Academic Leadership – what’s required?

Too few academics are putting themselves forward for the top jobs. Amanda Goodall argues that we must nurture talent, value achievement and pay more if we want to fill the empty chairs

Universities need leaders – and leaders who are good academics. Yet in the UK there is no long queue of potential applicants. The pipeline is thin. The sad truth is that we do not value our vice-chancellors and heads of departments enough. Aspiring heads need to be encouraged – and talented leaders paid more.

If you ask 99 per cent of faculty whether they want to be a university leader they reply: “Why would I? I’m an academic, not an administrator.” But if you informed the same folk that the government has decided to hire business people and professional managers to run our universities – because too few academics are throwing their hats in the ring – most of the 99 per cent would look on in horror.

Most faculty have an ambivalent attitude to leadership. If asked whether they believe that universities need to have vice-chancellors, rectors, pro vice-chancellors, provosts and deans, they might respond yes. If then we asked, “Do you think your department requires a head?” we would likely receive a vehement “Yes, of course”. Our proximity to things increases our understanding of them, including organisational matters. When Professor X can no longer escape the electrifying prospect of “the chair”, he or she really starts to think about leadership.

The core business of universities is research and teaching. My own research has found that scholar-leaders outperform heads who are non-academics or those who gave up research and teaching early in their careers. Leaders who are scholars have a deep understanding of the core business and, therefore, are more likely to create the right conditions under which other scholars and teachers will thrive. Similarly, professional managers will create the conditions for other managers. Importantly, humans tend to hire others who look like themselves.

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By admin

Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst  (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.

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