4 October 2012
As the US model of split leadership reaches UK shores, Stephen Crookbain and Virginia Bottomley consider the pros and cons
If you have ever heard headhunters discussing their craft, then you may have noticed them complaining about client expectations that defy reality - superhuman candidates whose personal attributes equate to an unlikely fusion of Sir Richard Branson, Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa.
It is true that finding high-quality leaders in the global higher education marketplace is far from straightforward, but it is not yet pushing the boundaries of the impossible. Not quite.
It is clear that the sector is changing fast and that the opportunities and challenges facing its institutions are multiplying at an unprecedented rate. This means that the requirements for effective leaders and the expectations placed on them are more demanding than ever; so much so, in fact, that some institutions have decided that the responsibilities and expectations are simply too great to be combined in one role.
In the UK, this is being played out in recruitment for the top posts at Imperial College London. Whereas most universities in the UK follow the traditional route of one all-encompassing leadership role, Imperial has opted to split the responsibilities into two distinct areas with two post- holders.
Broadly speaking, the provost will be responsible for delivering the college's core academic mission, while the president and rector, to whom the provost will report, will have a largely external-facing brief, focusing on high-level relationships with funders, governments, commercial partners and others in order to enhance Imperial's standing and resources in the highly competitive global marketplace. It is a system already tried and tested in the US, where the model is more common.
Naturally this has provoked widespread debate, and opinion is divided. In favour of Imperial's approach is the consideration that, assuming that it makes good appointments to each post, there will be a greater concentration of expertise across two distinct but critical areas.
Many would argue that in the increasingly competitive, commercially driven and global world of higher education, the "wish lists" of requirements for the top jobs are simply too extensive to be found in one person.
In particular, it is probably fair to suggest that the demands of academic credibility and first-class business acumen do not always sit comfortably together, and yet today's world-class universities require both - in equal measure.
From a headhunter's perspective, splitting could also allow universities to consider a wider range of candidates from diverse backgrounds - especially for the external-facing role. After all, universities are not alone in needing to exert influence at the most senior levels of government and industry.
Unsurprisingly, there are those who argue against splitting the responsibilities. Some might consider the academic-focused role to be less appealing than a broader, more traditional vice-chancellorship that also encompasses the external elements. Imperial is the first UK institution to split the role, so it will be interesting to see how the marketplace reacts: anything that breaks the established patterns of career progression can take time to gain acceptance.
Others may warn against a perceived confusion of responsibilities and a lack of clarity in reporting lines. It is obvious that the two people in the Imperial roles will need to work closely together, with each very much influencing and affecting the other. On a personal level, it will be vital that the two individuals get on well and accept that, on occasion, the lines between them will blur.
It is impossible to attempt to endorse one system over the other before seeing the new one in action. Universities are frequently alike but never the same, and what works for one may not work for another. Of course, many aspects of university leadership remain constant but, as the world around us changes, it must continue to evolve. Credibility within the academic community and an ability to lead through consensus and respect rather than diktat is critical.
Competition for the best staff is as strong as ever and increasingly global in nature. The ability to recruit and then retain talent is essential. This in turn affects student satisfaction - an increasingly significant determinant of reputation, market power and financial resilience - against which universities will stand or fall.
But most fundamental of all is the intangible and highly subjective consideration of "fit". Unless the values, ethics and characteristics of these individuals are aligned with those of the university, the appointments are likely to fail.
Compromise can - and usually must - be made in many aspects of recruitment at this level, but finding the right match between institution and individual is non-negotiable.
Stephen Crookbain is head of the education practice and Virginia Bottomley, Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, is chair of the board practice at headhunters Odgers Berndtson