Emmanuel lights way on self-governance

October 19, 2007

Decision-making rightly belongs to the academics who undertake teaching and research, says Terence Kealey. How should a vice-chancellor run a university? Since the Western university is a thousand years old, the conventions are long established. Yet, as the Government's Lambert review shows, university governance now faces its greatest threat since the Inquisition captured the first cohort of universities during the Middle Ages.

The best higher education institution is Harvard University, which is modelled on Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in its 17th-century dispensation. A successful university is, therefore, a self-governing academic community. But because universities are too large to adopt the governing bodies of Oxbridge colleges - namely the entire faculty - a vice- chancellor's most important decision is how he or she will distil the essence of Oxbridge governance.

Consequently, he or she must create, as the genuine governing body of a university, a committee that comprises the vice-chancellor, the deputy vice-chancellor, the deans, the registrar - and nobody else. It is not a mistake, it is a betrayal of the Emmanuel model to admit anyone else into the real governance of a university.

The deans should in their turn cascade the model down to their faculty committees, which should consist solely of heads of department. They, in turn, should involve all the members of their departments in their governance. These democratic structures possess obvious disadvantages, yet they represent the only sustainable model of excellence: the essence of the university is not the manager, it is the academic working in a department. Functions, therefore, should be delegated centrally only if they are owned by the deans' committee on behalf of all academics.

What, then, is the vice-chancellor's quotidian role? It is to defer to the collective judgment of the deans' committee while ensuring that the deans enjoy the respect of their faculties. A vice-chancellor needs to be humble towards a committee yet ruthless in removing inadequates from it.

A vice-chancellor needs, moreover, to be i) charming to potential donors; ii) responsive to students; iii) financially shrewd (a university is a business); iv) entrepreneurial; v) cautious; vi) media savvy; vii) sociable; viii) a workaholic; ix) diplomatic; x) a public speaker; and xi) credible academically. Further, a vice-chancellor needs xii) to be generous: their job is to help others flourish, which requires a largeness of spirit. This is such an impossible combination of characteristics that no vice-chancellor is an uncritical success. Few academics, moreover, aspire to vice-chancellorships, so the talent pool is small.

To whom should the deans' committee feel accountable? Only, in a genuine sense, to the senate. And since senate expresses the faults of all elective democracies (too many bores), the deans' committee should embrace direct democracy, balloting all academic staff on contentious issues.

What, then, are the legitimate perquisites of other stakeholders? Few, frankly. Non-executive trustees on council should, ideally, be donors and alumni who focus on fundraising and only the oversight of governance. But the Lambert review proposed removing most academics from university councils, replacing them with businesspeople to run the universities. This is insanity. In the Ivy League, non-executives are neutralised because the councils are chaired by the president (aka vice-chancellor) while Oxbridge has few non-execs. Every other university needs tactics for managing non- execs. Ours is to laud fundraising.

College servants are another problem. People such as the finance director or the marketing manager will invoke a commercial model by which they should be on the main board. But a university is not a company and college servants - though important - should serve the academics. Pro vice- chancellors are yet another problem. They do valuable work, but only academics with direct responsibility for teaching and research (aka deans) should actually rule. The Government provides further problems, but too huge to discuss here.

Faced with all these stakeholders, the vital quality of a vice-chancellor is toughness. Everyone hassles the vice-chancellor, and only the tough survive. Which is a shame: toughness is rarely linked to sensitivity or creativity, but it is essential.

Finally, the vice-chancellor needs to share the university's vision. Different universities have different goals, and the vice-chancellor's job is not to impose their own but, as Churchill said in a different context, to give the roar to what is there. It is therefore the vice-chancellor's first duty to join the appropriate university. And the last is to go before he or she is pushed.

- Terence Kealey is vice-chancellor of Buckingham University.

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