How to lead a university: a beginner’s guide

Vice-chancellors discuss their role and offer advice to aspiring university leaders

March 5, 2015

Source: Rex/Getty

Orchestral manoeuvres in the spotlight

The complexity of leadership lies not in elaborating multiple themes, but in complex orchestration. As with sonata form, repeat your central themes

Think of a vice-chancellorship as a symphony in four movements.

The first movement begins with a structural challenge. Do you start with a long introduction or launch into the main themes? Many vice-chancellors start with a long introduction. They announce that they will spend time listening and learning. Listening and learning are important, but universities have their rhythms and the external environment has its own tempo, and these need to be understood. We live in a world of allegros, where the pace is fast. Listening and learning should be leitmotifs of a vice-chancellorship. Start by elaborating major themes that will be developed.

Most classical sonata-form movements have two principal themes; some (those of Bruckner, for example) use three. Remember this. Universities are complex places and so the principal themes should be few, clear and amenable to development. The complexity of university leadership lies not in elaborating multiple themes, but in complex orchestration. Vice-chancellors have multiple audiences that need to understand those central themes, so, as with sonata form, repeat them.

We then move to the development section. Our worlds are ever-changing and our key themes (the student experience, research challenges, how we relate to wider political cultures and economic imperatives, how we shape the societies we serve) need to evolve.

The development section of the sonata form often turns fragments into great building blocks, sometimes by focusing on the previously unnoticed. University leadership and strategy can be like that. The climax of the development section can show how fragments can be brought together, how we can triumph against adversity, how dissonance can give way to harmony. Remember this, especially when dissonance seems to dominate.

We come then to the recapitulation, where themes return, transformed, sometimes more richly harmonised, yet recognisably the same; reminding us that strategies give direction, can be elaborated, and can shape the great arch of a finely wrought and forward-moving structure.

Next, usually, is the slow movement. A moment to reflect, to reconsider, to muse, sometimes to lament, yet often to find the moments of greatest profundity. It is a myth that all symphonic slow movements are slow – adagios of ineffable calm or great tragedy. Brahms rarely wrote a real slow movement, Beethoven often didn’t. You choose. You may keep the pace moving with an andante, or you may need that time of reflection, of deep searching, and an adagio is appropriate.

There are times in university leadership when deep reflection and soul-searching are needed. Leaders should not shy away from this, nor should they see it as a weakness. Directions need to change, when events confound the course that has been charted, or when strategy falters. Reflect, regroup, rethink, and move on. Harmony and a perfect cadence can follow.

Then we come to the third movement. A change of mood. It defines your style. Do you want a scherzo or a minuet? Do you want to joke or to dance, and will your humour, if that’s what you choose, be teasing, at your own expense, or a gruff joke about the world? I don’t jest here. Being a vice-chancellor is about being human, about moments of lightness, about showing something of yourself.

Often, vice-chancellors say that the job is lonely, even isolated. Responsibility has its solitary moments, but universities are communities and vice-chancellors part of those communities. Collegiality, friendship and intellectual engagement are as critical to being an effective vice-chancellor as the arts of management, whatever they may be. So a scherzo or a minuet is not a moment of light-heartedness but a moment of humanity, of sheer enjoyment in the great quest to be a university.

And so to the finale. Finales are difficult, and often symphonies fall short here. Some, of course, never finish, perhaps because, as with Schubert’s 8th symphony, other projects call them away; perhaps, as with Bruckner’s 9th and Mahler’s 10th, because an end comes, and others then try to complete what’s been begun. The parallels here are obvious.

Some vice-chancellorships skip into a jolly presto when a job seems done. Some strive for a great climax, and end with a glorious research excellence framework result or a triumphant fundraising campaign. Some literally build their way to a climax. Some end in failure, even tragedy, when, as in Tchaikovsky’s 6th, it isn’t quite clear when the funereal music has stopped. There’s something important here. Being a vice-chancellor is enormously challenging.

Not all meet that challenge, some for reasons of personal failing, and some through the truly awesome nature of challenges that, expectedly, confront them. Failure is sometimes a personal tragedy, occasionally a self-immolation, often an institutional calamity. Avoiding failure is about getting the first movement right. Elaborating, developing, listening, reworking, reflecting and finding a rich harmony between leadership and what the university aspires to be.

Then, of course, there are miracles, such as Mozart’s Symphony No 41, where, in a supreme moment, six themes that were seemingly unrelated come together in a climax of complexity and virtuosity. Don’t aspire to this. Vice-chancellors, in my experience, are talented, some hugely so, but Mozart was a genius. Nevertheless, it shows what might be done, how all those strands make a university what it is, and how apparently different ideas and activities can be brought together and sound as one.

If you ever achieve it as Mozart did, and if everything you’ve done comes together in a triumphant climax, my advice would be to retire just then!

David Eastwood has been vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham since 2009. His former posts include the vice-chancellorship of the University of East Anglia.

Lead feature illustration (5 March 2015)

It’s a people thing

Recruitment is key to making strategies work - you need to appoint or promote the right people. Time spent on this area is time well spent

Why were today’s vice-chancellors chosen as university leaders? If I revert to type and try to think about it logically – I’m a mathematician, after all – then I’d say it was because we are good at setting out a vision that chimes with the board’s ideas of what they want the university to be. Not just that, but we’re also people who are good at developing and articulating strategy. We positively like the big picture and get satisfaction from joining things up coherently.

That points to one potential danger of the role – the risk of vice-chancellorship becoming a paper exercise. In the build-up to the job, when we are serving out our notice in our previous position, it is just that: we manoeuvre and reorganise things in our heads, not in practice. Vice-chancellors tend to feel comfortable doing strategy and it can be tempting to fall back on that when the going gets tough. Of course strategy is an essential part of the job, but it is poor form to retreat to one’s office and move the deckchairs around on paper.

To me, at the risk of stating the obvious, the most important thing to remember as a vice-chancellor is that it is “a people thing”. All leadership roles are, but it is sometimes forgotten. No matter for what skills a vice-chancellor is appointed, the main one she or he needs to hone is the ability to build strong working relationships.

As I write, I’m in the first week of my “retirement”, and am still basking in the warm glow of a wonderful series of send-offs. In thinking about what to say at these events, I was struck by how invaluable partnerships, collaborations and friendships have been to me in my time as vice-chancellor. However, they have to be worked on and invested in. A bit of mutual back-slapping over a few canapés and a glass of wine at a function is not a substitute for a proper conversation. The objective is to build open and trusting relationships where there is mutual respect and understanding of each other’s point of view. If you succeed, it clearly doesn’t mean that everything will be plain sailing, but there will be a better understanding and less likelihood of a catastrophic fallout when opinions differ.

First and foremost in importance to the vice-chancellor are the relationships with her or his staff and board, and, in particular, the chair. New chairs or new vice-chancellors are often encouraged to take part in facilitated development activities. For me, the jury is out on the value of these activities, but one undoubted benefit is the time the chair and vice-chancellor can spend getting to know one another, if there aren’t other opportunities to do so.

Universities also depend so much on their work regionally, nationally and internationally that investing time in the key people relevant to this work pays dividends. You want a working relationship where you feel you can be honest with one another, and one where the university doesn’t always see itself in the dominant role or as the lead partner. Collaborative ventures established on this foundation are more likely to lead to long-lasting partnerships that can outlive changes of fortune or people.

Finally, I want to say something about partnership with students. I’ve come across vice-chancellors who, when they describe the role, barely mention students. That just seems completely wrong to me. “Student engagement” may be the flavour of the month, but whatever the prevailing political opinion, the relationship between the vice-chancellor and her or his students must surely be right up there among the top priorities. For me, this is not just about student representation. Yes, that’s important, but a partnership with students goes way beyond that. It takes time to establish, but it’s well worth it.

The “people” dimension to the role of vice-chancellor will inevitably bring you the most fulfilment and also the most grief. But being a vice-chancellor has been the best part of my career: there is no greater privilege or indeed job satisfaction than having the opportunity to lead your own university.

Ruth Farwell was vice-chancellor of Bucks New University from 2006 to 2015.

Lead feature illustration (5 March 2015)

Seven things I have learned (and probably should have realised beforehand)

We were good at analysis and terrible at action: we may have been alone in this, but I don’t think so

1. Devising an overall strategy for an institution is easy

We’re all bright enough to do that and, for the most part, there are not that many possible overall strategies one could follow. When I arrived at Soas, the first priority was to work out a vision and strategy for the organisation as, rather surprisingly to me for such a distinctive institution, it did not seem to know where it was going and it was living a rather hand-to-mouth existence. It was pretty clear what the possibilities were and also the constraints: Soas, part of the University of London, is an institution on a tiny site in the centre of the city with a very clearly defined mission. So, after a term of extensive consultation with staff and students, we agreed where we were trying to get to and how we were going to get there.

2. While devising a strategy may be easy, implementing it is not

During my first year at Soas, I discovered a lot of strategies and reports. All were excellent pieces of analysis – but whenever I asked, little had actually happened. As an institution, we were good at analysis and terrible at action: we may have been alone in this, but I don’t think so. Implementation is partly a matter of what my ex-boss, Sir Steve Smith of the University of Exeter, used to call “the daily grind of management” – getting appropriate performance out of individuals, finding the blocks to action and working around, through or over them. But it is also a matter of understanding how the institution works – the organisational psychology and politics.

3. You may have devised a clear strategy and action plan, but the actions – if they are put into effect – may not produce the effect you want

You may expect me, as a psychologist, to say this, but it is important to understand the factors impacting on the behaviour you’re interested in, devise appropriate incentives and realise that success ultimately depends on your ability to get the voluntary commitment rather than the forced obedience of your colleagues.

4. Moving from one organisation to another creates a particular set of information difficulties

I knew Exeter very well, from the bottom up, and I cannot ever know Soas in the same way. My answer to this is not to worry about it: get some trusted individuals who do know, talk directly to as many people from as wide a range as possible, and do not rely just on filtered information.

5. Recruitment is key to making strategies work – you need the right people in place

So recruitment needs to be taken very seriously and time spent on recruitment and mentoring is time well spent. I don’t just mean putting in the time on appointment panels; I mean thinking through, with your human-resources professionals, what you need to do to attract and retain the right staff. Don’t assume that you won’t get the best – think what may attract them to your institution.

6. Put as much time into thinking about how to communicate decisions as the decisions themselves

You can never communicate enough – use multiple channels, and carry out multiple consultations.

7. Finally, don’t restructure unless you have to

Many heads of institutions seem to think restructuring is what it is all about – it isn’t, and institutional knowledge can get lost in well-intentioned but poorly carried out restructuring. Unless the structure is really appalling, my view would be to leave it as it is and get it to work.

Paul Webley has been director of Soas, University of London since 2006, and will step down from the role during 2015.

Lead feature illustration (5 March 2015)

The marriage of two mindsets: finding your way around impediments

Balancing seemingly contradictory models is a challenge, but it is at the heart of university culture and makes the job probably the best in the world

A new vice-chancellor’s early challenge is to strike an appropriate balance between the sector’s different but intertwined models of organisation: the collegial and the corporate.

At one extreme, in a purely collegial organisation, power and direction-setting come from within, via committees and elected posts, which makes it rather difficult to move on from the status quo. This is the oldest organisational structure of a university and it exerts an exceptionally powerful influence on our culture and staff expectations of a new vice-chancellor. From a collegial viewpoint, the university is a democratic, self-governing community of self-motivated and -directed, autonomous scholars. Therefore, the primary task of the university is to create an environment in which academics, and thereby other members of the community, can thrive, on the assumption that what is in the best interest of an academic is in the best interest of the university.

At the other extreme, a purely corporate organisation is hierarchical, with power and direction-setting residing at the top and implementation effected through line management. Appointments are made by the vice-chancellor, and the post-holders have particular responsibilities and are held to account for what happens lower down the hierarchy. This is the world of managers and management tools such as “reporting lines” and “cascading objectives”, and the view that what is in the best interest of the institution is in the best interest of the individual. The popularity of this organisational form rests on its clarity, efficiency, speed of response and ability to effect change.

The balance between these two organisational models varies markedly between universities. As a rule of thumb, ancient universities tend to be more collegial and new universities more corporate. Whatever the university, members of its council/board and professional services will tend to see the vice-chancellor, and her or his leadership team, as rather collegial, whereas to many academic colleagues, they will look rather corporate. To add to the complexity, the situation is not static and universities tend to be more corporate at times of rapid change, such as we are seeing today.

Keeping these organisational forms in operational balance is a continuing challenge. An extremely corporate university simply would not provide an environment in which academic staff and students could flourish intellectually, while an extremely collegial university would be slow, unresponsive and inefficient. Inevitably, as we often see in the pages of Times Higher Education, those in more corporate areas of activity wonder why the vice-chancellor cannot make their university even more efficient, fast or coordinated, while those in more collegial areas wonder why the vice-chancellor cannot make their university even more democratic and laissez-faire.

But the coexistence of these two very different and apparently contradictory models is not a bad thing. On the contrary – it lies at the very heart of a university’s wonderfully quirky culture and makes the job of vice-chancellor probably the best in the world.

Paul Curran has been vice-chancellor of City University London since 2010. He was previously vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University.

And finally…

Lead feature illustration (5 March 2015)

Getting started

  • Identify a university that’s down on its uppers. Councils and governing bodies have high expectations. It’s always helpful to inherit an institution where they’ve been systematically lowered.
  • Have none of the personal characteristics, interests or policy ideas of your immediate predecessor, and all of the personal characteristics, interests and policy ideas of your predecessor-but-one. This is the person the selection committee now regrets dismissing.
  • Accept that your life expectancy in the role is 4.7 years. Be prepared to depart at any time, and make sure everyone knows that. Paradoxically, this increases your job security and, when the worst happens, at least you’re prepared.
  • On arrival, don’t believe your own publicity or your university’s publicity; it’s seldom dishonest, but it’s always partial.
  • Remember the following: a house is what you have a mortgage for. A car is something you’ve bought yourself for the past 30 years. A driver is someone you see in the rear-view mirror. A parking space is to be hustled for every morning. A lavatory is a public convenience. Trains have seats in standard class. Money is what you use to pay for lunch.

Getting going

  • Don’t get sucked into detailed and highly specific lists of operating objectives and performance measures. People will always focus on objective , bullet point four – the one you failed to deliver on. Your job is to make the university stronger and more secure, year on year, not to ensure a 5 per cent reduction in the cost of colour photocopying.
  • And don’t think you can run a university on your own. The intellect and muscle of 3,000 is 3,000-fold the intellect and muscle of one. But only if they’re pulling in the same direction. Pay particular attention to the car park staff, the cleaners, the cooks and those on reception desks; they can destroy your university’s reputation even more quickly than you can.
  • You will have many acquaintances but few, if any, friends. Other vice-chancellors are competitors, the more so if you’re in the same mission group. If you’re in a different mission group, you’ll soon be aware of your position in the social stratum.
  • When you get a difficult decision wrong, you will be vilified. When you get a difficult decision right, one person will be brave enough to congratulate you six months later. If someone commends you immediately, be very concerned.
  • Remember the following: every new course proposal has already been thought of. If it has not been thought of, it’s a very bad idea. Every building development overruns. Yours was one of 128 universities to improve its performance in the research excellence framework.
  • You didn’t enter academia to worry about cash flow. But you’re worrying now.
  • Monday’s senior-management team meeting is where people who believe they can run the university better than you congregate. They are right. Do not leave the room.
  • Senate is a therapy session for disgruntled academics. You will hate it, but think of the greater good.
  • Council is a therapy session for disappointed late-middle-aged men. They have realised that it is their only opportunity to run a major business. This public-spirited work probably makes them easier to live with.

Getting out

  • You will have been a disappointment. This outcome comes with a cast-iron guarantee.
  • You will be given an interesting piece of modern art at a dinner that no one wished to attend. You will buy a car, a home to retire to, an internet connection and your own lunch.
  • The person appointed to replace you will be your diametric opposite. They, too, will be a disappointment.
  • For three years, you will be invited on to numerous committees, working groups and special inquiries. This is your reward. You have worked hard. You will now work far harder than you ever did as a vice-chancellor. You will not be remunerated.
  • Any public recognition of your contribution, which is probably best avoided, will relate directly to the perceived status of your university.
  • After three years, dependent on the perceived status of your university, you will either be given responsibility for an Oxbridge college or fade gently into oblivion. The latter is, of course, infinitely preferable.

The author was a vice-chancellor during the Noughties.

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Reader's comments (2)

Setting a good example and leading from the front is also important in gaining the respect of those you would ask to follow you. For example, never take a pay rise that's greater than the average for other academics at your institution. To make a good impression announce that you are taking a pay cut on your first day in the new job because you think vice-chancellor salaries have been over-inflated. Set up a doctoral bursary with the money saved. Get out amongst your staff and students and discover for yourself what their concerns and accomplishments are.
Aciknowledge that universities have a gender problem and do something about it, as suggested in this blog post "50 shades of sexism in the academy"