Wednesday 14 December 2022

Half a century decline of leadership in Universities: from expert professionals to (over-promoted) bureaucrats

During the fortysomething years I was in the UK university system, I saw a massive change in the nature of people in senior leadership roles. 

Back in the 1970s, there was a sense that the universities were (still) run by academics: by scholars and researchers. 

And, broadly speaking, the higher up the hierarchy of power - the higher status were the people in terms of their professional record of achievement. 

Fifty-odd years ago; the individuals at the top (Vice Chancellors and Principals, Pro-Vice Chancellors and Deans) were nearly all people with a strong national reputation in their original disciples. 

It was common to select them from scientists who were Fellows of the Royal Society, Humanities scholars who were Fellows of the British Academy - or those of equivalent status in the medical, engineering or other such subjects. 

But by the time I retired; it was common to select people with a background of high position in generic bureaucracies: the civil service, business and corporate life - or simply those who had risen through the university bureaucracies - without having ever achieved anything remarkable in heir personal distinction in any academic subject. 

Instead of celebrating the academic distinction of top appointments; it had become usual to celebrate their supposed administrative competence, their connections within the System - or simply that they represented some favoured groups such as women, non-whites, foreigners, or a non-biological sexual orientation. 

This trend happened through the whole university system, so far as I could tell. For example women with bureaucratic seniority - rather than especially distinguished scholars or researchers - were appointed to both Harvard's and Cambridge's top-leadership positions (which were perhaps the two most prestigious such roles in the US and the UK).   

Harking back to my recent posts on the topic of leadership - I should clarify that expert professionals are not necessarily, or even usually, real leaders; and in practice universities very seldom had real leadership. 

On the other hand, expert professionals at least began as 'insiders' who had attained distinction in themselves performing the core function of universities. Whereas the bureaucrats who replaced them were no better (usually worse) as leaders - but were also 'outsiders', or else mediocre practitioners of the university's proper function. 

This is a microcosm of the decline of leadership in The West; because I saw the same trend in science and medicine, and wherever I looked. 

Real Leadership has always been a rare 'commodity' - and most groups have always had to make-do with something less; but in the (fairly recent) past; the personnel recruited to provide "not real"-leadership was at least consistent with the proper role of the organization and the distinctive 'traditions'. 

Nowadays - Not. 

The Fake leaders of today are aliens, successful officials, multi-valent 'networkers' - that is, merely over-promoted middle managers; or plausible psychopaths; and/or figureheads chosen as 'representative' of some non-male, non-white, non-native, or dysfunctionally socio-sexual 'identity group'. 

And it shows. 


Epimetheus said...

That's a characteristic of functional organizations, that they are led by men who've "worked their way up off the shop floor." Or like the industrial titans, those who created the organization from scratch.

William M Briggs said...

Wait until you see who they installed as Harvard's new president.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WMB - Harvard's *first* woman President was the first President without outstanding academic distinction.

That set the pattern. Now, being appointed to the position confers distinction on its mediocre holder - not something distinguished that the holder has previously achieved.

But its the same in all aspects of academic, science, scholarship...

I recall a US President who got the Nobel peace prize before he became President - having previously been appointed to the University of Chicago faculty, and promoted, without a single academic publication.

But I suppose, that in itself, counts as a distinction - because I don't suppose anybody else in the past century has been appointed to the faculty (tenured, then promoted) at a top research university without having published *something* or done *some* research...