Time to move past the obsession with leadership

Analyses of management and leadership in higher education have been accumulating over the course of the last 20 years, as waves of commodification, privatisation and marketisation give the sector a new inflection in governance and regulation.

We have witnessed the imposition of regimes rooted in new public management, distributed leadership, governing networks (or network governance), deliverology, and so on. This has led to an ideological obsession with the idea that leadership can be instrumentalized and internalised through; organisational development, performance management, entrepreneurship, leadership development programs, coaching and mentoring, whatever.

These developments need to be situated against a policy framework that has catalysed corporate university governance. The Jarratt report (1985), the Dearing report (1997), and the Lambert report (2003), militated against participatory governance by a community of scholars. Moreover, they were responses to changes to the corporate form in general, most notably the Cadbury report (1992), the Hampel report (1998), the Higgs report (2003), and the development of the current UK Corporate Governance Code. However, whilst university governance and management reflect changing corporate forms, it also reflects underlying political, economic and social contradictions.

Reforming leadership in an age of crisis

Aside from posturing around the pay of vice chancellors, critiques of academic leadership include: a democratic deficit, rooted in unaccountable, data-driven corporate governance; the co-option of trust by technology-rich, governance networks; entrepreneurial leadership as human capital, breeding the idea of the leader as superhero; the limited boundaries of academic citizenship and autonomy.

These analyses point to deeper, intersectional problems of leadership, in its classed, gendered and racialised natures, and its specific performative traits, grounded in command, control, (un)accountability and the Self. As a terrain of struggle, this also opens-up spaces to discuss how corporate leadership imposes forms of performance management that breed precarious academic lives, overwork and ill-health.

This amplifies the inability of leaders to engage with crises of social reproduction, instead of driving competition in the market as the primary mediator of those crises. For some academics and students, this generates forms of cognitive dissonance because the idea of the university as a public/collective/common good is increasingly challenged by higher education’s inability to offer an alternative response to the secular crisis of capitalism. We might question whether there are democratic, cooperative alternatives, and to whom do we look for leadership in revealing those alternatives?

Against leadership: mass intellectuality

A recent edited collection, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education engages with this question. It begins with Marx’s notion of the “general intellect” and the argument that in capitalism the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].

Dominant forms of leadership re-engineer academic labour, through organisational development, performance management and technological innovation, as responses to competition and in order to generate value. As a result, the craft and technical skills, capabilities, and knowledge of the academic working socially are continually absorbed into the commodities she produces. Whilst the focus for this is to reduce labour costs and to increase productivity, it corrupts the ability to think critically about the human experience and to solve problems at the level of society. Instead, the focus is on marketised or outsourced solutions to crises.

Rethinking the relationship between general intellect and society points beyond the fetishised myth of leadership as an originator of value. It focuses on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge, or ‘mass intellectuality’, as a direct, social force of production.

This is an attempt to reclaim the concept of living knowledge and to reimagine the reproduction of society. The potential is for the liberation: first, of those scientific and philosophical skills, capabilities, and knowledge of the social individual that have been absorbed into the things the academic produces; and second, of the academic from her alienating academic labour. Thus, struggles both inside and outside of the university, rooted in solidarity and sharing, and related to social and co-operative production, underpin alternatives.

In terms of democratising higher education, the collection highlighted above has a tripartite focus: first Power, History and Authority questions the leadership of business-as-usual; second, Potentialities asks whether it is possible to re-imagine the university democratically and co-operatively; and third, Praxis looks at practical, alternative initiatives that emerge beyond the university. Collectively, this articulates the importance of workers’ enquiry in understanding the idea and composition of academic labour, and its relationship to society.

Leading co-operatively

One critical response discussed in some of the chapters focuses on the potential for co-operative higher education. Much work has already been undertaken into co-operative higher education and it is recognised that there are no quick fixes. Co-operatives are not a panacea for the forces of neoliberalism or the personal ambitions of some academics, managers and administrators. However, there are deep historical and social resources to draw upon within the co-operative movement that can help us rethink the way our universities are run, the institutional form that they take, and the nature and role of leadership within a democratic organisation.

Co-operative higher education is entirely compatible with the idea of the ‘public’ if we reconceive it as an academic commons, democratically controlled by academic and support staff and students, and ‘collaborators’ (members of the community, local business, etc.). This is more important in the context of ‘social co-operatives’ (also called ‘solidarity’ or ‘multi-stakeholder’ co-ops), such as Mondragon University in the Basque region of Spain.

As a historically new form of institutional governance, the ‘social co-operative’ speaks to many of the concerns raised over increased corporate governance structures and hierarchical management of universities by providing an alternative for existing governors, academics and students to consider. It also has much to commend for more radical, popular and community-based forms of education.

We need to encourage a different way of thinking about the role, value and form of higher education institutions in society. Such thinking is not as ‘public’ or ‘private’ forms of higher education, but as ‘social’ organisations sustained through solidarity and co-operation among their members. A better understanding of practices that create and sustain co-operative organisations could support the critical, intellectual forms of association that are needed in order to address the crisis of sociability.

5 responses to “Time to move past the obsession with leadership

  1. ‪Unfortunately I don’t have the theoretical toolkit to understand the first part. I did understand the final leading cooperatively section and like the idea. I would question whether that model leaves HE with sufficient agility to respond in the fluid and often adversarial social and political context.

  2. If I wanted to read a load of impenetrable academic jargon I’d go to my institution’s library. Wonhke readers deserve – and usually get – better.

  3. Behind the jargon, this blog post makes an important case. Universities used to be, and should be again, communities whose members decided together how to act. Now we get an obsession with leaders, VCs who allegedly are so good and so rare they need to be paid several hundred grand a year. In reality they take on impossible roles that are too unwieldy. Democratic decision-making is gone. Staff are told what the policy and rules of their university are to be, rather than deciding together as they used to. Powerlessness plus excessive demands damage mental health and morale. The obsession with leadership represents both poor management on the business side of things and the diminishment of academic communities on the human side of things. This blog makes a very important argument, though I agree it’s a shame that it is written in so obstruse a manner as to lack direct clarity and mask its significance.

  4. This post is out of character with Wonkhe’s usual stuff. I’m certainly not qualified to critique the ideas in the piece as they are written (which is perhaps its problem) but it reads like a number of cut and pastes from an academic journal paper.

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