Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Leaders Must Exercise with Care Their Duty to Engage in Debate: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Leaders Must Exercise with Care Their Duty to Engage in Debate: Opinion

Article excerpt

Steve West suggests that the role of public intellectual is a complex one that vice-chancellors should embrace cautiously.

You should be some of the most important intellectual leaders of society, across the full range of public concerns." That was the challenge laid down to vice-chancellors by Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, at the Universities UK annual conference last month.

Pearce's call for university leaders to become "public intellectuals" has prompted a debate. One vice-chancellor has responded in these pages by arguing that being a good university leader is not about being on our television screens ("Honourable exit strategy", 3 October).

If the point was that playing "the celebrity" isn't the way forward, I certainly agree with that. Just think of MPs' awkward attempts to become a bigger part of the public consciousness: Vince Cable showcasing his talents on Strictly Come Dancing; the controversy created by Nadine Dorries' appearance on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here; and George Galloway's imitation of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother. But I do think we can and should respond to the challenge set down by Pearce in a serious and meaningful way.

For one thing, there is a growing need to counter some increasingly negative and misleading narratives about higher education. These include the argument that too many young people go to university now, and that some of them should set up a business or start an apprenticeship instead. In addition, as Sir Alan Langlands, former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has warned, a dangerous view has grown up that universities are "awash with cash", which could lead to the questioning of state support for higher education.

In my experience, vice-chancellors do speak up for universities at every opportunity, whether it is in press interviews, visits to schools and colleges or private meetings with ministers, business and public sector leaders. But are our messages reaching the right people? And are we clear on who the right people are?

We need to connect with the public much more broadly. Our academic colleagues are certainly challenging the status quo through media channels, providing expert commentary on topical events or the latest advances in research. But that is only part of the public narrative we need. Where are the "generalists", who can offer a viewpoint on a broad range of issues?

Vice-chancellors drive forward ambitious strategies to help complex, multimillion-pound organisations navigate through changing economic, political, social and technological environments. …

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