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[OPINION] Cheat sheet for universities with VC in turbulent times

This article appeared for the first time in The Conversation.

At least once a month, a headhunter firm calls me to ask for advice on finding a university president. They want to choose my brains because of what I have learned, sometimes in a difficult way, for seven years as vice chancellor, 12 years as academic dean and two years as administrator of universities with difficulties.

By the time the headhunter makes the call, the university would have announced the position more than once, but simply could not find the right person for the job.

I often advise on three initial criteria. In addition, my long tenure in higher education also taught me that there is additional knowledge that is useful for a university leader, especially in these turbulent times facing higher education.

Let me start with the criteria that headhunters should be looking for.

First, candidates must be important academics in their field of expertise. Your credibility as an academic is fundamental in a serious university. If your Senate can not respect it, it will seem foolish when trying to improve the standards of the teaching staff or demanding quality scholarship in scientific journals.

Second, a competent manager with extensive knowledge throughout the university. Functions: from information technologies to the management of residency and internal audit. No vice chancellor is an expert in more than one of these managerial disciplines. But candidates must know enough to ask the right questions to their directors or department heads.

And third, an inspiring leader who has the ability to connect with, and get respect, from various people in the institution through the workers. for junior teachers to senior professors.


Potential candidates should consider what they need to offer inspiring leadership and effective management to universities. In my experience, this is what you need to know and how it should be.

A good dose of humility. The first four words of the best-selling book, in The Purpose Driven-Life by evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren, is all you need to read:

It's not about you.

People will sing your praises but they will demand things from you. They will admire you but they will also blame you. In good times and bad times, remember, it's not about you. You have the privilege of running your institution but on behalf of others. Flattery could go to your head. Continue telling yourself that it is about students, academics, staff and workers. You exist to serve them. It's definitely not about you.

A sense of your own limitations. A vice chancellor stands out for the quality and cohesion of the senior team. It is of crucial importance that the best people are hired as vice-chancellors for key portfolios such as finance, research, teaching and information technology. These are people who must complement the set of competences of the vice-chancellor and who are decidedly committed to the academic mission of the university. The role of vice rectors is to keep them together (not always easy) and listen to their advice.

A singular ambition. Sitting in the main office, it tends to encompass wanting to do everything in a long list of goals. Do one or two great things well and it is more likely to have an impact. That ambition can be to drastically raise the academic level of a mediocre university or stabilize the finances of an institution after an almost terminal crisis. Choose some things that resonate with the university community and put all your energy into making those commitments a reality.

A short line for your boss. Its nominal head is the President of the Council. It is the most important relationship you must develop. Most universities that enter into crisis do so because of a break between governance (Council) and administration (Executive). Meet at least once a fortnight to build the interpersonal relationship, share your agenda and remember the line that should not cross: the managers do not govern and the governors do not manage.

Invest in your own development. Be sure to include in your contract negotiations with the Council the necessary free time to continue with your own research and writing, especially when your goal is to re-enter academic life at a later stage. An academic vice chancellor is a powerful example for both staff and students. Also, taking off the regular time to rebuild your energies in a demanding job is the best way to continue doing your job well.

It's a university. The constant protests and instability in some campuses constantly threaten to distract the vice chancellors of the central business of a university. Find ways to delegate demanding functions such as constant negotiations with students or workers to compensate for protests. Be there, but not all the time. He is directing an academic institution and that approach could be easily lost in a context or climate where crisis management redefines the role of the head of a university.

Use the platform. A vice chancellor has a unique opportunity in life to address burning issues in society in general from an institutional platform. Do not draw in and disappear from public view. Take advantage of your specialized training and talk about critical concerns. Like it or not, a vice chancellor is a public person who will likely be heard by the government, the media and the community at large by virtue of the position.

Jonathan Jansen is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Stellenbosch.

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