Are scholars or executives best suited to lead universities?

Headhunters Odgers Berndtson ask if academics have the business skills necessary to run a university

January 16, 2014

Source: Kobal

Do v-cs mean business? Executive recruiting firm claims that the required skill set to lead a university has broadened

A firm of headhunters has questioned whether academics “are the right leaders of tomorrow” for universities, suggesting higher education leaders may need skills “most effectively honed in the business world”.

In a paper titled “21st century academic leadership: from the lecture hall or the boardroom?”, executive recruiter Odgers Berndtson asks whether a “new kind of leadership” is needed to respond to trends such as the globalisation of higher education, government funding cuts and the growth of online learning.

“Are the academics who have traditionally led universities the right leaders of tomorrow? Hasn’t the required skillset broadened?” the paper, which the firm plans to publish online, asks.

It continues that although “there’s no reason academics can’t be just as entrepreneurial…as those running FTSE 100 companies”, university leaders “increasingly need a wider range of skills that are often most effectively (albeit not exclusively) honed in the business world”.

It adds: “Many of the challenges facing universities are the same as those facing the commercial world – greater competition for talent and customers, intensified by operating in a global marketplace with fast-moving technology – so it makes sense that leadership forged in business should translate into a university context.”

In the US, the proportion of university presidents coming directly from a post outside higher education rose from 17 to 23 per cent between 2007 and 2012, the paper says. In the UK, 40 per cent of university leaders have “spent significant time” outside academia, it adds.

Odgers Berndtson concludes: “The universities of the future might be led by a world-class academic, a high-flying business executive, or a combination of the two. There is no single right answer – but those who stand still now risk finding themselves moving backwards before long.”

Stephen Crookbain, partner and head of the education practice at Odgers Berndtson, said there was “most certainly a connection between what we’ve found through this research and the rise in levels of remuneration [for university leaders]”.

But Amanda Goodall, author of Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities should be Led by Top Scholars, warned that universities would “absolutely go down the toilet” if they were led by business figures.

Dr Goodall, a senior lecturer in management at the Cass Business School, highlighted the contribution of Californian universities Stanford and Berkeley to technological development in Silicon Valley. These universities are “led by absolutely outstanding scholars who could hire other outstanding scholars who could create these spillover effects [for the US economy]”, she said.

There was “no way in hell Stanford University would ever have a businessman run it”, she added.

Dr Goodall also pointed out that “a lot of data and evidence” on researcher and university performance had gone into her argument that leading academics make the best leaders. To be a good leader “you have to understand the psychology behind your core workers, you have to know what motivates them”, whereas business leaders moving to universities tended to introduce “managerial systems” to try to “control” academics whose work they did not understand, she said.

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Reader's comments (6)

The myth that top execs from one field do well in another. For example it was thought that stuffy engineers were ill suited to the brave world of maintaining UK railways, much better a bunch of ex catering execs, a few broken rails and fatalities later, we learned differently. The most successful UK companies often appoint people from related companies (very rare for someone to get a big job in retail if they are not steeped in retail). The same is now (perhaps thankfully) true for 'boring' banking (the one with customers, loans, deposits etc). The best leaders I have worked for and encountered are those who have the strongest academic records. IMHO, problems are the career path to the top and the attitude of the governing councils. Career path, a big admin job is often damaging to an academic career if it comes early, for lab based scientists it almost in every case is a one way ticket, do it and no way back to the old job. Often the people with the right skill set and academic credibility wait too long to climb on the rungs. Sometimes the people who get on early enough to get to the top are the classic non achiever. They fail upwards at one post after another (more accurately they never hold any job long enough for a proper judgement; their next job comes simply because they held the previous one). This relates to governing councils, most often they have no real knowledge of universities (beyond the superficial), they suspect the motives of academics voices. They can be easily swayed by 'experience' and a good manner coupled to some apparently plausible vision that chimes with some position paper or article they have recently read. For example every RG University (except Oxbridge) I will guarantee has somewhere a plan to be top 5. Since by definition 3/4 will fail, is anyone sacked? Yet I bet at appointment the ability of the VC designate to outline this top 5 vision would have been high in the governing council list of criteria.
This absurd debate is due to the fact that democratic accountability has been removed from most UK universities. If academics elected their Deans and Heads of University, as is the case in most European universities, this "discussion" would not even take place because it would be rightly seen as ludicrous. Regrettably, UK academics do not seem to mind that they are no longer ainst the fact that they have been disenfranchised. They do nothing.
Correction: This absurd debate is due to the fact that democratic accountability has been removed from most UK universities. If academics elected their Deans and Heads of University, as is the case in most European universities, this "discussion" would not even take place because it would be rightly seen as ludicrous. Regrettably, UK academics do not seem to mind that they are no longer able to elect officers of their universities and do nothing against the fact that they have been disenfranchised.
PS. Paradoxically, academics in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe of the former "totalitarian" communist bloc, now enjoy a statutory right to elect the officers of their universities.
The damage council can inflict on a University by going for the 'best for business' route is impressive. One RG Uni I know well has taken on a number of failed exec's, including a HR director who cost her previous employer millions. This follows on from senior academics appointing lots of ex-forces forelock-tuggers to lower/middle management jobs, they know their place and always defer to the academics wishes. Overall all that counts is the RAE and the number of 'Bums on Seats' to most Uni senior management now, driven by the business people who form the bulk of council... Then there's the number of s-too-dense from China, whose task is simply to absorb as much as they can, paying now so good for cash flow, so when they go home they can set up and staff Universities in competition with ours, not just for students 'Bums on Seats' but for the research and industry that comes from it, "it's just good business" the council claim, but it's also sealing the fate of a number of UK Uni's.
It turns out that academics should have not only scientific achievements, know what and how to teach students but also have business skills! It is too much, it is not?! University’s leader should have now (as always) general vision, inner need for development, ability to build long –term tasks and see the solutions for the results’ achieving. So, such person should be able to take into account all market needs, to make choice in favour the proper strategy policy and as for business skills he/she can attract successful and prospective business leaders to build win-to-win projects and contracts. It will be enough well thought-out organized collaboration with business.