At the head of the class
Universities are exceptionally complex organisations, and for their smooth operation they rely on the contributions and goodwill of many people whose names often do not appear much in the PR reports heralding great academic successes. One crucial category of staff consists of what, in this part of the world, we usually designate ‘Heads’: those people in charge of the key academic units to which lecturing staff belong (most commonly departments, or Schools).
When I was a student, and still when I became a lecturer in 1980, a department Head was typically a professor who ‘owned’ the headship for the duration of his or her (usually his) tenure. Some would have held the post for years, decades even. I vividly recall the Head of my School as a student – a God-like figure with what appeared like absolute power to steer all decision-making.
Those days are gone, and the typical model now is that someone will occupy the headship for a limited term and will then hand the torch on to another colleague. Typically a Head will be a professor, or maybe a senior lecturer, and they will be appointed on foot of a process probably led by the Dean or similar university officer. An appointment to a professorship, or associate professorship, will now normally involve an expectation that at some stage the person appointed will make themselves available for the headship.
Heads are still the persons to whom most academic staff will turn for key decisions, or for personal support. But at the same time their duties are now often ill-defined, and their responsibilities will sometimes be opaque, set against the roles of Deans and other senior academic managers. But they remain vitally significant, as they will have much more direct insight into how a department is functioning and will be able to represent the interests of staff in university decision-making. Then again, too many layers of decision-making bureaucratise the system and complicate strategic progress; and Heads who have not been carefully chosen or properly trained can wreak havoc.
In the course of my tenure as a university president/principal, I have come to the conclusion that getting the headships right is one of the most important conditions for overall institutional success. This includes getting the appointments process right, clarifying the terms of appointment and the responsibilities that go with the post (taking care also that the contributions of Heads are valued and respected), and ensuring that holders exercise their role responsibly. Overall, I am not at all sure how well the academy is performing in this regard, nor am I sure that we recognise the importance of headship, and the damage caused when it all goes wrong. It is time to stop neglecting Heads.