Are scholars capable of leading the corporate university?

The differences between universities and for-profit corporations are continuously being blurred by the evolving, self-imposed or not, professional needs of modern post-secondary institutions. Is it the dawn of an era where professional managers and not scholars will be leading the universities of tomorrow?

There is already an oft-repeated claim that academics are incapable of managing and leading … anything, let alone the evolving post-secondary institutions that are requiring more and more professional resources normally associated with large corporations. Isn’t this the real issue behind Concordia’s leadership problems of the last few years?

Granted that corporations are mostly concerned with the pockets of their shareholders, while universities address the noble needs of their stakeholders, but contemplate the new “missions” that modern universities have to address besides the traditional core missions of research and teaching: Contribution to innovation, economic growth and wealth creation, fund-raising, financial management of endowments, economic exploitation of university lands, professional engagement with alumni, worldwide competitive student recruitment, advanced communication, and let’s not forget public relations, etc…

It is a fact that universities keep requiring new and different type of professional resources. The question is whether this is already forcing a major cultural shift in the traditional view of what constitutes good university leadership.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is already featuring how the presidency of an “Oil Tycoon pleasantly surprises the U. of Colorado.” And how are Canadian universities doing in this regard? More often than not, Presidents/Vice-Chancellors and Deans in Canadian universities are still coming from the professorial ranks. The few exceptions seem to be presidencies that are filled with retired politicians: Alan Rock at U. of Ottawa, Lloyd Axworthy at U. Winnipeg, and Andrew Petter at SFU (though he was also a faculty member at UVic). It is hard to know whether it is a growing trend or not. I guess it should depend on their abilities to transform their political know-how and networks into real assets for their respective universities.

Business schools are sometimes tempted to recruit captains of industry as Deans, with very mixed results. Check the latest fiasco at McMaster’s University. On the other end of the spectrum, UBC’s new Dean of Arts is a scholar who has recently been nominated for a Grammy award. I like that! We wish him luck on February 13.

The main change I see coming is within the ranks of Vice-presidents and their associates, that is, within University Presidents’ Executive teams. Indeed, post-secondary institutions in North America and the UK are relying more and more on professional managers for senior administration positions.

In UK universities between 2003-04 and 2008-09, the number of managers employed rose by 33 per cent. During the same period, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of academic staff increased by 10 per cent and student numbers by 9 per cent.”

But we don’t have to go far. Six out of the nine members of the UBC Executive do not come from the academic ranks. Being on the Board of Governors, I work closely with these guys and I have a deep respect for their professional skills and their commitment to the academic mission. I also have sometimes concerns but I am not overly worried, since –in my opinion– the President is exceptional at being a “scholar-CEO”. I will however worry when corporate universities start choosing their Presidents, VPs-Research and VPs-Academic among the ranks of Canadian oil-tycoons, some of whom  seem to have strong opinions about the academe.

In any case, until someone comes up with a coherent vision of what universities are, and what they are supposed to do, the issues of leadership cannot be adequately addressed. Still, I will take a chance in my next post and will try to make the case for appointing good scholars as academic leaders.

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1 Response to Are scholars capable of leading the corporate university?

  1. Pingback: Keep the Donald Trumps away from our universities’ leadership | Piece of Mind

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