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.

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13 Comments on “University heads: out of the shadows?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    * 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)?*
    In principle, I don’t believe there is necessarily a direct causality here, I mean between name recognition and professional effectiveness… also popularity is a double-edge sword of course and some middle-aged academic leaders might struggle at engaging with the contemporary media landscape in a manner that is truly effective for the higher education cause with disastrous results…the most important aspect, to my mind is speaking the right language, i.e. the capacity for a univerisity head to switch to the appropriate ‘language’ according to the type of public s/he is speaking to…name recognition will follow accordingly…

  2. Vincent Says:

    You’d have to say that the Russell Group are adequately represented if not by the VC’s but by dint of them all moving in the one direction and making it plain that’s exactly what they are doing.
    But on your main point about people not knowing the VC’s in the first place. How many know their bishop or the other doctors in the group practice. Or their neighbours for that matter.
    The reality is we know no one theses days and we like it that way.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Perhaps Jonty de Wolfe, VC of Kirke University, is the best known university leader of our time? If you are not familiar with his adventures, check him out on the C4player. An inspiration to us all!

    • Perry Share Says:

      Watched the last episode on 4oD tonight – a fitting conclusion. Only 3 weeks until it disappears from the site.

  4. jfryar Says:

    Perhaps this is the result of a ‘utilitarian’ view of higher education – ‘take my son/daughter and graduate them so they can get a good job’. If that’s the case then the public only care about higher education if it affects their wallets directly or the chances of their child getting into college. The media know this – hence the stories in the education supplements are generally about fees, bonus points, and access, with the university presidents being asked to comment on these media-led issues.

    I made a point a number of years ago about science funding to some of the newspapers. At the time of the tribunals, the media and public were obsessed with who paid what to whom. The sums of money involved were in the tens of thousands. Science funding was running into the billions over several years with virtually no mention in the media of what was being funded, who was being funded and where taxpayers’ money was going. The public, quite simply, didn’t care or at least, editors believed the public wouldn’t care. I think exactly the same thing happens – a president who says our universities are third-rate, that we have a yellow-pack education system, and our students will not compete globally is likely to have their views published. One who argues the need to restructure and form research links between colleges, will probably have interesting points, but the public sees it as an internal affair they’re not interested in.

  5. Al Says:

    I would not see prescription of an executive office as a good thing. While your point is well developed, where will it lead?
    Will an executive be measured on effectiveness through citations in the media?
    Those in charge carry the responsibility of managing their particular entities. They carry the can, and they also should had the prerogative to act as they see fit.
    Or maybe not…

  6. cormac Says:

    I’m guessing who the controversial one is. From afar, it looked an awful like trial by media. Not one mention in the media of the huge advances that happened at WIT under his watch, or of the significantly raised engagement of the college with its environment,, just as you you mention above

    • Al Says:

      The reporting on that situation has been lazy and the interpretation of the financial figures given no context or development.
      The man was hung out to dry.
      Another situation where ‘de media’ fail to challenge the consensus, this one is that third level management are next, after politicians, FAS, etc.

      In saying that, I wonder how many bosses are sunk in their chairs hoping a FOI doesn’t come in inquiring about the private jet they hired in 2008…


    • For the avoidance of doubt, my little conversation did not concern WIT. Indeed recent events had not then occurred.

  7. carolyn Says:

    For three years I worked in a specialist administrative role in a relatively small university (approx 1500 staff in total). Although I knew and frequently met with all the vice-principals at one meeting or another, I never even saw the principal except when he was on the stage at graduation ceremonies. I assumed he was never at the university but was out wooing the great and the good – but perhaps he was just hiding somewhere?

    In an organisation of that size there is no excuse for the head of it not to meet every single one of the employees over the course of a year or two. Just set aside a couple of hours a week and get on with it. Any capable business owner with that size of firm would be out in the workplace doing exactly that.

  8. cormac Says:

    I must say I agree with Carolyn. I can’t resist pointing out tht the former director of WIT made himself extremely visible to everyday staff and to the wider community, much more than his predecessor

    • Vincent Says:

      Yeah, but it’s rather laughable that with all the moneys he’s spent over the years the general feeling goes ‘huh, what’s a few million since no one talks about ‘a’ billion but multiples thereof’.

      • Al Says:

        Vincent, that is the quote that they wanted, got and printed.
        It hasnt been clarified but those monies would have included SIF, etc and all the people who work under him and whatever they did would have been included.


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