Posted tagged ‘university Presidents’

The view from the top

August 6, 2013

One of the curiosities of the system of higher education in these islands is that we know relatively little about the views of its leaders. Individual university principals, presidents or vice-chancellors go public about this and that, or chair committees on certain topics – but nobody really knows what the group as a whole feels.

We know much more about the views of American university presidents. We know, for example, that they are sceptical about MOOCs,  that they expect to experience budget shortfalls, that they feel government produces problems rather than solutions; and that a significant minority believe that they’ll leave their jobs as a result of pressure from their boards rather than of their own free will.

How do we know all this? Because the Gallup polling organisation (commissioned by Inside Higher Education) conducts an annual survey of College and University Presidents, the latest of which was published recently. Of course universities consist of more than their chief executives, but the views of leaders help to shape policies, and also may reflect wider assumptions within the academy.

What we discover from this US survey is a much greater expectation than might have been expected that traditional teaching methods will continue to drive the system, and that technology-enabled learning will not take over completely. They do however expect much more inter-institutional collaboration. They doubt that the state can continue to fund higher education even to the extent that it currently still does in the US. They worry about government bureaucracy.

With some exceptions, university heads are often a fairly anonymous group of people, not widely known to their students, and sometimes even to their faculty and staff. However, they have a huge influence on the direction taken by their institutions, and collectively on the direction of higher education as a whole. It is therefore right to reveal their thoughts and expectations more widely – an undertaking that might usefully be extended beyond the United States.

University heads: out of the shadows?

May 17, 2011

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.

Who is the ideal university president?

January 11, 2011

As most readers of this blog will know, I was until last July President of Dublin City University, and from late March of this year will be Principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. If you were to see my curriculum vitae, it would look fairly typical for a university head. I am, as most would be, a career academic who has also had some outside roles and interests. Of course the president’s personality and character play a vital role in how well they can do the job, but let’s leave that aside and just look at background. Should universities always be led by academics, or are there other options?

On the whole – and I won’t get into any trouble here by naming anyone – non-academic presidents have had mixed reviews. Many of them find the particular university atmosphere and culture hard to adapt to and don’t last long. Some have found it hard to overcome the initial scepticism of academics, and some have quickly become impatient with the rituals of university decision-making.

However, some do make something of the job. An interesting example is the President of the University of Colorado at Boulder, an institution with a very significant international reputation. In 2008 the university board appointed Bruce D. Benson, a businessman from the oil industry, to be its new president. Not only did he come from the business community, he was also an activist in the Republican Party. But since his appointment he has shown sensitivity to academic traditions, while being a robust fighter for the university’s interests, including fights with his former Republican allies over state funding. Initial faculty hostility has gradually been overcome.

Is a non-academic, successful university president the exception that proves the rule, or is there a possibility for greater diversity of backgrounds for this post? Who is the ideal university head?

The final lap

July 6, 2009

I confess that it is a strange experience to see your post advertised in the media – a little bit like reading your own obituary,  except that the obituary writer seems only marginally interested in you. Well, the job of President of Dublin City University has now been advertised, and the search is on. Don’t get either too worried, or too excited in joyful anticipation: I have another 53 or so weeks to go in the post, and then I will have completed my ten years (the limit for a university president’s term of office set by the Universities Act 1997). With any luck, my successor will have been identified a little while before then to allow for a smooth handover.

I am a committed supporter of the concept of limited tenure for Presidents, and I believe that after ten years it is better for the institution to get some new leadership, so I am not at all complaining. But on the other hand, I know I shall miss the role, for this is a dream job which I have enjoyed and am enjoying immensely. Universities are unlike most other kinds of organisation, and generally don’t respond well to an authoritarian leadership style; on the other hand, they need to be purpose driven and focused in facing their challenges. And so leadership is about understanding the institutional culture, prompting strategic action and recognising excellence and dedication. Sometimes it is about taking tough decisions and feeling the heat. And it is about interpreting the university to its own community and to its external stakeholders. I may be good or bad at any of these things, but I feel it is a joy and a privilege to hold this post, and I believe I have at least one of the attributes that are needed to be a president: I admire and respect the institution, and feel a great pride in its achievements. I genuinely believe that DCU is the most exciting university in Ireland, with some of the most talented staff.

But now, before I start writing my own (rather biased) obituary, there is business still to be done. Nine years ago I might have expected that my final year would be a year of gradually easing out of the affairs of the university. That looks unlikely. As luck would have it, my final year at DCU is also going to be the most challenging year – arguably ever – for the university sector in Ireland (and probably globally). Most of the assumptions we were taking for granted a year or two ago are now forgotten or under severe threat: the idea of continuing long term expansion, further major capital investment in higher education infrastructure, the rapid commercialisation of research, growing staff numbers, institutional autonomy. The only assumption that many people now dare to hold is that however pessimistic you are, you are probably under-estimating the problems.

In relation to almost any issue that matters to the future of the higher education system, the die will be cast over the coming 12 months, prompted by the next government Budget, by the outcome of the strategic review of higher education, by the decision on tuition fees promised for later this year, by the results of what may be the last (for a while) major research infrastructure investment by the state, by the decisions about to be made affecting university autonomy and quality assurance, by discussions on strategic links and partnerships. When this coming academic year is over, the future of the sector may have been determined, perhaps for a generation. What I would like to see is that DCU moves decisively, and also with a sense of confidence, through this period. So for this last year of my term of office, the challenges will be huge; but DCU has in its short history been able to thrive on challenge. I expect it to stay that way, and I intend to do my bit very actively during this final lap.

PS. If you are interested in my job, you can find the details here.

Blogging Presidents

June 24, 2009

A few weeks ago the Irish Times ran an article on this blog, and since then a number of people have written to me or spoken with me about it, in particular with these two questions: (i) has it been a good idea? – and (ii) how long can I keep doing this?

The answer to the first question is, on balance, yes. It seems to me that while university presidents do manage from time to time to stand in the public spotlight, more often than not people have only a limited idea as to what they really do. It has struck me for a while that, as a group, we should be out in the open a little more, and share a little more about what we do and what we think. I am not the only president to do this (though I think I may be in Ireland): in the United States quite a few maintain blogs. Some of these are clearly intended for internal communication within their institutions, such as this one. Other presidents use it to publish a diary of events, both public and private. Others again blog in order to report on and analyse significant developments in higher education and how these affect their institutions. One observer of US presidential blogs suggests that such forays into the public domain are not always welcomed by university lawyers and PR officers, who fear the their presidents will do ‘some terrible damage to their institutions if [they] are let loose to say whatever they want to say on the institutional website.’ Whether this blog confirms such fears is for others to say; but I don’t (yet) regret starting this undertaking.

My guess is that a far greater risk is that a blogging president will simply be boring. Or that she or he will find it hard to navigate the tricky borderline between being vacuous and being offensive, or perhaps will even manage to be both at the same time.

As for the question of how long I can continue, we shall have to wait and see. Unlike most blogging presidents on the other side of the Atlantic, I do this on a daily basis. If I did not maintain that discipline, I would probably stop very quickly; and indeed some US presidential blogs have petered out after a while; I even found two who never got beyond the first post. So I set aside 15 minutes a day to do this, and on the whole keep to that. There will come a time when I shall have totally emptied my brain of all content that can be made bloggable, but (at least as far as I am concerned) I haven’t got there yet: your mileage may vary.

I do however have some plans for innovations here. I intend to invite one or two guest bloggers on to the site to do occasional posts, and shortly I shall also be publishing a series of interviews I am doing with key figures in the world of higher education and public life: starting with an interview with the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD – more on that shortly. But other suggestions are also welcome.

And finally, my apologies for this rather self-indulgent post; and my thanks to my band of readers – I confess there are more of you than I had anticipated when I started this blog just over a year ago.

Meeting the Minister

September 24, 2008

Today the seven Irish university heads (accompanied by the CEO of the Irish Universities Association) met the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD. To get the substance of the meeting out of the way, it was made clear by the Minister that the growing crisis in public finances would make it very difficult to provide resources for the higher education sector that would compensate for inflation and any accumulated under-funding. We did talk about possible ways of alleviating the problems we faced, and some longer term strategic options (one of which is, of course, the return of tuition fees). It wasn’t a cheerful meeting – there was nothing cheery that anyone could really say. But at any rate it was a constructive engagement between the Minister and the presidents, and that’s a good thing. He means to do the right thing for the sector, I believe, but doesn’t have any discretionary resources, and probably won’t have for some time. We all emerged from the meeting feeling grim. I suspect the Minister did, too. It is, I think, now time for us as a country to face the inevitability of a new understanding as to how higher education is resourced, if we are serious about wanting a quality system.

As for the universities, we are now working together well. We don’t all have exactly the same views on all tactical matters, but we are all agreed on the strategy needed for the sector. If there isn’t much else to celebrate, the strengthening partnership between the seven universities is a good thing.

So what else was there to be observed? The meeting took place in Leinster House. At least, we entered by the front door of Leinster House (the location of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas, for those reading this who are not from Ireland), but after that we seemed to be taken on a mile-long hike through the building, or maybe it was eventually another building, to be taken outside for a photograph in what seemed to be at first a completely different part of Dublin. Tea and coffee was on offer at the meeting, and some dodgy looking biscuits, but perhaps in the interests of cost saving nobody dared touch it (and who knows what cut price blends are now being used?). As we sat there, somebody from government said that we were now probably in the worst year, financially, since 1979.

Well, there are interesting times ahead.

So what does a President do?

June 23, 2008

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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