Your social-working-fund-raising-dinner-avoiding v-c

February 5, 1999

The money may be good but novice v-c Diana Green says the pitfalls are many and the power more illusory than real.

Three months after becoming a vice-chancellor, it seems appropriate to reflect on the role and whether the game really is worth the candle.

Part of the challenge is balancing the tensions between the internal and external dimensions of the role. Getting it wrong is risky. The lure of foreign affairs is a potential pitfall. Universities are focused on their positioning in the increasingly competitive and global higher education marketplace. But it is wise to hand the book of air-tickets to - or share it with - a colleague. Staff are rightly critical of the permanently darkened vice-chancellor's office.

Similar tensions arise with the representational role. New vice-chancellors (especially female ones) can expect to be invited to join every new agency or committee. Choosing the key ones, and knowing which to turn down diplomatically is risky in geographically, socially and politically unknown territory. And then there are the dinners. Eating for the university plays havoc with the waistline. It is an essential task that is best shared.

Life in a goldfish bowl takes some getting used to. Media interest is generally good for business, although control over the issues is helpful. Being a public figure also has a downside. One wonders, sadly, whether the ageing rock-star image of Mike Fitzgerald turned from being an asset into a liability in the media coverage when his vision for Thames Valley University came unstuck.

One of the surprises is the reality, as opposed to the perception, of a vice-chancellor's power. As chief executive of a medium-sized "business" with a turnover of Pounds 100 million and 3,000 staff, I have enormous responsibility. But my powers are constrained compared with a chief executive of a similar-sized business. Sheffield Hallam may not have shareholders, but commercial organisations do not have to worry about the Public Accounts Committee. Nor do I have the same degree of managerial freedom in such areas as investment, disposal of capital assets and employment policies.

In the commercial world, decline in demand for a product may lead to its withdrawal. In universities, closing courses in which quality is not sustainable leads to public outcry. Universities remain essentially collegial.

Many a vice-chancellor's "vision" has foundered on the organised opposition of a conservative senate, especially if it feels it has not been properly consulted. Most incoming vice-chancellors want to make a difference. This may be welcomed and resisted. The trick is knowing what, why and how much to change. An incoming vice-chancellor must show respect for and celebrate the strengths of a university's past. But effective leadership also means being able to look ahead. Having the vision is not enough. The university community has to buy into the vision - and into the changes needed to deliver it.

It is easy for a vice-chancellor to get out of touch. Universities are hierarchical organisations and the vice-chancellor is functionally and organisationally isolated. She is the last person to know institutional gossip. Communication is probably her biggest challenge and requires the skilful deployment of a battery of instruments, including those that give staff direct and informal access, from personalised copies of key documents to management by walking about. Email is a great way to challenge the hierarchy.

Vice-chancellors wish to be seen to demonstrate wisdom, judgement and decisiveness - so where do they go for advice? The relationship with the chairman of the board or pro-chancellor is critical if complex. The confidence level must be at least 110 per cent - in both directions. This may constrain frankness.

Does an incoming vice-chancellor need mentoring? The potential dangers of soliciting advice from colleagues in competitor institutions is self-evident. I suspect that most vice-chancellors utilise their own informal networks. The very useful "chatlines" organised by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals offer one practical and non-threatening solution.

The personal cost of being a vice-chancellor is high. The days are long, it is emotionally and physically exhausting and difficult to hang on to any private life. It is hugely rewarding (in a non-pecuniary sense) for those who genuinely want to make a difference. It can never be just a job. A vice-chancellor has to be leader, guide, interpreter, role model, manager of resources and social worker ... and much more. It is a privilege to work with talented and dedicated colleagues who share a commitment to helping others see the benefits that education can bring. The work is unpredictable, varied and - at times - unnerving. But life as a vice-chancellor is never dull.

Diana Green is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

14 opinionThe Times HigherJfebruary 5J1999 Admiral House 66-68JEast SmithfieldJLondon E1 9XY Fax 0171 782 3300JTel 0171 782 3000JEmail 'Eating for the university plays havoc with the waistline. It is an essential task that is best shared'

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