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Wicked problems: leading different worlds in one institution

What are the most pressing issues for leadership in stewarding university culture? Three leaders share their reflections on culture clashes, equality, diversity and inclusion, and creating a compassionate environment
This article is more than 4 years old

Alison Johns is chief executive of Advance HE

Shearer West is Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham

Anthony Seldon is the vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham

Universities are three worlds in one institution

Alison Johns, Advance HE

One thing we can all agree on is that autonomy is good for universities. There is plenty of evidence to back this up: scientific breakthroughs, innovation, social contribution, education and upskilling, and countries around the world are moving towards greater autonomy within their own systems.

But the wicked issue is how to deliver on the promise of autonomy. Universities and their staff find themselves living and operating in three very different worlds and cultures on a day-to-day basis, each bringing different demands, drivers, timescales, roles, concerns, and requirements. These can be in conflict with each other, and often challenge the values many hold dear in academia.

The table below attempts to summarise this point by illustrating the differing tensions and competing priorities for people’s time, energy and resources. Between the operational, the academic and the regulatory, the university can find itself pushed and pulled in different directions. Each produces slightly different conceptions of what education is for, its contribution to society, the economy and local communities.

Three higher education worlds

Shorter term operationsLonger term researchCyclical reporting

Policymakers tend to see both the potential and the limits of the education system through the prism of the quick – in terms of electoral timescales – fix they can make. In turn, this creates pressures for change. League table compilers create pressures for the kind of managerialism which risks driving effective academic leadership underground. And the new world of market regulation for HE, though it could be argued to be offering more freedom and choice, is setting a new standard for expectations of what HE needs to deliver for its students.

These changes can be seen from differing perspectives in terms of where they create most impact on institutional life – for example, in terms of the organisational (TEF), the academic (REF) or the regulatory driver for greater competition (OfS). But each reform or new initiative is rarely isolated to that one area.

This presents a challenge to leadership, management and culture change – how are leaders supposed to respond to these multiple demands? Yet the real challenge is about how to manage these tensions to deliver what needs to be done within the institution. The question is how to develop culture to get the best out of different teams in different “worlds”. How to distribute and share leadership effectively and see how this ultimately contributes towards the impact of the university for students, research, staff and society in general.

How will we ensure that these different worlds and cultures remain aligned to support HE to deliver at a time when the pressure for quick fixes may push our worlds apart? How do we optimise the creative tensions within? A truly wicked issue for our times.

We need lateral thinking to make headway on equality, diversity and inclusion

Shearer West, University of Nottingham

The sector record on equality, diversity and inclusion remains troubling. Gender and ethnic pay gaps for staff, and access and attainment gaps for students from BME and disadvantaged backgrounds, are still embarrassingly wide.  A dearth of women, BME and disabled staff in senior leadership positions persists. Welcome national measures such as Athena Swan, the Race Equality Charter, and initiatives by UKRI, the REF and the Office for Fair Access and Participation have nudged us forward, but only incrementally.

How do we address this wicked problem? My perspective has changed after undertaking reverse mentoring with a passionate and talented Associate Professor from a BME background and by my VC mentoring programme for staff from under-represented groups. Our conversations have made me realise that we need to think laterally and be self-reflective if we are going to make headway.

Some criticised the EHRC report, “Tackling Racial Harassment”, for failing to highlight institutional racism in universities. While I sympathise with the critics’ frustration, I think that many of our systemic problems are less a malign exercise of power and prejudice and more about banalities: habit, inertia and ingrained thinking.

Reverse mentoring has taught me how much of my past I unthinkingly carry around. My childhood was spent in a small US Southern town when the Civil Rights Act (1964) was in its infancy. In our neighbourhood, people hung their Confederate flags next to their gun racks.  My mentor helped me understand how this background affects my judgements, perceptions and leadership style.

Those of us who represent one or more characteristics of privilege cart similar baggage.  Assumptions must be continually challenged. I mentor women whose working-class background or disability creates more obstacles than their gender. I have attended events where students from Delhi, Kingston and Birmingham seem bemused at being lumped together as “BME”. Debates about gender pay gaps focus on high-end academic salaries, but (uncomfortably) if universities employ their own cleaning staff, they are likely to have a larger gap than those who outsource.

At Nottingham, I appointed a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion who launched an EDI Strategy to provoke action at institutional level. However, whatever top-down measures we initiate, the intractable micro-cultures in the Chemistry lab or Philosophy department are what inhibit progress. Moving the dial is about anthropology rather than policy:  embedding ED&I thinking locally will make the most difference.

Motivation for change is not solely about social justice, crucial though that is. In our volatile times, a diversity of views enables us to innovate, be successful, and reflect more readily the society we support. The General Election gave us the most diverse Parliament in history.  If Parliament can demonstrate such a pace of change, there is no reason why universities should not be able to do so as well.

Universities need to be compassionate environments for the sake of all our mental health

Anthony Seldon, University of Buckingham

2020 will be a wicked year for HE on many fronts, Brexit, Boris and Bandwidth among them. The mental health of our students and staff though is the issue that most concerns me. As a former school teacher, I see that by the time the students join university, the foundational harm has been done, and we are playing catch up.

Many factors explain the rise in mental unwellness, including social media and anxieties about income and employment. But a school system that is based upon exam success as the sole criterion for judging the success and worth of an individual student is a major contributory factor. The system might be useful for enhancing academic performance, for ranking schools, and for a tool for senior leadership teams. But it can place an intolerable strain on young minds battling for the A*s at one end, while rendering up to a third of young people “failures” at the other for not acquiring the requisite exam passes.

Universities have made great strides forward on mental health in the last five years, with the work of UUK, spearheaded by John de Pury, in the forefront. The university mental health charter released by Student Minds last month contains much good experience and wisdom in it. But in practice, it’s extraordinarily difficult for universities to look after the rising numbers of distressed young people pitching up each September. Academics, even if they had time, often do not feel equipped to cope. University support services are themselves under great strain.

We are reaching a perfect storm moment, whereby the money available is grossly inadequate and might fall if tuition fees are cut, while the demand for help surges ever upwards.

We need new thinking to complement the traditional approach of the NHS and the psychiatric establishments, which seeks to help sufferers once problems have manifest. The new, 21st-century response is positive psychology, developed from the late 1990s by Professor Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. This places the emphasis not on reactive, remedial interventions, but learning about the proactive actions to help ensure that we can all, students as well as staff, take to build our resilience and lead lives which are physically and psychologically healthy.

Recently, the approach has been championed by psychologist Laurie Santos at Yale. Her course, “Psychology and the Good Life” became in 2018 the most popular in the University’s history. A body called the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) links universities and schools worldwide to the best research on the interventions that can be taken to boost mental health. The good news is that it can be a lot cheaper than looking after people once problems have manifest and become chronic.

Positive psychology steps include volunteering, regular exercise and creating compassionate working environments. I call on every vice chancellor and senior leadership team across Britain in 2020 to volunteer themselves and support the work of #iwill, to boost their own exercise and hold some walking rather than sedentary meetings, and to endeavour to make every single employee at their university feel genuinely valued.

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