University heads: out of the shadows?
Of late universities have been more in the news than perhaps ever before. As governments struggle with funding issues, and as universities struggle with the fall-out from the government struggles, and as students protest about tuition fees, and as the public weighs up the benefits of higher education – universities are right there on the front pages and getting everyone’s attention. So then, presumably university presidents, principals and vice-chancellors have all become household names? Not at all. Some of them, one gathers, are hardly household names in their own institutions, and almost none would be recognised by the general public. I recently stopped a group of 12 students and asked them to name five university heads, from any institution in any country. Not one of them could do that. In fact, only two could name more than one, and three could name none at all, not even the head of their own university.
So, startled by that, I tried the same thing again over a dinner with some very highly influential businesspeople. In this case, all of them could name one (not the same one), but none could name more than three. I also noticed that one name coming up was a university leader who had been in the news in somewhat controversial circumstances. So I asked could they name any university head they regarded as having been particularly good at his or her job. Silence.
I should reassure you, readers, in case you fear my ego was battered in all this, that at the precise moment I was asking all this I wasn’t a university head (three months ago). But what is it that makes presidents, principals and vice-chancellors such key figures in university leadership but so shadowy to the outside world (indeed even to the students)? Why is there such low name recognition? Why, in other words, are we ineffective advocates for the higher education position (for if we weren’t we would be better known)?
There are several reasons. First, university heads live and work in very strange surroundings, and here I speak from experience. Universities are amazingly complex organisations, and often they are far less easily managed than manipulated, and progress is made via negotiations and deals. Alliances are forged and broken, people are courted and betrayed, principles are formulated and forgotten. Does that sound cynical? In reality it isn’t, it is just how the academic community deals with itself, and these techniques are not the preserve of management; indeed they float upwards from the academic shop floor.
Secondly, because of these complexities university heads often focus their attention on internal issues (though sometimes internal issues can masquerade as external ones: funding is not really an external matter, for example). If the only thing a university leader ever talks about is whatever is bothering (or even pleases) her or him in relation to their institution, this won’t attract much attention elsewhere. Unless you are firing your staff or something similar, the triumphs and disasters in your university restructuring won’t interest anyone else, even slightly; particularly not the triumphs.
In fact, all this works two ways. If you are not really engaging public awareness or opinion, the chances are you aren’t taking in the views of the public and stakeholders either. So not only are you not doing anything to interest the public, but if you did, what you said probably wouldn’t resonate with themp. The American market research organisation, Pew Social and Demographic Trends, has just released an interesting piece of research outlining the views of university presidents and members of the public on a number of issues. It should not be a surprise that on most issues they are very far apart. Critically, they are not agreed on the desirability (for some) of a university education.
The problem really is that university heads are far, far too introspective. It is supposed to be an outward-facing job, where the holder makes a case for the university and enthuses its potential supporters and friends. In reality, often they end up depressing them, or worse, boring them. The public won’t tune into a bunch of middle aged academic types who seem, as far as anyone can tell, to be constantly whining about this and that. They want to hear the optimism and determination of confidant representatives of the education system, telling them that there is a secure future for the next generation. If they hear and appreciate that message, they may tune in to the other stuff as well, now seen in context.
As universities have graduated from being somewhat advanced schools and as they seek to take their place as society’s knowledge power houses, their leaders need to learn to speak in terms that will reinforce this role with the public. They need to enthuse their academic communities to join them in this. In short, they need to be leaders.