Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Reinforced Boards

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Reinforced Boards

Article excerpt

Universities need new corporate leadership personnel to help manage their expanding activities, Sarah Shaw says

For generations, the university executive board has been a tried and tested structure for the management of higher education institutions in the UK and elsewhere. But as operations diversify and the accompanying commercial pressures ramp up, skills gaps are emerging, and university boards face an urgent need to embrace new leadership positions.

While the vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor roles remain relatively unaltered, three professional services roles in particular are emerging, alongside a global move towards a more corporate-like leadership structure, with greater focus on leadership ability than on academic credentials.

Universities have become much more than academic institutions. Their interests can span far beyond education, into the likes of publishing, enterprise and professional qualifications. Overseeing all these areas goes well beyond the remit of the traditional registrar: welcome to the world of the chief operating officer.

We first started seeing this job title - or, at least, the term used as part of the job description - about three to four years ago. The industry is still yet to agree a set of standard responsibilities, but they are likely to include strategic leadership and operational planning of human resources, information technology, marketing, estates, finance and registry and admissions.

The role's precise form depends on exactly where a university is in its journey. From what we see, there are three types of COO coming to the fore: the "executor", the "governor" and the "change agent".

The first is hired when an institution needs someone to implement a predefined strategy and plan. The governor, meanwhile, oversees corporate functions and governance. But, within challenger institutions in particular, the change agent is rapidly rising in prominence. These COOs, often in an interim capacity, are tasked with delivering a specific project of significant change, such as overseeing the turnaround of an organisation or a major building programme.

We'll no doubt see more internal promotions to such positions in time. But there is not currently a deep enough internal pool to draw from, so universities will probably have to look outside education, and perhaps outside the public sector altogether, for candidates with the appropriate commercial expertise. …

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