A very peculiar business

March 9, 2001

Universities are too diverse to be run by profit-seeking chief execs. They need more care, says Wang Gungwu.

More universities in Asia of late have turned to headhunters in search of a new vice-chancellor or president. If the university is serious about being an international institution, the qualities listed for the kind of head it needs today read increasingly like those for a chief executive of a multinational corporation. Some universities go further and ask that the person they want should not only be entrepreneurial but also be a scholar with a fine international reputation.

The chairman of one such search committee, who had been the head of the public service commission in his own country, confessed to me that his brief led him to feel that he was expected to find a cross between a Nobel prizewinner and the chief executive of General Motors. He was obviously exaggerating, but only partly because he thought the university was unrealistic. His concern was whether the combination of chief executive and scholar was really what universities need.

In recent years, there has been a tendency for vice-chancellors and university presidents to be feted if they were compared to chief executives of large corporations. Indeed, many universities have become so large that they could well be better run by people who work, and are paid, like chief executives. The problem is how to adapt corporate methods of leadership and control to the scholarly structures and educational needs of universities.

It is true that some professional schools and technological colleges by themselves would have little trouble going all the way with the style and rhetoric of corporations. This fact reminds us that universities originated in the Middle Ages as professional training centres, notably in theology, medicine and law, and the modern world has now added that of business to this worldly list.

In the face of such a revival of professional priorities, the professors and lecturers who subscribe to Cardinal Newman's idea of the university have had to become a little defensive. Those who teach in humanities and science faculties that offer a broader education, and intangible values such as thinking pursuits and critical skills, may argue that they try to reproduce themselves to keep the academic fires burning. But they have a hard time explaining to management consultants what they produce and how their productivity might be measured. It is, therefore, easier for chief executive-type heads of institutions to belittle their efforts, neglect their needs or even ignore them.

It no longer surprises me to hear that a department of classics or even modern languages has been closed in the face of rationalisation; or that a department of philosophy or physics has to give way to save funds for worthy and more practical courses such as environmental or media communications studies.

Living in Asia and comparing its new universities with the older ones I visit in Europe has made me wonder at the speed at which many Asian universities have adopted the language and aspirations of a chief executive-led organisation. The great faith they used to have in historic, ivy-clad institutions has retreated before the advent of the super-administered ones, including some covered in ivy, that now flourish in North America. If one of these new Asian universities is told that it would have to count on student fees and loyal donors if it were to thrive, its vice-chancellor, president or rector would be quick to toe the line. Before long, he/she would realise that most of the departments and their teaching staff do not fit well in the new scenario. The university head then has the choice of treating these academic colleagues as square pegs in round holes, or as exceptions for which different criteria have to be found.

This is the moment of truth for the average chief executive. If he/she sees them as square pegs, this is because he/she believes that round holes are the norm and what he/she has to do is to shave the corners and make them round. If he/she is prepared to think of them as exceptional, he/she is in danger of compromising corporate principles that maximise efficiency. This is an especially difficult choice if he/she is someone from academia who has merely read about modern chief executives and admired their vigorous style.

Clearly, the chief executives of single industries are not the best examples to follow. Universities are too variegated in the kinds of graduates they send out to be compared to the highly focused production line. They are more like smaller versions of multi-industry conglomerates that need different approaches for different sectors of their organisations. In addition, they are expected to survive in a highly competitive international marketplace of ideas and practices.

In Asia, there are few enough scholars with exceptional administrative talents and even fewer who know much about multi-faceted corporations. To create a climate of high expectations about their adaptability while nursing hopes for quick results is a recipe for disappointment. To avoid this, the choices are stark. The university could aim low and find a head who would treat the university as a single-industry organisation. An efficient norm is quickly identified and all parts of the university are made to conform in order to optimise efficiency. If this is not feasible, the university might simply proclaim that the corporate rhetoric is in place and then muddle through. The least viable choice in the business atmosphere in Asia today is to try to prove that the university has the right and duty to find its own way of managing the unusual people, both staff and students, it has to have within its campus.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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