A leader’s role as public intellectual: approach with care

Steve West warns that vice-chancellors’ duty to engage in debate is not straightforward

October 17, 2013
Source: Daniel Mitchell

You should be some of the most important intellectual leaders of society, across the full range of public concerns.” That was the challenge laid down to vice-chancellors by Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, at the Universities UK annual conference last month.

Pearce’s call for university leaders to become “public intellectuals” has prompted a debate. One vice-chancellor has responded in these pages by arguing that being a good university leader is not about being on our television screens (“Honourable exit strategy”, 3 October).

If the point was that playing “the celebrity” isn’t the way forward, I certainly agree with that. Just think of MPs’ awkward attempts to become a bigger part of the public consciousness: Vince Cable showcasing his talents on Strictly Come Dancing; the controversy created by Nadine Dorries’ appearance on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here; and George Galloway’s imitation of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother. But I do think we can and should respond to the challenge set down by Pearce in a serious and meaningful way.

For one thing, there is a growing need to counter some increasingly negative and misleading narratives about higher education. These include the argument that too many young people go to university now, and that some of them should set up a business or start an apprenticeship instead. In addition, as Sir Alan Langlands, former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has warned, a dangerous view has grown up that universities are “awash with cash”, which could lead to the questioning of state support for higher education.

In my experience, vice-chancellors do speak up for universities at every opportunity, whether it is in press interviews, visits to schools and colleges or private meetings with ministers, business and public sector leaders. But are our messages reaching the right people? And are we clear on who the right people are?

We need to connect with the public much more broadly. Our academic colleagues are certainly challenging the status quo through media channels, providing expert commentary on topical events or the latest advances in research. But that is only part of the public narrative we need. Where are the “generalists”, who can offer a viewpoint on a broad range of issues?

Vice-chancellors drive forward ambitious strategies to help complex, multimillion-pound organisations navigate through changing economic, political, social and technological environments. We also hold leadership positions on numerous external networks and bodies, meaning we are well placed to take a “strategic” view across competing interests and agendas, and can draw on the extensive expertise available within our universities.

But perhaps we are wary of “politicising” our institutions by taking a strong stance on highly complex and controversial issues. A lack of neutrality could alienate staff, potential students or partner organisations. It is one thing for an academic expert to express a view on a contentious issue – on which there may be more than one equally valid perspective – but vice-chancellors are seen as the public face of their university, so they must be alive to the impact of articulating what would be seen as the official view of the university on the institution’s reputation, and on the morale and opportunities of the people working and studying there. Would a controversial institutional reputation affect, for instance, the employability of its graduates or compromise the ability of its academics to attract funding or collaborators?

Yet there are areas where we can and must speak out: where the evidence and societal outcomes are clear, but there is a lack of political will to act – or where ideology is seemingly prioritised above well-being. It is notable that in the US, college presidents have begun using their “bully pulpits” to advocate for gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting last year. I certainly agree with Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College in the US state of Georgia, who told Times Higher Education earlier this year that university leaders should have a strong and well-established voice on issues of “well-being or the opportunities that we should be providing to young people” (“Presidents take on the gun lobby”, 14 March).

If we expect our students to engage with difficult, real-world issues then, as leaders of our institutions, we should be prepared to do the same. And our unique, multifaceted perspective could allow vice-chancellors to become more of an independent force for positive social change. We owe it to students, society and future generations to take this role on.

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