Hunt for the new breed of leader

May 18, 2001

By the end of this year, 13 English, seven Scottish and two Welsh institutions will have a new vice-chancellor or principal. Alison Utley and Olga Wojtas report on what it takes to become a modern v-c.

Competition to attract the best candidates is hotting up - much to the delight of the headhunting profession whose search executives are busier than ever. Their task, however, is not an easy one. Diana Ellis, of Odgers, Ray and Berndston, has helped a number of universities fill the top slot. She said she was being asked to find a "new breed" of vice-chancellor.

In the past, the classic curriculum vitae would have been dominated by a strong academic and research record. Today, however, potential vice-chancellors must have a range of skills including proven managerial and leadership qualities, expertise in fundraising and preferably some high-level experience of industry. On top of all this, Ms Ellis said, universities were looking for someone with a "dynamic personality" who was able to market their institution successfully.

As if that was not enough, universities tended to specify that they wanted their new vice-chancellors to be young, although Ms Ellis points out this can be difficult if they are to be supremely experienced and well connected. The departing vice-chancellors have spent an average of nine years in their posts and have an average age of 61. The incomers' average age this year is 55.

The number of candidates has never been large. But the new requirements, coupled with the fact that a significant proportion of major-league universities are changing their leader, means the pool is shrinking fast.

One solution has been to recruit from industry. David Grant, who succeeds Sir Brian Smith as vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, is director of technology at Marconi and began his career as an engineering apprentice. And in January this year, Imperial College appointed the executive chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, Sir Richard Sykes, as its new director.

The civil service has also become a fertile hunting ground. Sir Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, is to become the rector of the London Institute, and the University of Dundee's new chief is Sir Alan Langlands, formerly chief executive of the National Health Service in England.

Sir Alan said there were many parallels between his health service and university roles. "What I did in the health service was to try to set service priorities based on the needs of patients and staff, and for that you could read students and staff," he said. "The leadership task is actually the same in the way you're trying to lead a pretty heterogeneous group of professional, technical, administrative and clerical staff.

"You have to interpret the environment in which you're operating, understand demographics, societal changes and advances in science and technology, interpret national policy and then synthesise all of that and work with others to position the university to the best effect."

The key, according to Fraser Woodburn, secretary of the Open University, who is in charge of its selection committee, is that a vice-chancellor coming from outside the sector must have credibility.

"If a candidate does not have an academic record, he or she must have intellectual calibre and that is what makes it so different from the chief executive of any other type of organisation."

After consulting widely within the university, the OU has drawn up a list of candidates with a proven record in leadership. "This is a tough job and getting tougher. To do it you need real passion," Mr Woodburn said.

At least six universities are still in the process of recruiting. Most have employed executive search consultants in an effort to ensure no stone is left unturned. "This seems to have become the norm in the last few years," said Paul Bunting, director of personnel and deputy registrar at Bradford University.

Bradford is considering applications for a replacement for Colin Bell, who is moving to Stirling Universty. It has also consulted members of staff about the kind of person who ought to be leading them and, as a result, the job specification includes a preference for an exceptional academic standing alongside proven leadership, management and communications skills and the ability to play an external role regionally, nationally and internationally.

"Leadership really is the key issue," Mr Bunting said. "Once vice-chancellors were seen as figureheads, now they must have the ability to lead, alongside an intimate understanding of the world of academia."

David Caldwell, director of Universities Scotland, questioned whether this heralded a general shift towards non-academics. There have always been exceptions, he said, such as Leeds University's one-time vice-chancellor, former education minister Sir Edward Boyle, and Glasgow University's ex-principal Sir William Kerr Fraser, former head of the Scottish Office.

"The sector has always been quite good at identifying really able people in other sectors," he said. "The main difference is that the management task these days is much bigger and more complicated than it was," he said.

Dundee vice-principal David Swinfen, who was involved in appointing the university's past three principals, said its two most recent choices are not as radical as they appear since both men had very close links with higher education.

"Managerial skills are now to the fore and are much more important than anyone's academic discipline. Principals have to really know their way around business plans and need to talk on equal terms with venture capitalists," he said.

The incoming vice-chancellors have a big job, but they might heed the words of Sir John Daniel when he announced he was leaving the OU after ten years:

"I always thought if you have not achieved what you set out to do after ten years as vice-chancellor, you never will."

Additional research by Claire Sweeting.


Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, replacing Maxwell Irvine.

Eric Thomas, deputy vice-chancellor designate of Southampton University, replacing Sir John Kingman.

David Grant, director of technology at Marconi plc, replacing Sir Brian Smith

David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, replacing Robin Sibson.

Colin Bundy, vice-chancellor of the University of Wi****ersrand, South Africa, replacing Sir Tim Lankester.

South Bank
Deian Hopkin, vice-provost of London Guildhall, replacing Gerry Bernbaum.

Stephen Tomlinson, professor of medicine, Manchester Royal Infirmary, replacing Ian Cameton.

David VandeLinde, vice-chancellor of Bath University, replacing Sir Brian Follet.

Andrew Hamnett, pro vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, replacing Sir John Arbuthnott.

St Andrews
Brian Lang, chief executive and deputy chairman of the British Library, replacing Struther Arnott.

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the NHS executive in England, replacing, replacing Ian Graham-Bryce.

Colin Bell, vice-chancellor of Bradford University, replacing Andrew Miller.

John Macklin, pro vice-chancellor of Leeds University, replacing Richard Shaw.

Edinburgh College of Art
Ian Howard, dean of Dundee University's Duncan of Jordanstone faculty of art and design, replacing Alistair Rowan.

Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama
John Wallace, trumpeter, composer and conductor, replacing Sir Philip Ledger.


Retiring v-c in brackets

Bath (David VandeLinde)


(Colin Bell)


(Michael Sterling)

East London

(Frank Gould)


(Philip Love)

Open University

(Sir John Daniel)   

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