'Mistake' to seek leaders from outside the sector

Canadian higher education quality may suffer from lack of academic candidates, writes Sarah Cunnane

July 8, 2010

A failure to prepare for the future has forced Canadian universities to look outside the sector for many of its senior appointments, according to a report.

Courting Success in Senior Hiring at Canadian Universities says that "shrinking candidate pools" within academia have required universities to look for staff elsewhere at all levels of management "with mixed results".

The paper, published by Stoakley-Dudley Consultants and Higher Education Strategy Associates, warns that in future, "the faculty-centric focus of universities will be challenged" as a result.

Amanda Goodall, Leverhulme Fellow at Warwick Business School and author of Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars (2009), predicted that Canadian higher education would decline in quality if the trend continued.

"The core business of universities is expert knowledge. That's what you're selling, and to do that you need experts - you need academics, not generalists," she said.

Professor Goodall pointed to the example of consulting firms, which the paper says are used increasingly often to find candidates for top university positions in Canada, as evidence of why hiring from outside the sector is a mistake.

"If you look at the leadership positions in these firms, there is no way in hell that a non-consultant is ever going to be the head of a consulting firm," she said.

"What's interesting is why people consider that universities should be treated any differently from other knowledge-intensive organisations."

The paper asserts that a growing focus on the need for accountability in publicly funded universities, as well as the presence of non-academics on university boards, had also contributed to the rise in non-academic appointments at a senior management level.

But it cites a warning that "because boards don't fully appreciate the culture (of a university), they may not bring in the right person".

Professor Goodall said that private universities already understood how important it was that "outstanding scholars" were appointed to management roles.

"Private universities can appoint people who will act solely in the best interests of the university. Those that are publicly funded have to put local dignitaries, people that represent x, y and z, on their boards. People who (have motivations) beyond just being there for the sake of the university," she said.

Courting Success suggests that the "reality of management demands" affects the number of academics willing to come forward for senior positions.

However, Professor Goodall said that it was "insanity" to appoint businesspeople instead, and said it would be easy for universities to run short courses to encourage and train academics to apply for leadership roles. "There has to be a relationship between the leader and the (university) population to get respect and credibility," she said.

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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