Cheat sheet for VCs running universities in turbulent times


At least once a month a headhunting firm calls me seeking advice on a search for a university vice-chancellor. They want to pick my brains because of what I’ve learnt, sometimes the hard way, over seven years as a vice-chancellor, 12 years as an academic dean and two years as an administrator of struggling universities.

By the time the headhunter makes the call, the university would have advertised the position more than once but simply couldn’t find the right person for the job.

I often advise on three starting criteria. In addition, my long tenure in higher education has also taught me that there’s additional knowledge that’s useful for a university leader to have, particularly in these turbulent times facing higher education.

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

First, candidates need to be major scholars in their field of expertise. Your credibility as an academic is critical in a serious university. If your Senate cannot respect you, you will sound foolish trying to make the case for enhancing the standards of the professoriate or demanding quality scholarship in learned journals.

Second, a competent manager with broad knowledge across the range of university functions – from information technologies to residence management to internal auditing. No vice-chancellor is an expert in more than one of these managerial disciplines. But candidates must know enough to ask their directors or heads of department the right questions.

And third, an inspiring leader who has the ability to connect with – and command the respect – of diverse people across the institution from workers to junior lecturers to senior professors.

Some pointers for candidates

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

  • A good dose of humility. The four opening words from 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 look up to you but they will also blame you. In good times and bad, remember, it’s not about you. You are privileged to lead your institution but on behalf of others. The adulation could go to your head. Keep telling yourself it is about the students, the academics, the staff and the workers. You exist to serve them. It definitely is not about you.

  • A sense of your own limitations. A vice-chancellor stands or falls by the quality and cohesiveness of the senior team. It’s crucially important that the absolute best people are hired as deputy-vice chancellors for the key portfolios such as finance, research, teaching and information technologies. These are persons who should complement the competency set of the vice-chancellor and who are resolutely committed to the academic mission of the university. The vice-chancellors role is to keep them together (not always easy) and listen to their counsel.
  • A singular ambition. Sitting in the main office, you tend to overreach by wanting to do everything on a long list of goals. Do one or two big things well and you are more likely to make an impact. That ambition may be to dramatically raise the academic standard of a mediocre university or to stabilise the finances of an institution after a near terminal crisis. Choose a few things that resonate with the university community and put all your energy into making those commitments real.
  • A short line to your boss. Your nominal boss is the Chair of Council. It is the single most important relationship you should develop. Most universities that fall into crisis do because of a breakdown between governance (Council) and management (Executive). Meet at least once a fortnight to build the interpersonal relationship, share your agenda and remind each other of the line that must not be crossed—managers do not govern and governors don’t manage.
  • Invest in your own development. Make sure you build into your contract negotiations with Council the necessary time off to continue your own research and writing especially when your goal is to re-enter academic life at a later stage. A vice-chancellor who is academically active sets a powerful example to both staff as well as students. Furthermore, taking off regular time to rebuild your energies in a demanding job is the best way in which to continue doing your job well.
  • It is a university. The constant protests and instability on some campuses constantly threaten to distract vice-chancellors from the core business of a university. Find ways of delegating demanding functions like constant negotiations with students or workers to offset protests. Be there, but not all the time. You are running an academic institution and that focus 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 once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address burning issues in the broader society from an institutional platform. Do not draw inwards and disappear from public view. Draw on your specialist training and speak to critical concerns. Whether you like it or not, a vice-chancellor is a public persona who is likely to be listened to by government, the media and the broader community by virtue of the position.

Author Bio: Jonathan Jansen is a Distinguished Professor at Stellenbosch University