The madness of kings

The longer one wears the crown, the more tyrannical he becomes - a senior academic offers a theory of vice-chancellors' behaviour

October 13, 2011

Credit: Phil Wrigglesworth

In the course of a career lasting 30 years, I have worked for, or observed closely, the activities of six vice-chancellors. All began sensibly, but, with one exception, the longer they remained in power, the odder they grew - and some became positively dangerous.

First the exception. One admirable vice-chancellor in a Russell Group university was so determined not to lose touch with the life of the university that he insisted, uniquely in my experience, on taking responsibility for a first-year module. It happened that this module was delivered in the department that I led. Although it was never a secret, the students were unaware that the nice professor who taught them was, in fact, the vice-chancellor (I don't think many students know who their vice-chancellor is). He took on a full teaching load, set and marked exams, and attended assessment and award boards. This allowed him to speak with authority about how the university systems worked, which made life interesting for several central departments. He was certainly the best vice-chancellor I have met.

I later moved to a second Russell Group institution, arriving just as its vice-chancellor had been reappointed for a second term. I was told that he been quite sensible in his first five years, but in my time the eccentricity index rose sharply. Shortly after his reappointment, a university car (with flag on the bonnet) was procured, along with a chauffeur who drove the vice-chancellor to and from his house and then remained on standby all day "in case he was needed".

Then there arrived an all-staff email saying that the practice of using the vice-chancellor's name was to cease - henceforth we were to address him at all times as "vice-chancellor". The view among the senior team was that the sensation of almost unrestricted power had gone to the vice-chancellor's head. Eventually the council did persuade him to retire, but it was not easy, and the damage he did to that university took years to undo.

The vice-chancellor for whom I have worked most recently confirms my thesis. Although a churchgoer, he lacked compassion. He saw nothing wrong with denying a colleague whose wife was undergoing chemotherapy leave to drive her to hospital.

Once again, the eccentric behaviour became more pronounced with years spent in the post. This time, it took the form of an intolerance of dissent. The vice-chancellor believed that he was always right. Anyone who held a different opinion, let alone argued, had to be wrong and had no place in his university. Some went voluntarily, some did not. In my time, we lost colleagues ranging from deans to secretaries as a consequence of the vice-chancellor's tantrums.

The role of a university council is, we are told, to act as a critical friend to the university - but that requires the members of council to be capable of independent thought. When I was appointed, the council contained members who pre-dated the vice-chancellor's arrival. They provided some moderation. However, this vice-chancellor has now been in the post so long that he has had a hand in appointing every member of council, including the chair. I learned how controlling an influence this was from an acquaintance who had applied to join the university. Apparently, the initial application produces an invitation to meet the vice-chancellor "for an informal chat", after which the applicant is told whether or not "the university would welcome a full application". Through this mechanism, the council has been populated with individuals unlikely to criticise the regime.

The vice-chancellor's dislike of dissent has led to successive reductions in the size of the senior team. First deans were excluded, then senior support staff - and finally pro vice-chancellors. The university is now run by an executive consisting of two people. There are no checks, no debates and no cabinet discussions. There is, however, widespread disquiet.

The result - Edicts are issued without consultation, and the atmosphere in Senate House has become positively feudal. Machiavelli's "Prince" has come to life.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that nobody should be allowed to be a vice-chancellor for too long. In the commercial world, chief executive officers are kept in check by shareholders and customers. Such restraints are absent in a university. The constant deference, insulation from the real world and almost unchecked power weakens most people's grasp on reality, and after a time dangerously autocratic traits may appear.

Perhaps the most important function of a council is to be alert for this and indicate when it is time for the CEO to leave.

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