‘Re­li­a­bil­ity is val­ued highly by col­leagues, and it is a crit­i­cal qual­ity of suc­cess­ful aca­demic lead­er­ship’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Jane Rand is pro vice-chan­cel­lor (aca­demic) at York St John Univer­sity.

With an ex­ag­ger­ated tone of ex­as­per­a­tion, an aca­demic col­league once de­scribed me as “so reliable”. At the time, I in­ter­preted this as not so much a com­pli­ment as a com­plaint about my sup­posed plod­ding pre­dictabil­ity.

But fast-for­ward to an interview for a de­part­men­tal lead­er­ship role and I de­picted my re­li­a­bil­ity – the qual­ity of con­sis­tent be­hav­iour – as a strength of my ap­proach. Fast-for­ward again to an ap­pli­ca­tion for a uni­ver­si­ty­wide man­age­ment role and re­li­a­bil­ity was bullishly fore­grounded in my sup­port­ing state­ment.

What I grad­u­ally re­alised is that, rather than be­ing scorned, re­li­a­bil­ity is val­ued highly by col­leagues, whether lec­tur­ers or lead­ers, and that it is a crit­i­cal qual­ity of suc­cess­ful aca­demic lead­er­ship.

A se­nior role gives you the op­por­tu­nity – and the re­spon­si­bil­ity – to more fully ap­pre­ci­ate the breadth and depth of com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tion across your in­sti­tu­tion, and be­yond it. You also have the chance to in­flu­ence change di­rectly – which might have felt im­pos­si­ble as a lec­turer. But it comes with plenty of new chal­lenges. Your re­la­tion­ships with other peo­ple be­come more in­di­rect, and the ex­tent to which you can pro­tect time for teach­ing and re­search lessens. The peer group with whom you can be can­did re­duces – or even dis­ap­pears – as the rou­tine de­ci­sions you make af­fect larger num­bers of peo­ple.

Like our teach­ing and re­search, our lead­er­ship must be in the in­ter­ests of oth­ers. But pu­rity of mo­ti­va­tion does not mean there aren’t times when, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, you make the wrong call. A col­league of mine in­vites their grad­u­at­ing stu­dents to write letters of ad­vice to in­com­ing stu­dents, based on the benefits of their own hind­sight. If I were to write a sim­i­lar let­ter to some­one start­ing out in univer­sity man­age­ment, I would ad­vise that all their de­ci­sions be in­formed by in­put from as wide an au­di­ence as the sit­u­a­tion al­lows.

Change should be un­der­taken sen­si­tively, with a full recog­ni­tion of the ten­sions be­tween in­sti­tu­tional im­per­a­tives and peo­ple’s hopes and ex­pec­ta­tions around univer­sity life. The best ap­proach is to strive to build a shared un­der­stand­ing of sit­u­a­tions: this is some­thing over and above merely en­gi­neer­ing – or en­forc­ing

– agree­ment about them.

A re­lated piece of ad­vice is to em­power oth­ers wher­ever you can, rather than hoard­ing power.

The sta­tus quo is there to be chal­lenged, and man­agers should re­spond flex­i­bly and de­ci­sively to chang­ing sit­u­a­tions. But they should clar­ify is­sues as they go. And they should al­ways act rea­son­ably, trans­par­ently and with in­tegrity. Above all, a univer­sity man­ager must be reliable.

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