The criteria for a Vice Chancellor

The OU is seeking a new Vice Chancellor, with our acting one Mary Kellett, having done an admirable job in halting the chaos, and beginning the healing process following the disastrous previous regime. The UCU has put together a very good list of criteria they would want to see in a future VC. These are all very reasonable, and I would support all of them, particularly the type of criteria which are important but don’t often get listed in formal job descriptions and headhunting procedures, including:

  • Wholeheartedly support the OU’s mission statement
  • See the university first and foremost as a public institution for learning, research and the development of critical knowledge
  • Love our students and consider Higher Education a fundamental right for all

Their list got me thinking about what we want in Vice Chancellors in general. While some of their criteria are OU specific, many are applicable across the sector. I would add only one criteria to their list, which I feel gets at something fundamental about the difference between higher education and other sectors. My overriding desirable quality from a VC is an educational equivalent of the hippocratic oath: First, do no harm (although I was today years old when I learnt that isn’t actually part of the hippocratic oath).

This is not as trivial as it sounds. The recruitment of VCs is often undertaken by professional recruitment agencies, who work across sectors. The language of technology start-up has permeated (or if you prefer, contaminated) much of this world: disruption, revolution, challenge, digital, innovative, are all the types of words one sees in the CVs of successful applicants. I get it – saying “I’m just going to tweak a few things, be good at formal occasions and let you lot get on with what you’re good at” is not a very dynamic sales pitch for a 400K salary.

But universities and tech start-ups operate to different timescales and require different approaches. Unless you are being called in to save a university from imminent collapse, the kind of high pressure institutional transformation and ‘reorg’ so beloved of tech companies is disruptive (in the actual, original sense) to the functioning of a university. Universities operate over long time frames, have often been around for 100s of years (or in our case 50), and their very function is based on their longevity and adherence to core principles rather than rapid changes and then obsolescence. Think of it as different frequencies. HEIs operate like a low frequency sound, such as a bass drum, whereas tech startups are high frequency, like a whistle. Over the same time period, there will be waves in both, but far more in the high frequency one. So think of change in startups is the red line, and that in HEIs the blue line in this diagram:

The point is that both are required within a band or within society. Universities shouldn’t try to be tech start-ups anymore than tech start-ups make effective universities. While it is indeed worrying that a number of HEIs in the UK are facing possible bankruptcy, the fact that this makes a headline is telling in itself. In contrast “Three tech startups may face bankruptcy” would be greeted by a shrug – after all approximately 90% of startups fail. The management required in this context is very different – here you need to produce rapid products, get through to next year and then hopefully get bought by Google. This is an entirely different context to dealing with steering your 100 year old institution through the current educational climate, while pondering its route over the next 100 years.

Rather than prioritising dynamic, (often ego-driven) change programmes, HEIs need people who understand the low frequency, longue durée approach to management. And that starts with: first, do no harm.

6 Comments

  1. Very insightful re the different rhythms for change in different organisations, as always Martin. Tho’ the days when the Chair of University Council said to an incoming new VC ‘Your main job is make sure you leave the university as you find it’ are surely gone! Perhaps the key issue is how to manage change well? Rather than badly.

    1. Hi Alan! Yes, I suppose it’s hard to justify a big salary by saying “I promise not to break anything”. But often the sort of people recruited want to force change to put it on their CV – ‘implemented strategic change at a major university’ is more likely to get you the next big gig than ‘didn’t destroy major university’ I suppose 🙂

  2. Well said, Martin.
    I think “leave it be at least until you understand how it works” is a good approach for new leaders in most places (certainly, as I know from my own in experience, in schools as well as universities)

  3. The main issue of recruiting a good VC is that of any recruitment. A good track record elsewhere and a 1 day selection process doesn’t mean that a person can do the job required in the way it’s required. The OU is a turnaround rather than startup in the type of change required and the skills for turnaround of a mature business are very different to those of a startup.

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