Running a university is the ultimate test of leadership because vice-chancellors have “no authority”, according to the University of Melbourne’s Glyn Davis.
Professor Davis told this month’s Universities Australia conference that he had been “thrilled” to resume his academic career after years as a civil servant, which culminated in a four-year stint as head of Queensland’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. He said that it took no skill to run an organisation “where you can give an order, and everything follows”.
“Come to an institution where no one actually has to do what you tell them,” said Professor Davis, who will step down later this year. “You have to persuade them, hold the line, develop the strategy and carry it through. It’s a magnificent opportunity to test your own skills.”
Professor Davis was sharing a panel with two other Australian university chiefs who are leaving their posts this year. Griffith University’s Ian O’Connor agreed that a vice-chancellor “actually can’t do anything”, while the University of Newcastle’s Caroline McMillen said that the “command-and-control system” was foreign to the sector.
Professor Davis told THE afterwards that universities were “quite distinctive” in western societies, which made their leadership roles unique. “Some things are directly in your control, but, for example, the budget of a university is usually decided in a collective way.
“As the vice-chancellor, you can’t influence curriculum. That’s done through your academic board and education committee. You can’t directly appoint people to academic positions or to chairs. You might chair the committee, but usually you don’t.”
Professor Davis said that he was becoming jaded about claims of the “neoliberal decline of our institution” and the emergence of the corporate university. “There’s something to that critique, because we’re now running much larger budgets and much bigger operations.
“But we are still recognisably quite different from corporations, and you’re not a CEO in the way a corporate CEO is, even if you’ve got the same title. A corporate CEO would be unlikely to accept the constraints on their own authority that vice-chancellors live with, accept and expect.”
Professor Davis acknowledged the varying models of public university leadership around the world. He said that Australia’s approach was quite different from the system favoured in Europe, where university rectors tended to be elected from among the staff and usually served short terms before resuming their teaching duties.
“The jobs vary from country to country and culture to culture,” he said. “But in none of them is a vice-chancellor a highly empowered individual able to decide the fate of institutions single-handedly, in the sort of heroic CEO way.
“That just isn’t the normal experience, although everyone can think of individuals who’ve been enormously influential.”
He credited the collegial model of university leadership to a long-haul view where “you expect the institution to still be here in 100 years’ time”.
“The place is going to have a long history, and the current CEO is a small player in a very long chain. The institution will go on reinventing itself over and over, and you don’t want a CEO who’ll close your options by making irrevocable choices.
“In a business, you can decide to get out of your main business and go into a whole new field, but we don’t really want a university CEO deciding not to do teaching any more. So when you get to be leader in a university, you accept those constraints.”