World University Rankings 2018: universities must train a new breed of leaders

Good academic leadership that enables universities to stay abreast of societal developments is more vital than ever, says Ole Petter Ottersen

September 5, 2017
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Much is required of universities in a time characterised by global competition for talent, by radical changes in the labour market due to disruptive technologies and new business models, and by increasing concerns about economic, social and environmental sustainability. More than ever, universities need to stay abreast of societal developments and more than ever, there is a need for academic leadership that enables universities to do so. The increased pressure on universities and the growing expectations of their performance naturally translate into demand for quality in teaching, research and public outreach, but should also encourage universities to serve as breeding grounds for academic leaders who can cope with the increased complexity and challenges at hand.

Obviously, most of those who enter the academic world do so to pursue their interests in what will continue to stand as universities’ core missions – research and education. This is how it should be. But quite a few scientists and scholars see an attractive career path as full-time or part-time academic leaders. People with talent for this task should be embraced, they should receive support and mentoring, and they should be prepared through tailor-made leadership programmes. While many universities have established such programmes, debates on their scope and contents have been few and far between.

As I see it, the fundamental task of academic leadership is to safeguard academic freedom, trust and tolerance in the face of increasing outside pressure and political control. We as universities must accept and even welcome increased expectations from the government and from society at large, but at the same time ensure that these expectations are met by nurturing unbridled curiosity and frontier research, rather than by imposing new directives and regulations.

Historically, universities have been compromised when they have acted uncritically as mouthpieces of authorities, and have succeeded when they have maintained a critical distance – not refusing dialogue and engagement, but acting as an independent intellectual and moral compass. A most valuable skill of an academic leader is her ability to effectively communicate that demands for short-term impact are antithetical to success and that such demands instil risk-aversiveness in a time of dire need for fresh views and disruptive innovation. When it comes to internal conflicts and crises, good academic leadership ensures that these are met by transparency and culture building and not by increased bureaucracy and control.

There are other issues that might easily be lost in translation when universities aim to live up to the expectations of the societies around them. It requires leadership on the part of universities to ensure that governments’ focus on technology development is matched by research on how new technologies are absorbed and put to good use by the individual and society at large. History is rife with examples of how progress has been hampered when technologies are introduced in societies that are ill-equipped to handle them. Ethics, and insight from the social sciences and the humanities are required for technologies to successfully drive development and new economies. Standing alone, new technologies are fragile edifices. One example is the novel and powerful technologies for gene editing. These technologies raise a number of ethical and legal issues that call on a broad range of expertise outside the narrow definitions of medicine and biology. Even if attention to ethics should be second nature to every scientist and scholar, ethical preparedness should be high on the agenda of any academic leader.

The new breed of academic leaders will have to grapple with a number of challenges that have come to the fore over the past few years. Particularly in the fields of biology and biomedicine, the poor record of reproducibility is a growing concern that can be alleviated only by emphasising research integrity and by introducing electronic research documentation as the norm. The handling of personsensitive research data is another task that requires vigilance from competent leaders.

Today’s academic leaders must be attentive to and respectful of the increasing demands of society but must be equally attentive to and respectful of what remains the essence of academic success: autonomy built on trust, transparency, and flexibility. In the face of increased pressure and expectations from the outside, academic leaders must continue to support and protect academic freedom and continue to foster collegiality and due participation in decision-making. Academic leaders must help to form a working relationship between society and university that is based on trust and truth and so is of mutual benefit.


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Good academic leadership is to create a culture where students are seen as an integral part of the academic community. Unfortunately, with increasing tuition fees in many countries, we are moving in a direction in which students are no longer treated as part of such a community, but rather as customers who benefit from the services that the university offers. Money inexorably imposes an asymmetry in an academic relationship that should be characterised first and foremost by symmetry and reciprocity. With exorbitant tuition fees we risk losing social mobility and the richness of perspectives that is the sine qua non of a thriving academy. Academic leadership in 2017 is a quest for a proper balance between profit and pluralism.

As research and higher education are being redefined by global competition, new technologies, digitisation, growing tuition fees, and strong demand for rapid impact, there is a need to redefine academic leadership. The new breed of academic leaders must be ready to grapple with novel challenges, yet remain faithful to the values that have served universities so well for nearly a millennium. Universities – and university networks – must rise to the occasion and offer leadership programmes that attract and groom those who see a future career at the vibrant interface between academia and society at large. 

Ole Petter Ottersen took over as vice-chancellor of the Karolinska Institute on 1 August 2017. He was previously rector of the University of Oslo.

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