Building talent pipeline ‘key to diversifying sector leadership’

Vice-chancellor says sector should aim to get to a point where losing staff from diverse backgrounds is no longer a worry

November 3, 2020
large pipes
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Universities should focus their inclusion efforts on creating such a large pipeline of future institutional leaders from diverse backgrounds that any leakage becomes “good for the system”, a leader has argued.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, which has dramatically diversified its student and staff community over the past two decades, said that one of his strategies has been to set aside a pot of money to appoint more African and female academics.

In seeking to advance academics from similarly diverse backgrounds to leadership positions, the sector must “create enough of a fat pipeline so if you have leakage, that’s good for the system and we shouldn’t worry about it”, he said.

Speaking during a panel discussion on strategies to advance diversity and inclusion at the Times Higher Education Leadership & Management Summit, Professor Habib added: “You need a fat pipeline and not such a lean pipeline that it makes it a zero-sum game: if you lose somebody it’s a net loss. If you’re producing enough of a pipeline in research-intensive institutions, it shouldn’t worry you that you are losing people in that process.”

Professor Habib, who will take over as director of SOAS University of London in January, said that he was “sceptical of quotas as a general rule”, claiming that “appointments, however committed you are to diversity, cannot be at the expense of…excellence”.

“I worry about debates…in decolonisation and transformation literature about excellence being racially coded or socially coded. There’s an element of truth in that but that does not mean that you don’t take excellence seriously. You’ve got to decode, de-racialise the narrative of excellence, but it doesn’t mean you ignore the issue of meritocracy,” he said.

Amit Chakma, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, who also spoke on the panel, agreed that universities, particularly those that are research intensive, had to “grow the pipeline” and said that “if you are truly meritocratic, I am 100 per cent convinced that diversity will follow”.

But Lily Kong, president of the Singapore Management University and both the first Singaporean and the first woman to be appointed to lead a university in the country, said that ability and performance were not simply “natural gifts” but qualities that were “nurtured and developed with opportunity”.

“When the playing field is not even, the access to opportunity, the access to developmental programmes, may not be available for everyone in the same way or to the same extent…There’s got to be some consideration of that.”

Speaking about the pandemic, Professor Kong added that she was worried that “universities around the world in large part are taking gender-neutral policies, which in effect are gender-blind”.

She cited the example of the tenure clock being extended in the same way for both male and female academics, despite the fact that women’s research publication and submission rates have fallen, whereas, in many cases, the equivalent figures for men have increased.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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