Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars

By Amanda H. Goodall | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
HOW DO LEADERS GET SELECTED?

THIS CHAPTER LOOKS at how university leaders are chosen. Universities are important institutions for the world, and I have tried to argue empirically that those who lead them make a difference to the performance of universities. Hence, leaders matter. My work attempts to reach across borders, because universities the world over have approximately the same remit. The exact methods by which leaders are selected differs across countries. Yet on average it is usual for members of university boards to hire presidents, vice chancellors, and rectors. This is also the norm in the commercial world— boards hire CEOs.1

In this chapter, drawing on a variety of evidence, I address two interrelated questions about the selection of leaders. First I ask: is there evidence that leaders may be chosen partially because they differ markedly from their predecessors—thus creating an alternating-leader cycle? And if so, how might this pendulum effect in turn affect an organization's strategy? For example, hiring someone who is greatly different from his or her predecessor may be efficient for a university, or alternatively it might make the long-term goals of an institution more difficult to obtain.

Using data on 157 UK university heads, I conclude that there is evidence for an alternating-leader cycle. Universities tend to switch from a stronger scholar to a weaker scholar, and then back again.

Second, using interview data with panel members of a committee set up to hire a university leader, I examine how decisions about a “person specification” are made. What sort of president does the university want to hire, and how does it come to that view? In particular, who has input into that decision? Although based only on a single case study, which may limit its applicability, my evidence suggests that the reason particular individuals are hired into the top job may be fairly arbitrary, not strategic. In the past, interesting work has been done on nonprofit and university boards that goes beyond the contribution of this chapter.2 However, ideas on alternating leaders do not appear to have been scrutinized empirically.

1 University governing boards may also be referred to as board of governors, board of
trustees, board of regents, or the university council.

2 For extensive work on nonprofit boards see Chait, Holland, and Taylor (1991 and
1996); Chait, Ryan, and Taylor (2005); and Cornforth (2005). On strategic boards see
O'Neal and Thomas (1996). For recent work on university boards and governance see
Shattock (2006) for the United Kingdom; for the United States see Pusser et al. (2006)

-106-

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