Give administrators a shot at top job, says registrar turned v-c

Harper Adams head Ken Sloan argues that boards should consider leaders from diverse career backgrounds

April 22, 2022
Ken Sloan, vice-chancellor of Harper Adams University

In a sector where the highest tier of jobs remains largely the preserve of leading researchers, Ken Sloan comes from an unusual background for a vice-chancellor. Having risen through the administrative ranks, his last job in the UK sector was as registrar and chief operating officer at the University of Warwick.

Now in charge of Harper Adams University, the Shropshire-based agricultural institution, Professor Sloan urged governing bodies to think about hiring leaders with more diverse career backgrounds. “I would encourage all boards to ask the question about how far and wide they have considered,” he told Times Higher Education.

Professor Sloan joined Harper Adams last November from Melbourne’s Monash University, where he was deputy vice-chancellor for enterprise and governance. In making the move Down Under in 2017, he was part of an exodus from the UK of ambitious professional services staff who turbocharged their careers by transferring to a sector that has traditionally been much more open towards giving administrators a seat at the top table.

“If you have a look across the Australian system, you will see a diversity of leaders in different settings and people who have come from different backgrounds. And I think the benefit of that is not only reflecting the diversity of the institutions, but also when leaders from different institutions come together, they have diversity around that table as well – different elements of perspective,” Professor Sloan said.

Academic literature shows that UK universities focused mainly on producing outstanding research benefit from being led by an outstanding researcher, he said. However, in the UK, “there really is a diversity of institutions, and therefore there is room for a diversity of leadership”, depending on a particular university’s mission and challenges.

Professor Sloan recently authored a chapter on the topic, to be published later this year in International Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education, edited by Alasdair Blair, Darrell Evans, Christina Hughes and Malcolm Tight. In it, he argues “that ‘others’ can bring a particular set of skills that can be valuable to modern higher educational institutions and which are complementary to the skillsets of ‘expert’ academic leaders”.

But as governing boards can choose only from the candidates who put themselves forward, Professor Sloan urged those from non-research backgrounds to step up.

“If there are individuals out there who believe that they have developed a distinctive set of capabilities based on the choices that they’ve made, and they think they’re relevant to an institution, its context and its needs, then they should have the courage to put themselves forward,” he said.

Professor Sloan said he was drawn to Harper Adams because his role at Monash had included oversight of the university’s food innovation and agricultural activities, which sparked an interest in food production, sustainability and security.

Being at an institution where sustainable food production is the “relentless focus” caught his imagination, he said. “In farming, whether it’s animal farming or arable farming, everyone is facing up to the fact that there needs to be a more sustainable model,” he said.

“We’ve just seen in the situation in Ukraine and Russia, you’ve got almost 20 per cent of the world’s wheat production being disrupted.”

At Harper Adams, Professor Sloan is working to widen entry routes into the university by developing degree apprenticeships and offering more flexible study options. He is also exploring ways to diversify the institution’s income streams, expand its partnerships and bolster its global reputation.

“There’s never going to be a time where the whole issue about food security and sustainability and the future of food and farming is going to be more under scrutiny but also under development,” he argued.

Comparing Australian and UK higher education, Professor Sloan noted that while both sectors had experienced significant marketisation, in Australia this had led to more innovation.

“I got the impression – and I’ll soon find out whether it’s an impression or reality when I’ve been back a bit longer – that that ability to experiment and translate that experiment into practice seems to be running faster over there [in Australia].

“Thinking about the nature of the education product – how it’s created, developed and delivered, where it’s delivered, et cetera –” is more advanced in Australia, he said.

He did, however, suggest that his Australian colleagues were envious of research funding in the UK, that they “would look to the UK and say that the governments are investing more in research”.

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Reader's comments (10)

This is a move in the wrong direction and many academic Institutions are losing their identity as Universities because non-academics are taking over so many of the traditional academic roles. There are now more professional service staff than academics in many Universities and this has been key in eroding morale. Many in professional services have forgotten that they are there to support academics. Universities should be led by academics who know what is needed to conduct research, bring in grants, teach students, supervise doctoral scholars. Administrators possess none of this requisite experience. An academic interested in University leadership could easily learn the managerial tasks needed. An administrator with no research or teaching experience will never learn what is needed to be an academic and hence what is important for a University to be a University.
I completely disagree. This decision is a breath of fresh air. How many Universities are run by leadership teams who are experts in their field of study but poor at management ? The skills you specify for good leadership are only half of the picture. What about financial management , facilities management, human resources, IT Services etc. No University could run without these functions, so leadership needs to encompass both academic and service elements. I'm also not sure why you think administrators don't know or could learn what it means to be an academic and yet academics can easily learn managerial tasks. I think this kind of thinking clearly indicates the problems many Universities are currently experiencing, in that their academic based leaders manage by assumption not knowledge based on analysis.
The reason Universities are experiencing problems is because too many non-academics are taking on leadership roles and so many support services are not sufficiently well managed to support the academics. Finance , IT, HR etc are needed as supporting services but they are not academics and such supporting staff cannot and should not assume top leadership of an academic Institution. The final sentence is an insult to academics and indicates a complete lack of understanding of academia. Academics are very well equipped to deal with knowledge and analysis. This is what they generate and his is what they do.
If an Academic's expertise is as a Vet, Engineer or Philosopher how does that make them any more qualified to run an Institution than say an MBA holding Business manager ? The set of skills required is completely different. The premise that Academics would automatically make good leaders and Professional Services staff would not just by the nature of the type of position they hold rather than the skills of the individual makes no sense at all.
Many in professional services have forgotten that they are there to support academics. Actually most of us are there to support the students.
Nothing personal but giving a Professorial title to someone who does not have a research background is quite a problem. Ken Sloan was a good Registrar at my institution but he was not producing papers, winning research grants or carrying a teaching load, which are major parts of the route to promotion. It is rather galling to those who have served their whole career as academics to see the title misused.
I agree that the title of "Professor" should be reserved for those who have taught or done research at a University and perhaps "Honorary Professor" might be used for senior management working alongside Professors. I do not agree with b.pierscionek_289461 saying " An academic interested in University leadership could easily learn the managerial tasks needed.", it would not be "easy", but I am not against academics leading a University if they have the necessary additional skills required. UK Universities are very diverse today ranging from institutions with less than 1,000 students to over 40,000. Some institutions focus on research, some on undergraduate teaching and some have degree apprenticeships. Leadership and senior management need to be appropriate for each independent institution and not restricted to only those with an academic background.
Please do not give Professor title to people like Professor Sloan no publications, no research income and no idea what is is like to go through academic promotion procedures. The last thing we need is people who have been bureaucrats for all their career to be given the top executive positions like Vice Chancellor or President as they simply do not have the respect of academics whom they are supposed to lead. Or a proper understanding of the life of academics. So just because he managed to get a post without the academic profile required does not mean other institutions should make the same mistake. The reasoning he makes in this article is really third rate showing he is really not deserving of the Professorial title.
Well said Maverick! If non-academics wish to lead Institutions they can- but these Institutions should not be Universities. Universities must remain in the academic domain and managed and led by academics.
The worst kind of manager is the failed academic turned manager. The first preference to lead univerisites should be academics who have excelled in their academic field and are well respected in academia. NO senior management needs to be called a professor, not even an honorary professor, unless they are spending or have spent a significant amount of time engaged in teaching and/or research and has a PhD, this must certainly apply at universities where a PhD is a essential criteria for a lecturership.