So what does a President do?

Today I attended the quarterly meeting of the Irish Universities Association (IUA). Until 2005, this body was called the ‘Conference of Heads of Irish Universities’, known widely by its acronym CHIU (which everyone pronounced ‘chew’). During the current decade, the IUA has increasingly found a role for itself, and has coordinated the universities in their approach to various issues such as quality, funding, capital investments, and so forth. The IUA operates largely through the various university officers, and one university always occupies the chair (annually in rotation). The IUA Council (which was meeting today) consists of all the Presidents (or in TCD’s case, the Provost).

I have to confess that I am the senior university President in Ireland – by which I mean that I have been in office longest. I have seen a few Presidents come and go, and I guess every one of them has had a slightly different approach to the role. But then again, what is the role? We have got used to talking about Presidents as ‘chief officers’ (the term used in the Universities Act 1997), and often they are compared to corporate CEOs. But then again, universities are remarkably complex organisations, and contain strong expectations of collegiality and shared decision-making – as, in fairness, do many modern business corporations.

Traditionally the Head of a university occupied what might often have seemed a largely ceremonial role. While they would experience a good deal of deference in personal interaction, they could not expect much success if they tried to exercise command-style management. In fact, it could be quite difficult to identify where real decision-making power would lie. Before I joined DCU I worked in two universities, and I was never able to discover where the centre of decision-making was.

Many external stakeholders – including the government and industry – have expected universities to reform to the point where institutional strategy and efficient decision-making would become possible. But that has still left a fair amount of uncertainty as to what a President’s role should be.

I sometimes meet groups of visiting schoolchildren when they come to DCU, and occasionally I amuse myself by asking them what they think my job entails. Hardly any of them can even guess – although recently one young girl wondered if I were a ‘tour guide’. Maybe that is not a bad way of looking at it. We are on a tour of learning and discovery, and within the necessary academic autonomy there is room for some strategic guidance. The President – or at least this President – needs to represent the university to its external partners and stakeholders, and needs to ensure that the institution is internally coordinated and strategically focused on its opportunities. In one of my next posts on this blog I may describe my ‘typical’ day a little.

In the end, I doubt there is one model for this, any more than there is one ‘correct’ model for a corporate CEO; I know that we’re different. Different university Heads will have a variety of approaches. But what we all need to have in common is to recognise that what makes a university great is the work and dedication of its faculty and staff, and the qualities and achievements of its students and graduates.

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