income stream is increasingly private, that criticism becomes less justified. The marketisation of academia has many consequences.
One thing most people can agree on is that universities are special and deserving of defence. In their book Herding Cats, Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies insist that they are unique organisations. They are staffed by creative and independent people of high intellectual ability; they have no culture of uniformity or conformity, thus command-and-control approaches are unworkable; they take the long view - and within them, disagreement is ubiquitous.
Running such organisations demands skills that are different from those required in the world of commerce. "The 'carrot' will certainly predominate over the 'stick'," they say. If we want to protect all that, isn't it better to encourage and reward the top talent within?
So be careful what you wish for: the alternative could be much, much worse.