THIS IS A BOOK about the leadership of experts. My focus is on heads of universities—although not exclusively so. I ask the question: does it matter to the performance of a research university if the president has been a highly cited scholar? Then, using evidence, I attempt to answer it. My conclusion is that better scholars make better leaders.
My research has benefited greatly from many insightful comments from academics and others around the world, for which I am extremely thankful. There is one claim, however, that is often raised with which I always take issue: it is the assertion that academics do not make good managers or leaders. This opinion, often stated vociferously, comes from a number of scholars, administrators, and those outside universities, including politicians, civil servants, and business people. The president of a powerful U.S. university has said it to me, and I have heard it from individuals who have barely stepped foot in a university, which implies it has reached folklore proportions. When I ask for evidence, faculty members will often tell anecdotal stories about a former department chair; and from those outside the academy, there appears to be a general belief that people clever enough to be academics must lack normal human organizational abilities.
Universities could be accused of being poor at training their faculty in management and leadership. In research universities, it is usual for departmental heads to rotate every few years, and it is common for a professor to walk—or be dragged—directly into the job with no prior instruction. But this is a different argument from the one I hear, that academics are somehow less able than those in other walks of life at managing or leading. I often respond to these claims by posing a scenario: imagine that one hundred nurses and the same number of lawyers, chefs, advertising executives, engineers, journalists, and academics are randomly selected. Will we find that one group or profession stands out as natural managers? Is it not more likely that management skills are learned through training and experience, and that the propensity to manage is, approximately, evenly distributed across all professions? (Leadership may be somewhat different.) Those at the tails of the distribution may fare less well. But I find it hard to accept that academics are, by some natural force, less adept. Universities are among society's oldest and most respected institutions. If scholars are so bad in these areas, why do universities do so well, often against odds like decreasing funds and more than occasional outside interference?