Send sociologists in to tame the masters of the universe

Academics could give valuable advice to company boards, the head of City University tells John Gill

October 30, 2008

Based a stone's throw from the Square Mile, the corporate heart of London, City University is a self-styled "university of business and the professions".

For its vice-chancellor, however, its links to the City of London - and the links of other universities to the world of commerce - could be stronger still, and he is not just thinking of the benefits to higher education.

Malcolm Gillies believes that businesses need to make room on their boards for academics to help them correct the failings that have led the economy "into the abyss".

The idea that universities must import skills from business is common, but Professor Gillies believes that companies could likewise benefit from the unique talents of academics.

He told Times Higher Education that "at a time when the business model of governance and self-regulation has been found to be less than adequate", the "dispassionate" approach of academia now had "something special" to offer corporate boards.

He said: "This may be a vital resource that corporate boards are not harnessing.

"One hallmark of universities' success is the ability to address topics dispassionately, and sometimes corporate boards need exactly that.

"The trouble with being marshalled towards a strategic plan, marching into the future in a tight and efficient way, is that if people aren't questioning what's going on you can be led into some of the abysses we have been in in recent weeks."

Professor Gillies, who is Australian, was appointed City's vice-chancellor last summer. He is no stranger to the UK, having studied music as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and as a postgraduate at King's College London.

Speaking after returning to the UK from a summit of university presidents in Korea, where the subject of business links was discussed, he said that although many of his senior staff at City sat on corporate boards, he had never done so.

"I think it would be a very good way for the university of the City of London to become a more integral part of the business of the City of London," he said. "Quite a lot of my staff hold these positions, and it is something that we accept is part of what we do as a university, or what our law school or Cass Business School does, as part of their normal connections with the professions they seek to serve."

He is also adamant, however, that this area of activity should not be restricted to universities such as his, with obvious links to business.

"Many more universities are being asked to be business-facing, and this issue of reciprocity between the business world and universities seems a good way of getting further exchange and strengthening both," he said.

Arguing that business should shift its interest in academics from a focus on short-term consultancy work to more significant strategic involvement, Professor Gillies said business leaders would benefit from the broader perspective a lifetime of scholarship could offer.

"Maybe, instead of lots of lawyers, you might want a sociologist on your board, someone who sees the social setting and issues not from a legal or regulatory viewpoint but from a much broader social-science perspective," he said.

Other companies could benefit from the highly technical skills academics could offer - for example, a mathematician's approach to interpreting data.

Professor Gillies said that it was not known how common it was for academics to sit on company boards, and he acknowledged that it had the potential to cause problems for the sector. This is particularly true if, as in some instances in the US, they are paid more for their role on corporate boards than for their day job.

He said: "If you are a public university involved in the spending of public money, you would expect the funding bodies to take an interest.

"You would expect there at least to be some accounting of that income; whether it would be regulated or restricted is another matter."

But just as there could be risks, there could also be gains, Professor Gillies said.

"Yes, it could diffuse the effort and commitment (of an academic) to a university, but on the other hand it may develop a whole series of skills that make the university itself respond much more responsibly to the needs of business.

"How do we go through a systematic induction of our academic staff in the practices of the business world without having them on boards?" he asked.

"In a way, this is a giant extension of the knowledge-transfer work we already do. Normally it is the other way around - people say, 'How can we get these business people in and educate academics?' But I'm saying, what about work-based learning, what about academics going into business and learning in that way?"

Despite his belief that academics have much to offer business, he was realistic about their limitations.

"The interrogational role of the academic could be very useful to a board, but ultimately boards have to get down and make real decisions in the real world.

"Are academics skilled and quick enough to do that, to view the many options and pick out one or two that are the best in the interests of the company?" he asked.

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