Professional leaders in higher education: credibility and relationships

This recently published paper charts some unusual territory and looks at senior professional services leaders, their careers, background, values and standing within institutions. Conducted by Kelly Coate, Camille Kandiko Howson and Tina Yu Yang and supported by SRHE the project posed the following research questions:

  • What are the career trajectories of senior professional leaders in contemporary universities and how do they describe their professional identities, expertise and capabilities?
  • How do gender, ethnicity, age and other characteristics influence the careers of senior professional leaders, and how do these intra-act with networks and indicators of esteem?
  • How do the values of senior professional leaders fit higher education organisational cultures and structures?
  • What are senior professional leaders’ perceptions of the value placed on these indicators of esteem by institutional and professional colleagues?
    We focused in this project on the professionals who have made it to the top levels of their institutions by interviewing 30 senior professional staff at Chief Operating Officer/Registrar/Secretary level across England and Scotland.


I was really pleased to be one of the 30 senior professional staff at Chief Operating Officer/ Registrar/Secretary level across England and Scotland to be interviewed for the project and it was great to hear Kelly Coate present the findings at the recent AHUA conference in Manchester this April.

Although the report was initially focused on the topic of prestige in higher education, in practice the researchers covered career trajectories, the crossing of academic/administrative boundaries at the level of senior professional leaders and, particularly interestingly, how interviewees gained credibility in their roles:

the term credibility was more comfortable for the majority of our interviewees, and one of the key themes that emerged is that credibility comes through the abilities to see the ‘big picture’ (the whole institution and beyond) and to ‘get things done’. Often, participants described how they accrued, over time, recognition for having solved particularly intractable problems. These ‘markers of esteem’ would include making decisions that saved the university substantial sums of money, ‘sorting out’ a particularly problematic area of the institution, and in general ‘fixing things’ (which was a very commonly used term).

Routes to leadership

The researchers also looked at the very different pathways to senior leadership positions for those who were not following the academic route:

In exploring the types of leadership skills that those from a ‘non-academic’ background described, it was clear to see that there is quite a big cultural gap between traditional academic pathways to senior leadership, and ‘non-academic’ pathways, which increasingly include leaders who have non-HE backgrounds. Although it is widely noted in the literature (see Whitchurch 2017) that academic and professional services staff are working more in partnership with each other than ever before, the very large differences between their identity formation, career trajectories and motivations are very apparent, and were often discussed in the interviews.

But one of the things which comes over most strongly in the report is the critical nature of the relationships between what are described as ‘the two cultures’ of academic and professional services staff and how Registrars manage these:

At the most senior levels of the university, with very high stakes decision-making taking place in fairly small leadership teams, it seems worthy of note that one of the key aspects of the job of these ‘non-academic’ leaders is to manage their relationships with academics, and we illustrate in this report how they describe this part of their role. Also, given the very rich range of metaphors that participants used to describe their role, we have included a final findings section on the ways in which they interpreted their jobs.

Favoured comparisons

The metaphors used to describe all of this are fascinating but for me none of them quite capture the nature of the activity satisfactorily. They include:

  • The repository or guardian of institutional memory
  • The permanent secretary in a government department
  • Stage manager in an opera house
  • Steering a ship
  • The WWII airplane metaphor where the Registrar or equivalent is not a Spitfire but a mid-range bomber.

And then my personal favourite but again imperfect (probably for the best) which is from an article in Perspectives by David Duncan  on valuing professional, managerial and administrative staff in which he likens the role to a character in The Godfather, where “the registrar is Robert Duvall’s character, Tom Hagen – ‘il consigliere’, a figure who is both adviser and the person who gets things done.” Nice.

Anyway, it’s an excellent report and highly recommended. There is a series of dissemination activities planned including conference presentations, journal articles, blogs and a website with resources but first up is a formal launch event taking place in London on 22 May.

I look forward to hearing more as things progress.

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