Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Backstage with Machiavelli and the Vice-Chancellor

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Backstage with Machiavelli and the Vice-Chancellor

Article excerpt

Leaders' micropolitical manoeuvres may be seen as malign, but they are 'the lifeblood of universities', a study has found. Jack Grove writes

How much are the dark arts of Machiavellian manipulation applied in the running of a university?

Quite a lot, argues a study that has revealed some of the unseen political manoeuvres, tricks and tactics used by management to push through controversial and unpopular policies at UK universities.

But the spinning, schmoozing and other types of "under-stage" activities that go on outside the meetings where decisions are made officially should not always be viewed as underhand or malign, according to the new Leadership Foundation for Higher Education report.

In fact, the use of such tactics is often both necessary and desirable if those in leadership positions are to build consensuses and effect institutional change, says the report, In the Wings and Backstage: Exploring the Micropolitics of Leadership in Higher Education.

"Command and control is a very weak force in universities - academics are a stroppy lot and don't like being ordered around," said its author Jacky Lumby, professor of education at the University of Southampton.

To lead a large cohort of headstrong staff requires more than just the "technical skills" of applying the numerous rules and regulations, Professor Lumby added.

"If you want to get anything done at a university, you need to use a more subtle set of skills."

Her judgement is supported by many of the 14 higher education leaders, including vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors, interviewed by Professor Lumby for the study.

"There is a group of vice-chancellors who are extremely engaged in what you might call the 'under-stage' activity," confided one university leader quoted in the report.

Another interviewee called this politicking the "lifeblood of all universities", while another branded it a "fact of organisational life".

"If you want to operate in a university, you have to learn to operate through influence," observed one vice-chancellor.

"If you have to exercise power in its naked form, you're perhaps doing something not quite right," according to another interviewee.

One registrar suggested that "it isn't enough to simply exert influence down the line management chain, one needs to be able to influence across and upwards as well."

Even those at the very top of an organisation still paid attention to politicking, with one describing efforts to build a "legitimacy base" for forthcoming institutional changes.

One key area where "micropolitics" are crucial is meetings - or more precisely, the games played before departmental or senior management meetings. …

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