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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