Academics oppose advertising heads of department posts externally

Leeds accused of attempting to extend control of central management by ending practice of selecting heads of school from within the faculty

June 25, 2019
Source: Getty
Getting a head: the University of Leeds has decided to advertise heads of school posts internally and externally

Academics at the University of Leeds are opposing plans to advertise heads of department posts externally, rather than selecting candidates from within the faculty.

Scholars have traditionally been heavily involved in the selection of heads of department – at Leeds and at many other UK universities – with the post often being rotated among senior members of staff, who hold it for a fixed term before passing it on to a colleague.

However, Leeds has decided to advertise heads of school posts internally and externally. The institution’s University and College Union branch said that it was alerted to the change only when an advertisement was placed to lead the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science.

The branch said that selecting heads of department from within the faculty helped to “create a collegial environment” and “helps to prevent the head of school role being primarily about delivering the managerial decisions of the university executive group”.

“To those in a different line of work, this might seem like a strange conversation, but there is a crucial issue for us is here regarding internal democracy and scholarly scrutiny. If academics, particularly subject specialists, have no opportunities to express their views on candidates’ research and teaching records, there is a real worry that that could lead to reputational damage for the department,” said Vicky Blake, Leeds’ UCU branch president.

“HR seem to want the role of head of department to have a more managerial perspective, but what is very important about leadership in an academic context is not solely the ability to ‘manage’,” she said, highlighting that a key focus for a head of school was the academic direction of their department.

“We are concerned that focusing on bringing in external candidates is a move to increase corporate and central control. It is also missing a trick in terms of looking at internal talent and the communities that have been built up in the department,” Ms Blake added.

Another academic told Times Higher Education that the move in effect sidelined the bulk of academics in the schools in question and “raises serious questions about the methods and aims of management”.

A university spokeswoman said that Leeds had “taken a more consistent approach to our recruitment process for heads of school across the university” as “part of our commitment to enhancing both our academic leadership and diversity”.

“Heads of school posts are open to both internal and external applicants, and interview panels have representatives from schools as part of our approach to ensuring academic alignment. Developing our internal talent is important, which is why we continue to invest in a series of senior leadership programmes,” the spokeswoman said.

Separately, Leeds confirmed that it would not push ahead with controversial plans to require anonymous discussion boards to be created for all modules at the institution. Academics had warned that anonymous posting could lead to students posting offensive comments.

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Reader's comments (1)

This strategy of in-breeding inhibits the development of a species and the limiting of managerial experiences through internal only promotion has close parallels. It is somewhat of an exaggeration to claim that 'traditionally scholars has been heavily involved in the selection of Heads of Department'. More correctly, a few key individuals are heavily involved, and given that internally they may well have a relationship with potential candidates, subjectivity is likely to be compromised. Equally, the claim that selecting internally creates a collegiate environment and guards against the role of executing executive group decisions is fundamentally flawed. Fresh views are less likely to ‘simply run with the ball’ than the promotion of someone who has lived in and succeeded in the current system, under the influence of the executive. Additionally, Heads of Department are all too often chosen (from internally or externally) on a research profile rather than any managerial acumen, but the inference that the Department does not need someone with management skills could not be further from the truth; it should be their prime role. The selection process should systematically focus on such criteria, not rely on scholarly democracy. It is not wrong to reward individuals from within an organisation, but to artificially limit the candidate pool cannot be a sound action when looking for the most capable individual for the role advertised.

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