The books every university leader should read

The book is far from obsolete. Our feature recommends key texts for students, and one v-c looks to Machiavelli for advice

April 14, 2016
Human head-shaped bookshelf stacked with books
Source: iStock

Who has time for books when there’s an image to be maintained on Facebook, witticisms to be dispensed to Twitter, and selfies dispatched via Snapchat?

Teenagers, we’re told, are so consumed by digital that they struggle to fit in face-to-face social lives (note the declining teen pregnancy rate), let alone read novels.

It’s not only teens who face greater digital demands on their time. Take the most prolific tweeter among UK vice-chancellors: Dominic Shellard, of De Montfort University, has tweeted almost 40,000 times, which equates to about 600,000 words – more, apparently, than in War and Peace. Whatever your age or position, such digital dedication is bound to eat into time to do other things (and I speak as someone who has tweeted 8,000 times myself).

So in our cover story this week, we ask academics to suggest one title they’d urge undergraduates to read before they head off to university.

In a similar vein, and knowing how pressed for time vice-chancellors are, I conducted a straw poll of university leaders, asking what single book they would recommend to prospective v-cs to prepare them for the rigours of the top job.

Shellard’s choice isn’t Tolstoy but John Kotter’s Leading Change, which he says was recommended to him by Sir Keith Burnett, his old boss at the University of Sheffield, “with a mischievous, knowing smile which said that this would save me months of false moves. It was a revelation. Clear, accessible and appealingly persuasive, it steadied my nerves for the task ahead.”

- Scholars choose ‘essential’ texts to introduce sixth-formers to the academy

As a former head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Sir David Eastwood’s choice is less obviously from the management canon: he recommends Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, and suggests that it’s OK to read it in translation, “but try to quote from it in French”.

It is, he says, “a truly great book and a profound exploration of the interplay between ideas, political culture, and structures. It explains how a regime worked, modernised, atrophied and collapsed. It warns against the dangers of over-centralisation, and memorably concludes that ‘the most dangerous time for a bad government is when it seeks to reform itself’.” John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University, says that his advice would be “no 1970s management theory, no business process re-engineering, and as few operating objectives and performance measures as you can sensibly get away with”.

“Rather, vision, communication, culture, ethos, strategy. Go back 2,300 years and try Philip Freeman’s 2011 biography of Alexander the Great, the glory not the dirt, the civilising not the brutalising. And avoid the tainted wine. You’ll only ever be Alexandr(a) the Tolerable, but at least you’ve lived past 32.”

For Dame Nancy Rothwell, of the University of Manchester, Stefan Collini’s What Are Universities For? is a must-read – so much so that she gave a copy to each of her governors. “Thoughtful, provocative and amusing, I don’t agree with all of Stefan’s conclusions, but I fully agree with his answer to the question in the title, which is that universities are basically for the public good. This is something that a new v-c should be mindful of,” she advises.

Finally, Christina Slade, vice-chancellor of Bath Spa University, has two options to prepare future v-cs for their game of thrones: “My choice is Machiavelli, The Prince,” she says. “If you need another, Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies.”

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