Lead­er­ship chal­lenge: v-cs have no power, says Glyn Davis

Mel­bourne’s Glyn Davis tells John Ross why run­ning a univer­sity is the ul­ti­mate test of lead­er­ship

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Run­ning a univer­sity is the ul­ti­mate test of lead­er­ship be­cause vicechan­cel­lors have “no au­thor­ity”, ac­cord­ing to the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne’s Glyn Davis (pic­tured in­set).

Pro­fes­sor Davis told this month’s Uni­ver­si­ties Aus­tralia con­fer­ence that he had been “thrilled” to re­sume his aca­demic ca­reer af­ter years as a civil ser­vant, which cul­mi­nated in a four-year stint as head of Queens­land’s Depart­ment of Premier and Cabi­net. He said that it took no skill to run an or­gan­i­sa­tion “where you can give an or­der, and ev­ery­thing fol­lows”.

“Come to an in­sti­tu­tion where no one ac­tu­ally has to do what you tell them,” said Pro­fes­sor Davis, who will step down later this year. “You have to per­suade them, hold the line, de­velop the strat­egy and carry it through. It’s a mag­nif­i­cent op­por­tu­nity to test your own skills.”

Pro­fes­sor Davis was shar­ing a panel with two other Aus­tralian univer­sity chiefs who are leav­ing their posts this year. Grif­fith Univer­sity’s Ian O’Con­nor agreed that a vicechan­cel­lor “ac­tu­ally can’t do any­thing”, while the Univer­sity of New­cas­tle’s Caro­line McMillen said that the “com­mand-and-con­trol sys­tem” was for­eign to the sec­tor.

Pro­fes­sor Davis told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion af­ter­wards that uni­ver­si­ties were “quite dis­tinc­tive”, which made their lead­er­ship roles unique. “Some things are di­rectly in your con­trol, but, for ex­am­ple, the bud­get of a univer­sity is usu­ally de­cided in a col­lec­tive way.

“As the vicechan­cel­lor, you can’t in­flu­ence cur­ricu­lum. That’s done through your aca­demic board and ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee. You can’t di­rectly ap­point peo­ple to aca­demic po­si­tions or to chairs. You might chair the com­mit­tee, but usu­ally you don’t.” Pro­fes­sor Davis said that he was be­com­ing jaded about claims of the “ne­olib­eral de­cline of our in­sti­tu­tion” and the emer­gence of the cor­po­rate univer­sity. “There’s some­thing to that cri­tique, be­cause we’re now run­ning much larger bud­gets and much big­ger op­er­a­tions.

“But we are still recog­nis­ably quite dif­fer­ent from cor­po­ra­tions, and you’re not a CEO in the way a cor­po­rate CEO is, even if you’ve got the same ti­tle. A cor­po­rate CEO would be un­likely to ac­cept the con­straints on their own au­thor­ity that vice-chan­cel­lors live with, ac­cept and ex­pect.” Pro­fes­sor Davis ac­knowl­edged the vary­ing mod­els of pub­lic univer­sity lead­er­ship around the world. He said that Aus­tralia’s ap­proach was dif­fer­ent from the sys­tem favoured in Europe, where univer­sity rec­tors tended to be elected from among the staff and usu­ally served short terms be­fore re­sum­ing their teach­ing du­ties.

“The jobs vary from coun­try to coun­try and cul­ture to cul­ture,” he said. “But in none of them is a vicechan­cel­lor a highly em­pow­ered in­di­vid­ual able to de­cide the fate of in­sti­tu­tions sin­gle-hand­edly, in the sort of heroic CEO way.

“That just isn’t the nor­mal ex­pe­ri­ence, although ev­ery­one can think of in­di­vid­u­als who’ve been enor­mously in­flu­en­tial.”

He cred­ited the col­le­gial model of univer­sity lead­er­ship to a long­haul view where “you ex­pect the in­sti­tu­tion to still be here in 100 years’ time”.

“The place is go­ing to have a long his­tory, and the cur­rent CEO is a small player in a very long chain. The in­sti­tu­tion will go on rein­vent­ing it­self over and over; you don’t want a CEO who’ll close your op­tions by mak­ing ir­rev­o­ca­ble choices.

“In a busi­ness, you can de­cide to get out of your main busi­ness and go into a whole new field, but we don’t re­ally want a univer­sity CEO de­cid­ing not to do teach­ing any more. So when you get to be leader in a univer­sity, you ac­cept those con­straints.”

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