Who do you want to lead you? 1

April 3, 2008

Thank you for putting David Allen's remarks ("Talented non-academics overlooked for v-c posts, says registrar", March) directly below an article on staff views of university managers ("Staff give sector managers low marks", March).

The answer to Allen's question as to which of the PhD holders is the most suitable future vice-chancellor, the physics lecturer or the personal assistant to a vice-chancellor, is obvious: the physicist. Allen believes that the answer should be the executive officer.

The physicist is better in many respects: she is certainly highly numerate, understands computing, has excellent analytic skills, almost surely has the flexibility to apply these abilities to teaching, administration and beyond, understands most science at a respectable level, reads novels, listens to music and has ideas about beauty. She is active in the essential activities of a university: research and teaching. A track record of research grants is essential to her career, so financial management and business planning are part of her routine work.

The executive officer probably does not have a science PhD, almost surely has poor numeracy, is statistically and computationally illiterate (using menus on Microsoft does not demonstrate understanding of computers), is unlikely to be at ease with science, although might have a profound knowledge of Derrida or Donne. He is active in administration, and is rapidly losing the little knowledge of teaching and research he had and acquiring a belief that management is very important, because universities ought to focus on financial management and business planning.

Of the various universities where I have worked, my present institution has the best administration. Nevertheless, there has been massive loss of academic time owing to the incompetent introduction of systems for timetabling and centralised course records. The cause of the problems is failure to understand the academic purpose, so the specification is inadequate. That the software offered was inflexible and unreliable was easily and promptly identified by physicists and other scientists.

At present, I have an administrator who insists that a program is acceptable even though it cannot automatically do correct arithmetic, it will not allow degree regulations approved by academic staff to be implemented, and it also has other problems. The idea of administrative service has been lost to administrative rule.

Vice-chancellors must provide academic leadership: bluster plus accountancy and management skills are no substitute for academic achievement.

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