Breeding leaders

A handful of universities have produced more than their share of vice-chancellors. Jack Grove looks at how these centres have nurtured talented leaders

September 27, 2012

As one of Britain's major ports, Southampton knows plenty about the export industry. But the famous maritime city has lately done a roaring trade in exporting an unusual commodity unrelated to its docks: academic leaders.

No fewer than six current vice-chancellors cut their teeth in management at the University of Southampton, while a further three began their academic careers there before taking up senior posts elsewhere. So how did a redbrick university, which celebrated its 60th anniversary only this year, nurture a generation of young leaders who would rise to the highest posts in the sector?

"It is partly history and partly geography," believes Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, a Southampton alumnus who rose to become dean of medicine, life sciences and health before heading north to Leeds in 2004.

"It was a young university and it was trying to get on. We were also only an hour from London, an hour from Oxford and an hour or so from Bristol. You felt heat from that competition and knew good staff could easily migrate to other places. We were trying to be a better university and there was a need for good leadership and management, partly to keep those staff."

Southampton's vice-chancellors must also claim credit, says Arthur, for encouraging younger academics into leadership positions. The late Sir Gordon Higginson, who led the university from 1985 to 1994, promoted several current vice-chancellors to their first managerial positions, as did his successor Sir Howard Newby, who is now vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool.

"They weren't afraid to give people responsibility, along with accountability, at a relatively young age," Arthur recalls. "They were willing to let you loose, but also to back you up. For me, under Howard Newby, I became head of the medical school at the age of 44, but I had leadership roles from early on."

Taking the leap into management - away from research or teaching - is often quite a change for academics, reflects Arthur.

"When I started as a clinical academic, the last thing I imagined was ending up as a head of medicine or a vice-chancellor," he says.

"You are not motivated by [such ambitions] - teaching students or doing research are your priorities. However, if you enjoy personal success, [management] is not for you. But if you like the idea of keeping a university or department on track, then it is. However, you have to be willing to saw the branch off behind you. That means leaving behind [many of] those things that made you become an academic in the first place."

That was the case for another former Southampton dean, Eric Thomas, now vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol and current president of Universities UK.

"I was a surgeon, but when I became head of the medical school, I knew I could not continue to practise competently as I couldn't do enough operations," he says.

Thomas says discussions with his vice-chancellor, Newby, were invaluable when he took his first senior posts within Southampton's administration.

"He was a great adviser and mentor for me," recalls Thomas, who joined Bristol in 2001. "Howard [Newby] and Gordon [Higginson] ran very delegated leaderships. It meant you were given responsibility and accountability and asked to get on with it."

This type of management model makes even more sense for today's universities, believes Thomas.

"Universities get to a certain size where it is not possible for a single chief executive to operate all the levers," he says. "Bristol is quite a small university, but it still has 6,000 staff and a budget of £420 million. It is the biggest independent employer in the city. The need for a vice-chancellor to represent the university - both nationally and internationally - has grown hugely. That means the people doing the leadership on the ground are deans and heads of department, so a good one is like gold dust."

Other deans or pro vice-chancellors from Southampton who are now running universities include Sir Peter Gregson at Queen's University Belfast, Ian Diamond at the University of Aberdeen, and Nick Foskett at Keele University.

Having clear institutional goals helped senior Southampton staff to become better leaders, thinks Paul Curran, a former dean of science and deputy vice-chancellor at Southampton (2004-05) who is now vice-chancellor at City University London.

"The university has undergone a great deal of evolutionary change over its 40-year history, but Howard's vision was clear: to increase the quality of research. It became a research powerhouse and has stayed that way."

Southampton was one of the most improved universities in the 2001 research assessment exercise.

After seven years with Newby at the helm, his successor, Sir Bill Wakeham, "wanted to build on Howard's achievements and improve across the board", says Curran. "We said we wanted to be 'Top 10 by 2010' - it seemed an incredible idea, but it was something to aim for."

Pushing academic leaders outside their comfort zone was also good training, he adds. Deans were often invited to chair senior management boards or task forces early on, to help them understand areas outside their faculties. Curran was asked to run the university's Winchester School of Art while dean of science in 2003.

"It was a big leadership task," recalls Curran, a geographical scientist who formerly worked at Nasa. "I had departments such as physics and oceanography in my faculty, but I'd never thought about running an art school.

"So I decided to sit down with each academic with their artwork. They told me about their art, what they thought needed doing and why it was important. I got a really good idea of the place, its staff and the wider university. It was actually quite transformative for me personally, too - I didn't know much about art and now I'm an enthusiast. My wife and daughter later did diplomas in art, so I really took it home with me."

Gaining an insight into the wider workings of a university outside one's own department is crucial preparation for becoming a vice-chancellor, agrees Wakeham, who ran Southampton from 2001 to 2009.

But "most people don't want to know how money flows into a university and how it is spent", he says. "They think it should be spent only on academic activity and they don't have to worry about the leaking flat roof. It's not everyone's idea of fun, but you need that awareness of the whole university."

Running a university is "really quite different from running a business", he also argues. "There are corporate elements to universities but companies do not make thousands of different things that are conceptually very different."

This background, and particularly the ambitious challenges that deans and deputy vice-chancellors worked to meet, made senior Southampton staff attractive propositions as vice-chancellors, according to Curran. Ahead of the move to a new fee and funding system, "some universities knew they wanted to change, so when they were looking for new leaders five or six years ago, they looked to Southampton", he says.

While the move from pro vice-chancellor to vice-chancellor is a natural progression, some universities, and some vice-chancellors, do appear to produce more than their fair share of future university heads.

Under the leadership of the late Eric Robinson, Preston Polytechnic - later to become Lancashire Polytechnic and then the University of Central Lancashire - appointed a series of deans and heads of department who went on to become vice-chancellors in their own right.

Peter Knight (who ran the University of Central England before it became Birmingham City University), Christine King (former vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University), the late James Lusty (former vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Newport), Chris Carr (former vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria) and Sir David Melville (former vice-chancellor of the University of Kent) were among those promoted by the charismatic champion of the new "people's universities".

Robinson's influence was also strong on administrators running Preston during the 1970s and 1980s, says Jon Baldwin, deputy vice-chancellor at Murdoch University in Western Australia, who started his career in higher education at Preston.

"I remember getting a call from Eric telling me to come to his office immediately," recalls Baldwin, who was later registrar at the University of Warwick for seven years.

"When I got there, three or four people were also there, after getting the same call. All he said to us was 'I hear you lot are good - get out of my office and prove it'.

"It's probably only now that I understand what he was doing, but we felt liberated. There was a culture that allowed you to experiment and gave you the freedom to fail - as long as you learned from (your mistakes)."

Under the guidance of Robinson's deputy, Tim Curtis, Lancashire pioneered the franchising of degree courses in further education colleges, allowing thousands of students to study part-time for university degrees across the North West.

Bold student-exchange programmes were formed with mainland Europe, the US and China, new university access schemes were created and the UK's first racial equality unit was established to ensure equal opportunities for staff and students.

The pace of change meant that "it was a bit of a bonkers place", says Baldwin, but it was also exciting. "Those polytechnics were on the vanguard of higher education: they were well-funded, ambitious and growing quickly. There was a sense of belief in people. They just let you get on with it."

Baldwin sees similarities with the regime at Warwick under its former registrar Michael Shattock (who held the post from 1983 until 1999). Warwick boasts an enviable track record in training future registrars - and lately vice-chancellors too.

Twelve university registrars were trained by Shattock during his tenure, including those now running the universities of Cambridge, Birmingham and Sheffield. Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, also started his career at Warwick.

According to Baldwin, Shattock was "looking for academic leaders, not just administrators - those who could hold their own with academics. There was also a real drive to the place, and a broad entrepreneurialism that goes back to 1965 when the university was founded under Lord Butterworth (Warwick's first vice-chancellor). He came from Oxford and was determined to maintain those standards by hiring the best."

Another Shattock protege is Paul Greatrix, now registrar at the University of Nottingham, who joined the University of Warwick in 1998 as a deputy registrar.

"Mike liked to move people around - if you were in an administration role, you could expect to move," Greatrix recalls.

"You might spend time in student recruitment, admissions, planning, research support, strategy or student services. I had seven jobs in eight years when I was at Warwick. There was a really important belief in high-ability generalists who (could) turn their hands to most things. I suppose that makes you more employable, as you are exposed to different aspects of the university. The ethos of the place is very entrepreneurial, so there is also the opportunity to engage in overt commercial activity and get involved in those commercial decisions. That can be very stretching and tough, but Warwick had confidence in its staff. It gave them space to develop and deliver those things it wanted."

The QAA's McClaran recalls that recruitment was taken very seriously. "Every new appointment was regarded as critical and the resources devoted to the process were significant," he says.

"For my first post there, as an administrative assistant, I was interviewed by a panel that included the registrar, deputy registrar, senior assistant registrar and a professorial representative of Senate. Responsibility was given early, huge commitment expected from the start and planned movement around the administration ensured breadth of experience. That meant that promotion often came early as well. Warwick was never hesitant about recognising merit, regardless of length of experience. This, in turn, bred an atmosphere of personal competition, tempered by a strong institutional ethos. Ambition was seen as an asset, not a problem.

"The Warwick approach was sometimes criticised as excessively 'managerial'. The reality was a partnership between the academic and administrative staff, where academic success and reputation were hugely valued and rewarded, and the role of an effective administration was recognised as an essential factor in the university's achievements. I don't think I ever heard the term 'support staff'. Above all, Mike's absolute confidence and belief in the value of the professional administration communicated itself, directly and by osmosis, to his staff."

So is there a recipe for developing future university leaders? It is not as simple as that, but there are apparently some common threads connecting the success stories at Southampton, Warwick and Lancashire, including setting ambitious goals, encouraging competent staff to leave their comfort zone, and trusting senior managers to get on with the job. Another is stretching younger staff by promoting those who show potential into positions of responsibility.

Dominic Shellard is one university leader to have benefited from such an approach: a former pro vice-chancellor at the University of Sheffield, he became one of the UK's youngest vice-chancellors when he took over De Montfort University in 2010 at the age of 43. But he favours a mix of age and experience.

"One member of my senior team is only 26, but I'm also glad to have someone who has been here for almost 42 years," he says. "I think it's important to bring on potential leaders, no matter what age they are."

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