‘Top-down’ leadership approach ‘key to most successful universities’

But Bilkent University rector warns THE BRICS conference that bad leadership can also sink institutions. David Matthews reports from Delhi

December 3, 2015
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Centralised university governance where those at the top have broad powers to make decisions is the best way to propel an institution to success – but can also lead to “disaster” if the wrong people are in charge, a university head has argued.

Abdullah Atalar, rector at Bilkent University in Turkey, put forward his views on university governance to delegates today at the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit in Delhi.

He gave the example of Stanford University, which Professor Atalar claimed was turned into a highly successful institution by Fredrick Terman, who served as provost from 1955 to 1965 and is widely credited as the creator of Silicon Valley.

The success of Carnegie Mellon University and KAIST in South Korea was also down to the initiative of successful leaders, he added.

But without naming names, he said that poor leadership had sunk the reputations of once well-regarded universities. “There are several universities in the US, 30 years ago they were top universities [but now they are] no longer on the list,” he said.

“The top-down approach is more successful provided that the right person is the leader. [But] poor leaders in a top-down approach may lead to a disaster,” Professor Atalar argued.

At least for universities that are “well-off”, a “hybrid” model giving some say to academics might be most suitable, he said, because it can “increase the feeling of ownership” among staff.

In the UK, older universities, most notably Oxford and Cambridge, still grant substantial powers to academics over the direction of the university.

Professor Atalar said that a decentralised system gives individual academics “satisfaction”, but on the downside, “it’s a slow system, limits institutional agility and flexibility and no one’s accountable if things go wrong”.

It could also make it difficult to set up interdisciplinary modules because of barriers between departments.

The centralised model allows a university to make “hard decisions” – such as shutting down failing departments, or opening new ones, he said. “It improves decision-making time and accountability is improved.”

On the downside, it “lowered morale among the faculty” and “poor leaders may lead to the downfall of a university”, he continued. 


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Reader's comments (1)

There are other alternatives, such as democratic institutions and cooperatives. And of course the definition of 'success' ....