Casting the v-c net far and wide would ensure the best catch

The finest vice-chancellors may be found outside academia, argues David Allen. We should not limit the boundaries of the search

May 6, 2010

Amanda Goodall's book, Socrates in the Boardroom (2009), argues that the best scholars make the best vice-chancellors. "Next business", most of you would say, since this seems so obvious and non-controversial. But it has got me thinking more generally about who is best placed to lead organisations.

To be a head teacher, you have to be a licensed teacher. To be a Chief Constable, you have to be a police officer. Yet most NHS Trust chief executives are not doctors and some of the best football coaches (Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho) were not great footballers. Martin Johnson was undoubtedly a great rugby player but at best the jury is out on him as a coach. And if we had a limitless supply of great academics queuing up to be vice-chancellors, then fair enough. But, at least in the UK, the talent pool may well have capability but it is by no means clear that it has enough capacity.

Recent Leadership Foundation research projects, led for example by Glynis Breakwell on vice-chancellor appointments and David Smith on pro vice-chancellors, show that the gene pool from which UK vice-chancellors are overwhelmingly drawn is neither wide nor deep. The average tenure of a vice-chancellor is now less than five years, implying 20 per cent turnover a year. Smith tells us there are about 350 pro vice-chancellors in the country. If we assume that, at any one time, around 200 are interested in progressing to a vice-chancellorship (not unreasonable if one takes into account proximity to retirement, inclination and other career options), then a pro vice-chancellor on a headhunter's books has a fair chance of being matched to a vice-chancellorship within a year or so (10:1 for each vacancy if 20 vacancies a year).

What tends to happen therefore is that governing bodies specify academic credibility as a key requirement (aka the Goodall principle) and the headhunters work through their lists of pro vice-chancellors and gradually place them, refilling the hopper as more pro vice-chancellors come on to the market. Although in fairness headhunters try hard to diversify the pool of candidates, looking outside the sector and overseas, they can work only within their clients' brief and governing bodies tend to be conservative for fear of offending the academy.

There are exceptions of course, but Breakwell shows that the average age for vice-chancellors is 57, the average age on appointment is 54, there is a preponderance of men, little ethnic diversity and (again consistent with Goodall's observations) an Oxbridge background is a marker for vice-chancellors.

Although few would disagree that academic credibility starts you further up the grid, is it the key identifier as we enter the most challenging period that any of us will have encountered in our professional lives? Deep and sophisticated business, financial, entrepreneurial and partnership skills will be needed to keep universities afloat. Universities' strategies and market positioning will need to be spot on and difficult choices will have to be made, demanding leadership skills of the highest order.

One thing I have noticed in leading the professional services of three universities is that many of my professional colleagues come in with at least as good qualifications as their academic colleagues - that is, firsts or upper seconds and PhDs from leading institutions. They often find themselves working near the top of the office soon after appointment, for example as planners or executive officers, and have planned induction programmes enabling them to work in various parts of the organisation, including academic units. They are therefore well equipped to make their way eventually to the chief executive role, but currently are effectively barred from doing so, even though their experience of high-level working is at least equivalent to that of academic colleagues.

I would like to see governing bodies levelling the playing field so that all members of top teams (many of whom will be graduates of top management programmes) are at least able to compete for the top job if they wish to do so, and are not ruled out simply for the lack of an academic track record.

It makes sense for governing bodies to trawl as widely as possible for top leadership positions and not constrain themselves excessively in terms of prior experience other than internationally competitive leadership and management.

Over the next 10 years and in generations to come, our universities will require the best leaders they can possibly find, from whatever background.

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