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.

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17 Comments on “At the head of the class”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Well one of the main problems with the HoD job these days is surely that almost no-one wants to do it. It’s become such a grim task, involving 80hours+ per week of admin (most of it of the most soul-destroying kind) that most academics who are in line to do the job live in dread of it being their ‘turn’.

    The reason for this is that it’s the role which is the key ‘pressure point’ in a university. The HoD is on the receiving end of all of bottom-up pressure within the department, and is responsible for dealing with all of its problems. They are also on the receiving end of all of the top-down pressure from the university’s senior management, who generate most of the paperwork required of HoDs. The result is like being trapped in a vice of administration. There’s also no time or mental energy left to do teaching or research, which is hardly ideal for supposedly senior academics.


  2. It’s interesting that this is a role which is so onerous in many old (UK) universities, but doesn’t even exist in many new (UK) universities. It is a very costly role since, as Jilly says, it absorbs so much senior academic time even if the honorarium paid is not always worth having. Given the costs and the risks, I’m not clear that the role wouldn’t be better designed out of the organisation.

    • Al Says:

      What is advocated here then seems to be a management of a ‘craft’ that has no expertise regarding the specific craft. Which may be important when considerations of future direction,s actual capabilities, etc, etc of the department are taken into consideration.

      But in saying all this, I dont think I would want the job either!!


      • Al
        (1) I’m not sure I was advocating anything in particular and (2) how often does the Head have a deciding voice in determing the future direction of a department?

        • Al Says:

          1) Accepted
          2) depending on the organisational dynamics, your probably right most of the time. It is the other times that FVP was pointing out that the right person can make a difference? A different what I am not sure…

  3. Bill Lonsdale Says:

    Hear hear!

  4. no-name Says:

    Quite interesting to think of administration as a vice — certainly the temptation to have control over the toner supplies must seduce as many great as mediocre minds away from the harder tasks of advancing knowledge in their chosen fields and sharing advances with newcomers.

    Administration also appears to have the properties of a vise for the reasons suggested by Jilly. Part of the problem is that from below, administrative processes invented by academics are notoriously inefficient and disconnected from each other, while from above, the processes required by professional administrators might be fully connected with each other but are simply borrowed from some other sphere of human employment and, as such, are disconnected from the content of academia (the notion of “line manager” does not fit, and the details of participating in “performance management and development systems” are antithetical to progress in publishing articles that will influence further research). Enjoying satisfying the demands of both sorts of stupidity is surely perverse.

    On the other hand, it seems probable that most academics would rather have one of their own assigning offices than admitting even more professional administrators into the system. As administrators are hired, budgets to support hiring more of them appear to grow more quickly than budgets that support hiring new academics. “One of their own” is more likely to have a kindred strategy in hiring new academics, where and when that ever becomes possible.

    So, how to appoint a candidate head? Well, it seems safest to start looking among those who do not seek the position. Then, among those not eliminated, apply the same criteria as suggested in “The Republic” for determining who would make a good king.

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/plato-republic-philosopherking.asp (link last verified August 24, 2011)

    • Jilly Says:

      No-name, I was using the English spelling of vice (though I do like the pun, I agree). I also agree that those who seek out the role of HoD are usually to be regarded with suspicion, and indeed *are* generally regarded with suspicion by their colleagues. There aren’t many of them in my experience, however.

      Unfortunately there are also those who ought to be doing the role (due to seniority and rank) but who get out of it in a variety of ways. That leaves a small group who do end up doing it – those who do it out of a sense of duty, and who don’t feign convenient incompetence in order to shirk it.

      One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is the correlation between women at professorial grade and the role of HoD. In many institutions, almost every single female professor is a HoD, whilst many male professors of equal or greater seniority are excused the task on the grounds that they’d be a disaster. So in effect the HoD role has become academic housework.

  5. revd rob Says:

    Promotion from Lecturer to SL is based on academic achievement through research. Research output is dependent on postgraduate work and this overseen and guided by their supervisor. Postgraduates have a single focus in getting their MSc or PhD in the shortest time period possible. The contract between the Supervisor and PG is not a typical employee/employer relationship, but is deemed in most universities as such.
    The SL is usually serves on university committees thus demonstrating their ability to engage and contribute to the University as a whole.
    When the SL is appointed to a Headship, they are brought into a whole new arena of contracts, employee relationships, budgets, and setting a strategic plan for the department is just some of the remit.
    Academics don’t always make the best managers as their training is has been in their academic field. They rarely will have had any training in managing people who are in full time employment, which is very different to managing PG.’s.
    You are right that Head’s can have an morale boosting effect but equally so, can sink morale! Some academics, (not Ferdinand) have such a huge eqo that they are above attending a training course in people management,, social skills,and lack general self awareness.
    In the appointment process prospective Heads should be a post that SL’s aspire to. That they will get the support from Senior Management that they deserve not allowed to sink or swim!
    The following skill sets are vital-
    * Good sense of self and self awareness
    *Good Communication Skills
    *A Team Player
    *To shelve their research interest so that it doesn’t prove a barrier – conflict of interests

  6. Vincent Says:

    Does this in any way touch students.

    • Jilly Says:

      Well yes it does, in that a) the general tone of the department they study in really affects their experience, whether they’re conscious of that or not, and b) if the HoD job isn’t done well, the students will definitely be affected quite badly.

      So there’s no question that the job has to be done, it’s more a matter of whether it can be done these days without inducing a nervous breakdown (and I’m not using hyperbole here, it is currently a job which really does cause genuine meltdowns).

  7. cormac Says:

    Excellent post, I couldn’t agree more. One of the vital functions of a HoD that is becoming more and more overlooked is the allocation of who teaches what, a non-trivial part of the working life of any department.
    When I started my academic career I had a HoD who carefully negotiated our heavy teaching allocations with each lecturer. There was no ‘reduction’ in teaching loads for research, but there was cognisance of not swamping any academics with too many new courses etc.
    This process no longer continues – I am in a huge department where course allocations are decided partly by a remote timetabling authority, and partly amongst the lecturers who decide amongst themselves who teaches what. The result is uncertainty, and tensions between staff ; no-one knows what courses they will teach each year, and each term begins with awkward horse-trading among lecturers.
    I much prefer have a boss who will take decisions and make allocations to a so-called ‘democratic system’ which is completely chaotic

  8. Dave Says:

    I agree its the most important job in a modern University provided its seen in the right context. First it has to be seen as one concerned primarily with forward thinking academic leadership…putting the subject and academic team and its capacity to solve multi-disciplinary problems at the heart of the School or Department and change managing to meet future needs and challenges. Second, one concerned with leading a team and not managing administrative processes. And third accepting that leading teams DOES necessarily concern managing resources – physical, people and financial. Nothing wrong with that provided three key elements are in place – 1. a good senior academic leadership and support team (3/4 key, respected, academic leads) 2. focused support fom a School admin manager, the lead in tech support, and well informed support from client focused HR, IT and Finance people; 3. development together as a leadership and support team so that there is good alignment all the way through with school strategy. Of course this means carefully selecting team members who have the right blend of knowledge, skills and inherent self-challenge capability, ability to reflect honestly and take sometiems hard decisins as well as heaping praise on those that earn it. In principle not a difficult combination to aspire to, in reality a challenge in itself. As to too many management layers, if one could achieve this within a much smaller number of academic super-departments, the question would be what value would traditional Faculty Deans have?

    • Jilly Says:

      Or, in a smaller department which just has one ‘secretarial’ support post, the HoD does ALL of the work you’ve just outlined by themselves. And that’s the problem.

  9. colingj Says:

    One problem in a lot of institutions is that there is little upfront training/mentoring for people who are likely to become heads in the near future. There are lots of useful things that can help heads with the job – once I became a head I got invited to loads of useful training and development activities – but, a lot of this would have been useful to have done in advance of taking up the role. This is the sort of thing that should be flagged up in the appraisal process and followed up on but this process fails in most institutions at some point or other, either by this not being an issue in appraisal or else these activities not being available to people who haven’t started the role yet.

  10. EduardDuCourseau Says:

    A real tension which is being uncovered here, Ferdo and lads, is whether the rotational principle is preferable to a more autocratic one. In the former, the HoD may be incompetent, unmotivated and unwilling but pretty ineffectual and therefore “live and let live” whereas in the latter, the HoD is ambitious, go-getting, rapactious, manipulative, careerist etc. Again, horses for courses.
    Of more concern is the trend towards amalgamating departments in order to save money. Two recent examples at Oxford Brookes University are the department of Accounting, Economics and Finance and the Department of English and Modern Languages. The difficulty here is that nobody can realistically fit either profile and the majority of staff in these uber departments are led by somebody who does not look out for their interests. I’ve experienced it elsewhere and it sucks.

  11. kevin denny Says:

    In Ireland, the (small) allowances payable to HoD’s are gone, courtesy of government diktat. Even though it would not compensate for the hassle, I think it did help make the position more attractive, at least there was some acknowledgement of the extra effort.


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