I read with interest the feature “Heads and tales” (1 June), which presented various missives on how to be a successful university head of department. The US advice was so far away from the UK experience that it was unhelpful and misleading for would-be heads of department here. Cash injections, hiring and firing, forget it.
My own experience was probably typical of many in the UK. I ran a modestly sized engineering department (about 20 staff) in a Russell Group university. Decisions had to be made about mundane matters such as, inter alia, space allocation, what little “free” money we had and how we maintained or varied our courses. For space and money, I devised a formula and got everyone to agree to it; when it was applied, it magically used up our total resource. But decisions, especially on space, are poisonous; every time you make a decision, you lose friends. Why? Each decision has three general outcomes: gain, lose or in-between. The losers hate you, and the in-betweeners aren’t happy; while those who gain believe that their case was so strong that it had nothing to do with favour from the HoD. This is why you need a modest fixed term for your tenure. I was offered three to five years when appointed; I chose four because three was too short and five too long: it was a wise decision.
And how do you behave personally? I had always enjoyed teaching and got top reviews from students. I also enjoyed research and personal contact with students in tutorials. I gave up tutoring, kept my teaching in full and lost a little, but not too much, momentum in my research. I did this for two reasons. First, I believed that a HoD should lead from the front as you cannot expect your staff to do more than you do yourself. Second, I had seen predecessors succumb to the “administrative burden” (mostly self-inflicted – they seemed to lack a wastepaper basket) and emerge bewildered with no active research and their teaching taken over by others.
One colleague warned me that running a department was like herding cats. Another had a cartoon on his wall showing a slave galley with the caption “the beatings will continue until morale improves”. So how do you successfully run a department? My aim was to keep my staff “happy” and, the hard part, to protect them from outside pressures, mainly from the dean and senate house. Let your staff get on with their teaching, research and admin jobs: they know more about them than you do. Interfere as little as possible. Sometimes you have to make firm and corrective decisions; but you must be careful to avoid knock-on consequences. If you have treated someone unfairly by mistake, admit it and say sorry.
I was certainly not the best HoD ever, but probably not the worst, either. I did my best and afterwards happily returned to the ranks.
Emeritus professor of applied mechanics
University of Bristol