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Leadership by the dead

Questions of governance remain high on the agenda. As Times Higher Education reports, a UK study found that British academics seek orientation and leadership not from those in managerial positions, but from colleagues – often at other universities and some already dead.  The study, entitled Academic leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education, also found that, in the view of most of the 350 academics consulted, national bodies like Universities UK and the College Union do not fulfil this role either. Academics expect of senior leaders rather to abstain from robotic administration and instead honour academic values and excellence. This would create a sense of “membership” of and loyalty to the institution, whereas present leadership styles support academic promiscuity.

In South Korea, academics appear to so far have gotten the leaders they wanted. University presidents were elected by the faculty.  However, the government seems determined to change this by introducing a system based on a professor’s publication record and seniority. Some 9,000 professors from public universities have now voiced their displeasure with this move. The fear is that the state will gain tighter control of universities.  The organisers of the vote argue that an impressive publication is not to be confused with leadership qualities and that the number of publications says nothing about their quality. The ministry of education seems not impressed. It pointed out that 11 national universities had already bought into the plan.

In Israel, the Council for Higher Education, a supervisory body for universities and colleges, has recently refused to approve two non-academic nominations for university presidents: Hanoch Marmari, a former editor-in-chief of Israel’s oldest newspaper Haaretz, and Amos Shapira, the former CEO of Cellcom, a global wireless communications company. Historically, non-academics were occasionally allowed to serve as university presidents in Israel but this was an honour generally reserved for retired generals. As a response to the aforementioned two cases, the Council for Higher Education is expected to extend its 2003 ruling stipulating that all college presidents be professors to universities as well.

As higher education leadership becomes a globally contested topic among academics, education ministers and even donors in the case of the United States, have we reached a stage where managerial skills and entrepreneurship will be a sufficient requirement to govern an institution? Or has the new shibboleth of the leadership discourse become the approach best expressed in the words of the fictional president of the United States – Arnold Schwarzenegger – in the 2007 Simpsons movie: “I was elected to lead, not to read”…

Times Higher Education The Korea Herald Haaretz