This article is more than 6 years old

Re-finding and re-defining the community of scholars to enhance leadership in universities

Mary Stuart argues for the role of leadership in supporting the university as a community of scholars.
This article is more than 6 years old

Mary Stuart is director of leadership development at Minerva and was vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

There is a real need to face up to the changes and challenges the sector is facing. While we talk about some of these; Brexit, marketization and competition, TEF, REF and KEF, funding and remuneration, there is less debate about wider challenges facing the sector. More attention is needed on questions about equality and inclusion in HE, global tensions and staying relevant in the context of the fourth industrial revolution and in a post-truth, and post-elite age.

These last developments, in particular, are dangerous for any expert because they challenge the very basis of the scientific method which all universities adhere to. Increasingly we see movements emerging which are not overseen by elites but work through what is being called new power drawing on widely disseminated information through social media. We cannot ignore, or worse, dismiss these changes. If we, in universities, do not address these developments we will lose our significance and value to society. This is not just an issue for senior people in universities but it points to a need to engage the whole community of scholars in deep thinking about our futures.

Values and the community in universities

A core value of Universities has been the belief that the community of scholars, historically always including students, debated and agreed on the direction and activities within the organisation. As recently pointed out by Robin Middlehurst, business theories, particularly ideas of managerialism and nationally determined metrics and targets, have undermined the balance between the community of scholars and leaders in universities. Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about leadership in HE, particularly as our sector shifts and changes. I believe it is time to re-find and re-define the notion of the community of scholars to meet the needs of universities in the 21st century.

A new definition of leadership, and the community of scholars

There are many ways to address these challenges but one key element surely must revolve around how we can benefit from the communities within our institutions, using the knowledge and ideas around us. This is not about looking backwards and it is not a rallying cry to return to the good old days, whenever those were. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to work across our communities to draw on our best ideas and to debate how we can address the considerable challenges facing our world today. We need to work with people both in universities and beyond in our wider communities. To achieve this may require thinking about different leadership styles and approaches.

This means that leadership in universities cannot simply be about imposing dictates from the top. Successful leadership in HE has always rested on debate and persuasion. Universities are full of intelligent people who want to know why rather than just accept decisions. I am not suggesting this implies that there will always be agreement, there can’t be. There is no one viewpoint in any institution, but leaders gain credibility by being honest and clear, by demonstrating that they have listened to concerns and by explaining why actions are being taken in any situation.

Senior leadership in current times must be about shaping, continuous adaptation and creating frameworks within which staff and students can act and build their futures. Leadership in universities is not owned by any one group or person, it is dispersed, it is about the community taking ownership of a vision. Yes, that vision is set by senior leaders, but it has to be rooted in the ambitions and values of the organisation or else it will not be successful. In his book on managing successful universities, Shattock argues that a strong central core provides the space for academics to operate effectively.

This core needs to work as a framework to guide and shape direction, pace and approach but it must leave space for innovation and creativity for individuals and groups to develop. Senior leaders need to create and support the framework as one of their main tasks within their universities.

Students as contributors to the scholarly community

A much greater degree of openness is required than the old notion of the community of scholars, with its elaborate rites of passage, has allowed for. This is not to say that reason and scientific method should be lost but that new ideas should, and do, come from unlikely places.

One of our greatest resources in universities is the steady flow of new entrants into the community; our students. We need to embrace their perspectives, be challenged by them and respond back with our ideas and heritage of scientific knowledge. This process of dialogue between students and staff is important to ensure our communities of scholars are relevant and engaging. We need to adapt to different ideas and ways of thinking rather than assume that our style is right. Listening to students and drawing on their experience of a world of rapid social change is vital to ensure the future value of our universities. Working together does not happen automatically it requires structures that make it possible and systems that value engagement. This is the responsibility of senior leaders in designing a core framework for their community.

Inclusivity in the community

Working with staff and students together to create an inclusive community is not simple and I know we make mistakes but each time we learn and seek to improve. There are many areas where we have much more to do to be genuinely inclusive. The Equality Challenge Unit highlighted some of these challenges in the sector last year. For example, the attainment gap between white and black students qualifying with a First/2:1 degree was 25.3%; less than one percent of UK professors were black, and only 1 in 5 female academics earned over £50,000. Addressing inequality and creating inclusivity requires different practice avoiding privileging and normalising any one perspective. The community needs to challenge itself to address inequality and this needs a commitment from senior leaders.

Universities need strong dialogue and debate among scholars and we will not always agree but the process of dialogue usually creates better decisions. We do not always get it right but with discussion across the institution trust and commitment develop, and we can learn from mistakes to grow stronger. We need to work with our communities of scholars, staff and students together, with a shared mission to ensure HE is again recognised for what it should be, a force for good in our society.

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