Friday, November 06, 2020

University Leadership: Making a Difference


By John A. Akec

Great universities do not just happen nor fall from the skies. They are made to succeed. The people managing them, and the economic environments surrounding them, contribute to their stagnation, or cause their rise to the top.


And in academic circles, we often speak of ‘Harvard here syndrome’ – the desire by many countries to have in their backyards universities of stature of MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago, ETH Zurich, UCL, Cornel, Edinburgh, Yale, Columbia, Imperial, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Tokyo, Peking, and such like. These are just few names gleaned from the list of 1,000 top world-class universities by QS World University Ranking 2020. They were selected and ranked for their excellence in teaching and high impact research output.


And it is worth mentioning that In this year’s QS World University Ranking, only 13 African universities were listed among the top-ranked 1,000 global universities. These are: Cape Town, American University in Cairo, University of Witswatersrand, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg, Cairo, Pretoria, Ain Shams, Alexandria, Assuit, Rhodes, Kwazulu-Natal, and Western Cape. It does not escape noting that the list is dominated by South African universities (8), and Egyptian universities (5), in line with their economic status and political clout on the global stage.


Being absent from the top 1000 global universities ranking does not mean the end of the road for a university. The global higher education market has over 25,000 universities, and counting. India, United States, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and Japan lead with a combined lion share of 17,000 universities between them, or host 70% of recorded universities in the world. Many universities across the globe are serving their communities and helping their nations to weather competition in knowledge intensive sectors of global economy. Still some universities are doing better than others.


And certainly, national higher education policies and financing afforded by governments to support teaching and research, and infrastructure development, play a great role in determining how universities thrive. However, assuming that all other things remain equal, how universities are individually led or managed is a differentiating factor between success or failure.


Successful universities are ones that ‘do better than their circumstances might have allowed them’, or those able ‘to punch above their weights’, according to Michael Shattock of the University of Warwick Business School, and visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London.


In his book, Managing Successful Universities (2009), Shattock contends that success does not happen overnight because of a one off critical decision by a manager, but comes about as a result of university managers taking many small, but right decisions over a long period of time. These decisions reinforce one another to produce cumulative effect that sustains the organisation in an upward trajectory. Moreover, opportunities for success are significantly enhanced when university leaders and managers are able to create organisational culture which supports and maintains consistency of purpose, as opposed to a culture in which decisions taken at different levels pull the organisation in different directions.


Furthermore, increasingly reforms are being enacted in many jurisdictions that require the universities to act like businesses corporations -- agile and capable of allocating their resources efficiently and effectively; to ‘do more with less’, and to respond quickly to their changing environments without much ado or delay, according to New Public Management theory (NPM).


Traditionally, power in university is diffused amongst professoriate heading different academic units, and which requires university presidents, vice chancellors, or rectors to carry out time-consuming consultations with the collegiate before taking major decisions. However, the ascendency of New Public Management theory has called for the centralization of authority and strengthening of the position of university presidents, vice chancellors, and rectors; and that the academic Deans become the ‘Manager-Deans’ in charge of implementing university visions and strategies within their faculties.


Thus, the university presidents, vice chancellors, and rectors are no longer ‘the first among equals’, but powerful vision makers, plan bearers, motivators, initiators, administrators, mediators, and ‘revolutionaries from on high’, pumps, or “bottlenecks’, among other meaningful characteristics of the difficult job. They better make good of it by striving to make a difference.

*First published in JUVARSITY Newsletter of University of Juba Vol 3 No. 6 November 2020


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