Academic administrators are ready to lead universities

It's time to accept that senior academic administrators could be future vice chancellors. argue Katie Akerman and Emma Standen

We were encouraged to read a piece on the AHUA site last summer authored by David Lewellyn, vice chancellor at Harper Adams University, arguing that more university registrars and chief operating officers should become vice chancellors.

That is, until we reviewed person specifications for VCs or DVCs or PVCs, and confirmed that in most if not all cases, you either need a doctorate, a professorial title or an academic track record.

This, then, excludes academic administrators (who are more likely to be female) who probably have both academic and professional qualifications but are unlikely to have a doctorate or professorial title. This means we are perceived to be ok to manage “that thing” at “that level” but not manage “that other thing” at “that higher level”.We don

That means it’s just not as simple as putting ourselves forward. We can’t when we are missing what is deemed to be a key requirement of an executive role. The question, then, is whether a doctorate or professorial title should be a key requirement of an executive role?

The Fawcett Society’s recent Sex and Power 2020 report highlights the fact that women only make up 30 per cent of vice-chancellors, only one example of the ways that men continue to dominate powerful public sector roles. There are a whole raft of talented women in other roles who would make excellent academic leaders and managers. But no-one is fighting the corner of academic administrators to get further than senior management roles.

Academic administrators could join ‘em to beat ‘em in that they could get a doctorate or professorial title but how does a doctorate in a possibly rather esoteric subject make academic administrators better leaders and managers? And, more crucially, gaining a doctorate (or professorial title) only helps that individual, not every other academic administrator who’d make a decent DVC or VC.

Brave new world

As the business of higher education changes (yes, we know we are all loath to call it a business….but), so the skill, knowledge and experience base of our leaders need to evolve. That evolution should include a commitment to seeking a broader range of experiences within senior recruitment. As all good writers of regulations will attest a well placed “normally” or in this case “or equivalent” would widen the pool of potential applicants.

This would enable the sector and governing bodies to ensure form follows function – what do we need of a leader and manager of a higher education institution? Demonstrable knowledge of how a university operates within the context of an evolving higher education sector; proven experience of strategic and operational management; and evidence of leadership skills?

Academic administrators have vision and drive; they have strategic and operational experience gained at senior levels; they are flexible; work internally and externally to the institution; communicate and negotiate; they manage resources; lead change projects; formulate policies and procedures; understand a diverse student population; report to Senates and Councils; they manage staff; understand both research and teaching; are able to influence and motivate; are creative positive disruptors; and each has their own specialist skillset, such as digital capabilities.

We don’t need a doctorate or professorial title to prove we can do this and it’s time the sector recognised that this is the 21st century and… #this administrator can!

5 responses to “Academic administrators are ready to lead universities

  1. What makes a good VC? The issue is not that a doctorate or academic professorial level experience is necessary ( I agree, it is not ) but what IS necessary is a thorough understanding of, and empathy with, the issues facing the academic workforce whose work, after all, is at the heart of the university’s business. That understanding can be gained in a range of ways, and sometimes it is through having gained experience working in an academic capacity of one kind or another. . I know a few academic administrators ( or academic-related staff as they used to, much more accurately, be called) who could possibly make good VCs, ones who would not only be excellent managers but strategic leaders, fighting the good fight in defence of their university and their staff and students.

    I also know very many who wouldn’t meet that criterion of understanding – indeed let’s be honest there are many academic administrators who don’t really ‘get’ many of the issues facing their academic colleagues. That’s also a strong argument against the idea that you can just bring in a business person or leader from another sector to become a VC, the VC needs to fully understand the special nature of the UK non-profit university business (especially the need to not kill the golden geese. )

    But then again there are not very many academic staff who would make good VCs either. It is a very difficult job and being a subject specialist does not guarantee possession of wider strategic vision or leadership capabilities. Neither does, e.g., being a leading Scientist mean that you understand what drives your humanities colleagues.

    So I would agree that insisting on candidates having a doctorate or having held a Professorial post does narrow the pool of quality candidates, it is short-sighted and perhaps even a bit lazy, showing a lack of reflection on what qualities are really needed for a successful VC. Whether this particularly disadvantages women as applicants for VC positions, as the authors suggest, I am not sure. Perhaps. But it certainly is not good for the University making the appointment nor for the sector overall . I wouldn’t say the UK HE sector is so over-endowed with great VCs that it can afford to ignore wider pools of talent .

  2. Universities should definitely look beyond the usual talent pool for future VCs, as there are lots of talented colleagues who would make excellent VCs but do not hold academic contracts. Arguably, it is those operating in what Whitchurch (2008) calls “The Third Space” who are best placed to become the VCs of the future. However, what isn’t helping HE professionals on non-academic contracts achieve those top jobs is the fact that those of us in professional services who do have doctorates are often held back by resentful and less qualified professional service managers, or seen as “secretaries with ideas above our station” by our academic “peers” on the recruitment panels for these roles.

  3. Managerialism is the fundamental problem with HE and it cannot be solved by having more or different managers. Indeed the whole notion that institutions whose collective vocation is to find out the truth about things (whether through teaching or research) is something that can be managed in a manner analogous to the provision of gas or electricity is at the heart of the current crisis in universities. Managers care about measures of success – money and status and rankings. They don’t care about what is true or false and so should have nothing to do with universities.

  4. A valid question to such a candidate would be “Have you ever considered studying for a doctorate?” Legitimate concerns would be a) lack of commitment, b) limited creativity. The candidate would have to provide reassurances in these areas. For example, completion of complex projects with published outcomes would be an acceptable substitute and possibly more impressive than a doctorate with academic journal articles.

    In passing, there are also qualification/accreditation bars to becoming a Registrar and the recruitment pool for these posts could be widened to a greater extent than the VC pool probably.

  5. [We were encouraged to read a piece on the AHUA site last summer authored by David Lewellyn, vice chancellor at Harper Adams University, arguing that more university registrars and chief operating officers should become vice chancellors.

    That is, until we reviewed person specifications for VCs or DVCs or PVCs, and confirmed that in most if not all cases, you either need a doctorate, a professorial title or an academic track record.

    This, then, excludes academic administrators (who are more likely to be female) who probably have both academic and professional qualifications but are unlikely to have a doctorate or professorial title. This means we are perceived to be ok to manage “that thing” at “that level” but not manage “that other thing” at “that higher level”.

    That means it’s just not as simple as putting ourselves forward. We can’t when we are missing what is deemed to be a key requirement of an executive role. The question, then, is whether a doctorate or professorial title should be a key requirement of an executive role?]

    First, we need to unpack what we mean by “an executive role” as VCs, DVCs and PVCs are all “executive” roles but are actually VERY different. The nature of role of the VC is the paradigm case of an academic-manager. While not all VCs are saints, the role of the VC, in theory, is that of someone who is able to “cut it on both sides” of the Academic/Administration line. They are the most senior academic in the university, and the most senior manager. While these two aspects are not separable, it doesn’t mean that they have to be “the best” academic or “the best manager”. Merely that they have to have the strongest balance of both. Suggesting that the paradigm academic-manager need not have academic credibility is no different to suggesting that they need no managerial/leadership skills.

    In contrast to the VC job, DVCs and PVCs – depending on the nature of the role will have a track record and specialised knowledge and experience of one (or more) aspect of Higher Education and their academic qualifications/title/publications may (or may not) be an essential aspect of the job. It is quite reasonable to expect a PVC or DVC who responsible for leading on “research” or “teaching and learning” to have academic credibility in this area. In contrast – a PVC or DVC who is responsible for “finance” or “resources” is a role more appropriate for someone who is an expert in these areas. No sensible VC or Board of Governors would prefer the Professor of Underwater Basket Weaving to a Chartered Accountant specialising in HE for such a role. Where such job adverts lack this basic understanding of key HE roles, perhaps the answer is to better educate HR departments and head-hunters about the nature of HE?

    [The Fawcett Society’s recent Sex and Power 2020 report highlights the fact that women only make up 30 per cent of vice-chancellors, only one example of the ways that men continue to dominate powerful public sector roles. There are a whole raft of talented women in other roles who would make excellent academic leaders and managers. But no-one is fighting the corner of academic administrators to get further than senior management roles.]

    While this is a really important point, conflating the issue of the HE leadership gender imbalance and the admin/academic divide is counterproductive. I have been really fortunate to have worked with so many amazingly talented female academics who would make brilliant VCs because they have both the academic credibility and the professional leadership & management experience to do so. If we want to be correcting the gender imbalance at VC level, surely the quickest way to do so is to support these amazing colleagues to get the job opportunities that they deserve.

    [Academic administrators could join ‘em to beat ‘em in that they could get a doctorate or professorial title but how does a doctorate in a possibly rather esoteric subject make academic administrators better leaders and managers? And, more crucially, gaining a doctorate (or professorial title) only helps that individual, not every other academic administrator who’d make a decent DVC or VC.]

    This paragraph totally misses the point of the VC role and the anti-intellectual attitude is both counterproductive and symptomatic of the way in which those of us on administrative contracts who have gained a doctorate are often sabotaged in our career development by our peers who do not have the same academic credibility. While it is true that having a doctorate in an esoteric subject like child labour in the 19th century Swedish leather industry does not make you a VC quality leader/manager, no sensible person would ever claim it would. While a PhD does give you all sorts of transferable and management skills, this is not the reason why it (or a professorial title) is included in VC job descriptions. Rather it is used as evidence of academic credibility. If someone from an administration background is ever going to become a credible VC, it will be someone who has demonstrated the academic credibility associated with the role. Perhaps if “admin managers” would start to support their peers who have, or are doing, PhDs this might be a positive step in the right direction.

    [Brave new world
    As the business of higher education changes (yes, we know we are all loath to call it a business….but), so the skill, knowledge and experience base of our leaders need to evolve. That evolution should include a commitment to seeking a broader range of experiences within senior recruitment. As all good writers of regulations will attest a well placed “normally” or in this case “or equivalent” would widen the pool of potential applicants.

    This would enable the sector and governing bodies to ensure form follows function – what do we need of a leader and manager of a higher education institution? Demonstrable knowledge of how a university operates within the context of an evolving higher education sector; proven experience of strategic and operational management; and evidence of leadership skills?]

    While this is true of some specialised PVC and DVCs roles, it doesn’t follow for VC roles. Yes, a VC does need those skills and knowledge, but they also need more than this! Removing academic credibility as key aspect of what it is to be a VC is not the appropriate means of widening the pool of potential applicants to such roles in a way that would improve the gender balance of VCs or support those of us on administration contracts to enter the upper echelons of HE management.

    [Academic administrators have vision and drive; they have strategic and operational experience gained at senior levels; they are flexible; work internally and externally to the institution; communicate and negotiate; they manage resources; lead change projects; formulate policies and procedures; understand a diverse student population; report to Senates and Councils; they manage staff; understand both research and teaching; are able to influence and motivate; are creative positive disruptors; and each has their own specialist skillset, such as digital capabilities.

    We don’t need a doctorate or professorial title to prove we can do this and it’s time the sector recognised that this is the 21st century and… #this administrator can!]

    This might be true, but #this administrator (and their administrative colleagues with PhDs) can do it better and with added academic credibility! – so please can the entitled generation of anti-intellectual managerial ‘colleagues’ stop sabotaging us!

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