Most days I will have more than one conversation with a candidate or client about why it is that the sector currently seems to be so careless in keeping hold of its leaders.
I need not mention any of the recent rapid – and apparently colourful – “transitions” that have recently taken place at vice chancellor and governor level. Setting speculation about individual cases aside, more important for the longer term is the question of how we can stop this happening in future, and what we can learn to reduce the likelihood of making appointments that might end up in catastrophe.
What sort of leaders do we want?
Four initial thoughts come to mind. First, and in the case of the appointment of a vice chancellor, it feels like we should have a different and more nuanced discussion across the sector about what the role is. At a simple level this might be an interrogation of the way the role is similar to, and dissimilar from, being the chief executive of a corporate entity. Appointment panels should be encouraged to take into account the breadth of requirements for the position when they’re making selection decisions.
The role of a vice chancellor as head of an academic community is vital, and their ability to chair their senates or academic boards in a way that supports engagement continues to be critical for their credibility and institutional success. A vice chancellor needs to be resilient and open to challenge and discussion if they are serious about delivering change. They are also ultimately accountable for playing a decisive role in the leadership of complex organisations with strong business imperatives. It is a tall order to seek competence – never mind excellence – across this range of expectations.
They appointed who?
Second, due diligence is critical. Higher education is characterised by its connectivity, not only nationally but globally. It is normally possible to triangulate a lot about potential candidates without breaching their confidentiality. It is important that appointment committees, supported by their external advisors, do this more thoroughly. Too often when a vice chancellor is appointed the rest of the sector scratches its collective head and wonders if anyone actually took any references.
We would benefit from more extensive appointment processes, that assess candidates in a broader range of situations. We should reduce the current over-dependency on formal panel interviews that can be skewed too much in favour of candidates who have a narcissistic disposition.
We don’t need another hero
Third, we could do with moving away from the idea that we are searching for corporate heroines or heroes. Regardless of arguments about pay and conditions, if it is done properly, the role of vice chancellor makes an unbelievable claim on the appointee. They will be working ninety-hour weeks, and from the moment they take up their position will be exposed to a range of contexts and situations that they may not have seen before.
They will very likely have a massive mandate to deliver change, on a level that they, and most of the people they encounter, will have limited experience of. They may have been a deputy elsewhere with significant responsibilities for academic operations, but overnight move into a role where they are spending much more of their time externally-focused and in representational activities. They may not be prepared personally or emotionally for some of the structural contempt that many universities can hold for their leaders, regardless of the individual holding the position.
All too often boards expect the new vice chancellor to step immediately into the shoes of their predecessor without recognising that time will be needed for the person to develop fully into the role, and that they will need support. Typically opportunities for coaching and development are limited.
The behaviour problem
Finally, the time is right for a new discussion about propriety. Without setting in place rigid rules or treating adults as children, it feels that we do need to tighten up expectations. Although it’s a tiny minority of cases, there are still too many stories of excessive indulgence on international trips, or of people line-managing and making rapid promotions of people they share a bed with. Stories like these spread quickly, and they create reputational issues for the whole sector.
Notwithstanding successive government policies that have enforced a bizarre privatisation by stealth in higher education, there is still a deep expectation, within and outside universities, that they are for the public good. A key role of governance is to ensure that senior executives conduct themselves in a way that lives this out.