Leadership sans frontières

Is globalisation becoming a reality in the academy’s top ranks? It’s early days, but there are signs that the barriers are falling as universities look abroad to find the best captains. John Morgan reports

November 11, 2010

At first glance, the world’s leading universities seem to be moving towards a globalised form of management, in which leaders are recruited regardless of nationality and move freely across borders.

Of the top 100 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, nine are headed by individuals recruited overseas. In the US, Canada-born presidents lead Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University, while the president of the University of Southern California was born in Cyprus.

In Canada, the president of McMaster University hails from South Africa, while an American and a New Zealander lead the British institutions King’s College London and University College London. China-born Lap-Chee Tsui is vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. And on the Continent, an Italian leads the University of Basel in Switzerland.

An emerging global market can also be perceived in the international trajectory of some academic careers. When Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) launched in 2009, it appointed the thoroughly international Choon Fong Shih as founding president to lead its bid for world-class status. Shih sat his under­graduate degree in Singapore, his home nation, took a master’s degree at Canada’s McGill Uni­versity and a PhD at Harvard University, before embarking on an academic career at Brown University and the National University of Singapore, of which he later became president.

Or there is Arnoud de Meyer, a Belgian national. He took his first degree at the University of Ghent before becoming founding dean of Insead’s Singapore campus, director of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and finally president of the Singapore Management University.

In the UK, there have been a number of overseas appointments to senior posts at leading universities. Australia-born Alan Gilbert, who died in August, was appointed the University of Manchester’s inaugural vice-chancellor and president in 2004, following spells in charge of the universities of Tasmania and Melbourne.

Other senior appointments have gone to figures who may be UK-born but whose management training was undertaken overseas, exposing them to different ways of working. For example, Alison Richard and Andrew Hamilton were appointed vice-chancellors of Cambridge and Oxford respectively, after spells as provost of Yale University.

Once installed at the top at Cambridge, Richard emulated the Ivy League institution’s spectacular private fundraising with a successful £1 billion campaign. Cambridge proudly announced that it was the first university outside the US to reach such a target. Richard’s term recently ended and she was replaced by Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who took charge in September.

Hamilton’s predecessor at Oxford was New Zealand-born John Hood, former vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland. He was the first “outsider” appointed to take the reins at Oxford, but his plans for governance reform proved divisive (see box, below).

In Canada, Sri Lanka-born Indira Samarasekera is president of the University of Alberta, while Bangladesh-born Amit Chakma leads the University of Western Ontario.

But can this really be called a global market? Despite the hype, many experts are convinced that international mobility at the academy’s senior levels is relatively limited, and that there are vast differences in mobility patterns between different continents.

In addition, there is disagreement over whether – or how – overseas appointments are changing the nature of universities.

But there is consensus on one point: the trend towards international appointments at the senior level is only in its early stages.

“The barriers to a foreign national coming to lead a university are considerably higher than for students to study overseas or professors to teach overseas,” says Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, published this year.

Wildavsky argues that international mobility at the senior management level tends to be confined to English-speaking countries, rather than running between anglophone nations and China or Latin America, for example. Language may be the crucial barrier here, he suggests, with university leaders needing top-level contacts and communication skills to deal with government and business.

However, not all English-speaking countries are equal in this respect. The US tends to export its senior staff, but import just a tiny proportion. As the country has the widest pool of English-speaking academics, the best universities and the highest salaries on offer, American institutions clearly do not feel the need to venture far in order to fill their top positions.

But Wildavsky, who is a senior Fellow in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, thinks the global situation may change.

Referring to Shih, he says: “I think we are gradually going to see a lot more of that. We are in a global market. Universities are looking beyond their own borders. The barriers are high, but we see it beginning to change.”

Shih’s international career is “emblematic of some of the new possibilities opening up in a globalised higher education world”, says Wildavsky, and it offers “a reversal of the conventional trajectory”.

“He has gone from East to West and back to the East, and then he was recruited to KAUST, which adds a whole new twist to the ‘brain circulation’ phenomenon,” he says. “That is something I don’t believe would have happened 30, 40, 50 years ago.

“For KAUST, it sends the message that its aim is to be a world-class university. It is not going to be insular; it is going to recruit the best people – wherever they are.”

In China, Wildavsky adds, universities seeking to attain world-class status are increasingly looking to tempt back senior Chinese academics who migrated to the West to study or to further their careers. These returning academics are commonly called hai gui – “sea turtles”, a homonym in Mandarin for “returnee”.

Many sea turtles are leading major schools and programmes at Chinese institutions, he says. “They can serve as a bridge between East and West. If you are a university trying to become much better in terms of quality and trying to do it quickly, developing home-grown talent takes a long time.”

By enticing native-born professors with a background of success at top Western universities to return, Asian institutions are “importing some of the values that made those universities great”, Wildavsky suggests.

Among English-speaking countries, the interest in international appointments is being driven by a movement towards a more managerial approach in academic administration, says Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College.

“They will be interested in picking up leaders who have that experience or mindset, as we have in the US and as you are getting equally in the UK.”

But Altbach also notes legal impediments to true international mobility, such as government appointments of university presidents in countries including China and Saudi Arabia.

“In a few countries,” he adds, “up until recently it was illegal to appoint foreigners to a senior post.” Japan was one such case, but it recently changed its law.

Amanda Goodall, author of Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars (2009), says that “the picture isn’t really that internationalised”, with language being a crucial factor limiting movement mainly to major anglophone countries.

She describes past UK appointments, such as those of the Americans Steven Schwartz at Brunel University and Laura Tyson at London Business School, as “part of the process of trying to learn from the States”. A particular interest is private fundraising.

Goodall adds that moves by the UK’s coalition government to allow universities greater autonomy may bring an influx of leaders from the US, where experience of a private not-for-profit sector runs deep.

Meanwhile on the Continent, there seems to be even less movement.

Jo Ritzen, president of Maastricht University and former minister for education, culture and science in the Dutch government, says: “Continental Europe is by and large national in its presidential appointments for universities – with the exception of the recently created University of Luxembourg, headed by [Spanish-born] Rolf Tarrach. Germany, France, Spain and Italy are closed shops, despite attempts now and then to recruit foreign presidents.”

Among lower levels of senior management, it is a slightly different story. For example, two of Maastrict’s seven deans are not Dutch, notes Ritzen, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and ETH Zürich have non-Swiss senior administrators.

“The market is small in the sense that in general no more than – at a rough estimate – 5 per cent of senior administrative positions are for foreigners,” he says, mostly drawn from neighbouring countries.

Ritzen sees two reasons for this limited mobility. First is “the feeling that foreigners are not sufficiently aware of the local culture and do not have the local networks”. Then there are pension-transfer problems, as retirement funds differ by country and cannot easily be transferred.

Earlier this year, Ritzen published A Chance for European Universities, Or: Avoiding the Looming University Crisis in Europe, which notes that continental universities perform poorly in world rankings. The book calls for institutions to be given more autonomy from government (along with increased powers to raise private funds and select students) to permit them to make greater economic and social contributions.

Ritzen says that the obstacles to the international recruitment of leaders should be “weighed against the great advantage: the contribution of a different view and the accompanying innovation in universities”.

Foreign managers can also bring specialised skill sets – a prominent factor for UK universities recruiting overseas.

Simon Laver, a founding partner at executive search firm Perrett Laver, which works with many British universities, says that a “truly global perspective in a vice-chancellor and certain other senior management figures is now critical”.

Roles that require skill sets “more likely to have been honed and developed overseas…are likely to be filled from those contexts”, he adds.

Australia-born Malcolm Gillies is vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University and former vice-chancellor of City University London. Prior to moving to the UK, he was deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the Australian National University and then its vice-president (development) – a role that saw him work from an office at Yale.

Gillies believes that one factor that will drive overseas appointments in the UK is the changing demands on universities and their leaders as a result of the radical shift in the nature of the country’s higher education system.

“Vice-chancellors have been tending to become more externally focused,” he says. “The pressures of the time – and of funding cuts – have meant that the external and lobbying roles become stronger.”

As the UK moves towards lifting the cap on tuition fees for home students, “those externally related skills will become more and more important”, Gillies says.

“This may mean not just that skills in development or fundraising will be more keenly sought, but that more general skills of external advocacy and representation – to business, to the community, and even to governments and prospective student bodies – will become more highly rated in the skill set of vice-chancellors.”

Jeroen Huisman, director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath, says that any notion of a trend towards overseas appointments in the UK needs to be put in perspective. He points to the appointment of US-born David VandeLinde as Bath’s vice-chancellor as long ago as 1992.

“If there is a trend, we have to bear in mind that the background of senior managers is often, if not solely, the Anglo-Saxon system: the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand. They have all been through similar turmoils, such as the reduction of budgets for higher education, new public management impacts – perform­ance indicators and so on – dealing with market mechanisms, and the rise of marketing and branding.”

As a result, he argues, the appointments are not going to affect the UK university system too deeply.

In Canada, Alberta’s president believes her international background has boosted her university’s global profile, and that overseas appointments can aid a nation’s higher education system.

Indira Samarasekera took a BSc in mechanical engineering at the University of Ceylon in her home country of Sri Lanka, before postgraduate study at the University of California and the University of British Columbia. She was appointed Alberta’s president in July 2005.

“We are beginning to see indications that the market is going global,” she says. “Of all countries, I think Britain has been the most successful in bringing over presidents from very different systems and having them succeed.

“I think in places such as the US, where there is a large pool to choose from, perhaps they have to do less of it.”

She adds: “The reason universities are looking to recruit from other places is first of all [they are] looking for the best person for the job. These jobs are much more difficult than they were 20 years ago – there is a limit to the number of people who could be successful.”

There is also the attraction of “someone with a global perspective who understands the rapidly changing dynamic in higher education. Sometimes universities are looking for a disruptive force, in a constructive sense – someone from far away who can take a fresh look at the system and say: ‘Some of these things have to change.’?”

Asked whether her international background was a key factor in her appointment at Alberta, Samarasekera points to the advantages it gives her when leading the university’s activities in countries such as India and China.

“I don’t know whether they specifically recruited me because of [my background], but it has had a profound influence on how I have been able to operate. I understand what the developing world is like…That knowledge has been vital for me in trying to understand how we can recruit more international students. I know how their parents think, what their expectations are, and I know what their education system is like.”

She adds: “When I go to India, I look like them. I can eat their food, wear their clothes. Whether we like it or not, we tend to be biased by our ethnic connections.”

And it is a “big advantage”, she argues, “for a country to have a mix of university presidents from different parts of the world. You are not just a leader of your university, you are a leader of higher education in your country – you have a role to play in policy.”

Indeed, Samarasekera was a member of the delegation led by Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, on a recent visit to India.

But when it comes to the values universities are looking to import through overseas appointments, one country remains the most desirable in some key fields.

The US “understands the issues of public relations and marketing”, says Samarasekera, noting that Alberta’s recently appointed vice-president of external relations is American.

Does this mean that we may end up with an American monoculture of higher education management spreading across the globe?

She says that no leader would decide their institution must “look like Yale. These universities are very much driven by the academy. You have to bring a whole slew of very opinionated, independent-minded colleagues along, who will resist you if your proposals for reform are not authentic, and not connected to the values of the university.”

Besides offering new ways to address market concerns, there can be a beneficial cultural exchange from overseas appointments. This softer motivation can be seen in the appointment of Calie Pistorius, vice-chancellor of the University of Hull, and previously principal of the University of Pretoria.

He believes that experience of working in South Africa amid the dramatic changes of post-apartheid society has helped him in his new role in a city with high levels of social deprivation.

“South Africa has gone through a lot of transitions – politically, socially, in almost every sense you can think of,” he says. “We interpret change as progress for the better. It is something we are used to dealing with.”

In South Africa, there is an expectation that universities will play a significant role in achieving better outcomes for society, he says, “improving people’s quality of life, building the social fabric and income growth for people and companies. In the case of Hull, that resonated very well.”

Pistorius argues that overseas appointments at the senior level can, in the right circumstances, produce palpable benefits.“It can serve to strengthen not only individual universities but also the system, bringing diversity and experiences of best practice elsewhere, bringing new networks,” he says. “Going out to see the rest of the world can only strengthen the system.

“I’m not saying every university should recruit from abroad. But from time to time, it can bring something new and valuable.”

Top dollar: it certainly pays to work for Uncle Sam

One obstacle facing UK universities looking abroad for leadership may be remuneration. Times Higher Education looked at salaries for university leaders in the top 100 of our World University Rankings.

The results show that salary and ranking are not directly correlated. Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University’s president, has the highest salary, including benefits, of $1,380,000 – yet his institution is ranked 18th. The presidents of Ohio State University and New York University, E. Gordon Gee and John Sexton respectively, are second and third in salary terms – but their institutions are ranked 66th and 60th.

Harvard University is the world’s top-ranked institution, but pays the 29th-highest salary. Several US state universities, lower in prestige but bigger than Ivy League institutions, also offer high pay.

However, one trend is obvious. US institutions achieve the highest rankings and pay the best salaries. Of the 37 highest salaries in the World University Rankings, only two are offered by non-US institutions – University College London and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

For those looking for the best deals, exchange rates are key. Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, says:?“Britain would be less attractive than it was three or four years ago because of the radical shift in the value of the currency.”

Asked how UK senior salaries compare with overseas, Simon Laver, a founding partner at executive search firm Perrett Laver, says: “The combined effect of the weak pound, the risk to our pension schemes and the comparatively high cost of living remains a key issue.

“At the vice-chancellor level we remain just about competitive, yet without question a North American candidate, and potentially an Australian candidate, will be more highly remunerated.”

A table of leaders' salaries is published in the print and digital editions of the 11 November issue of Times Higher Education. Order your copy or subscribe.

No invitation to the party: regions excluded from global movement

Some regions appear to be largely outside the global exchange in university leaders, notably Latin America and Africa.

In the latter, the universities where senior staff are inter­nationally mobile tend to be in South Africa, and the former colonial connection to the UK is important. The vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, Chris Brink, is a former head of Stellenbosch University, while the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Martin Hall, is a former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

The perceived status of African universities is likely to be one reason for the region’s near-exclusion from the market. There were only two African universities – Cape Town and the University of Alexandria – in the top 200 of this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

In the top 500 of the 2010 Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, the South African trio of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal were the only African institutions to register.

Those three universities are headed by individuals who all gained either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree from the University of Oxford, but who have not held permanent senior posts outside Africa.

Many experts have expressed concern that Western universities are not doing enough to build links with African institutions and to ensure that the continent benefits from the global exchange of ideas.

In terms of Latin America’s absence, uni­versity status and the lack of commonality with the linguistic and cultural elements of the anglo­phone-dominated global academy are key elements.

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