Leaders need a solid inside knowledge

January 23, 2014

Re “Leading question: scholar or executive?”, News, 16 January. There is a myth that top executives from one field do well in another. For example, it was thought that stuffy engineers were ill-suited to the brave world of maintaining UK railways – much better a bunch of management high-flyers; a few broken rails and fatalities later, we learned differently.

The most successful UK companies often appoint people who know the industry (it’s very rare for someone who is not steeped in retail to get a big job in the retail sector).

The best leaders I have worked for and encountered are those who have the strongest academic records.

The problems in academia, I believe, lie in the career path to the top and the attitude of the governing councils.

A big administrative job is often damaging to an academic career if it comes early; for lab-based scientists, it is in almost every case a one-way ticket: do it and there’s no way back to the old job. Often the people with the right skill set and academic credibility wait too long to climb on the rungs. Sometimes the people who get on early enough to reach the top are classic non-achievers. They fail upwards at one post after another (more accurately they never hold any job long enough for a proper judgement of their acumen; their next job comes simply because they held the previous one).

This relates to governing councils. Most often they have no real knowledge of universities, and they suspect the motives of academics. They can be easily swayed by “experience” and a good manner coupled to some apparently plausible vision that chimes with a position paper or article that they have recently read.

No doubt every Russell Group university (except Oxbridge) intends to be a top five institution. By definition three-quarters will fail, but is anyone sacked for not hitting the mark? And yet, at appointment, the ability of the vice-chancellor-designate to outline this top five vision would have been high in the governing council’s list of criteria.

Jim_sta via timeshighereducation.co.uk


This absurd debate stems from the fact that democratic accountability has been removed from most UK universities.

If academics elected their deans and heads of university, as is the case in most continental European universities, this “discussion” would not even take place because it would be rightly seen as ludicrous.

UK academics do not seem to mind that they are no longer able to elect officers of their universities and do nothing to counter their disenfranchisement.

Paradoxically, academics in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the former “totalitarian” Communist bloc, enjoy a statutory right to elect the officers of their universities.

Jan Culik via timeshighereducation.co.uk

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