All Change: Appointing a New Vice-Chancellor

Andrew Dodman, Chief Operating Officer at the University of Sheffield, reflects on the challenging process of recruiting and appointing a new Vice-Chancellor.

As Chief Operating Officers (COOs) and Registrars, our roles are often defined by their breadth and reach. We may, for example, spend time jumping from delivering strategic oversight, to line managing heads of disparate functions, to tackling operational issues as and when they inevitably arise. However, it felt to me that this rich and eclectic variety of responsibilities paused the moment I was tasked with managing the process to find our next Vice-Chancellor.

Here at Sheffield, I was given this task back in January 2018, and it certainly occupied a good proportion of time, effort and nervous energy. And so it should. We know that Vice-Chancellor transition cans cause short term planning plight and corporate uncertainty, whilst an incoming leader will inevitably affect the institutional direction, vision and values.

The stakes are high and so it’s a task that has to be done really well. I’m therefore pleased (and extremely relieved) to say that we successfully concluded our appointment process in under seven months, and ahead of schedule. Moreover, we know that we will transition smoothly from one exceptional Vice-Chancellor to another.

As the dust begins to settle on the Sheffield appointment process, here are a few personal reflections.

Responsibility sits with the Council

It will almost certainly be the case that the responsibility to appoint a Vice-Chancellor will sit with Council, or your equivalent body. Despite whatever support the COO or Registrar can give, the success of the process depends on the Chair of the Governing Body.

I was exceptionally fortunate to have an experienced Chair who understood the University and the higher education sector. Moreover, it was made clear throughout the process that the decision-making resided with him, the Appointment Committee and Council – very relevant when there’s no shortage of people who considered that they alone should choose the next Vice-Chancellor.

Appointment Committee diversity is crucial

The diversity of the Appointment Committee was crucial, and not just from the ‘protective characteristics’ angle. The trick here was to successfully balance the membership to ensure appropriate representation of our diverse stakeholders, whilst not making the group so large as to make decision-making unwieldy.

We ended up with twelve members: a delicate balance between Council lay officers, academic heads from Senate, the Students’ Union President and two external representatives, one focusing on sector-wide issues and the other on City-Region partnerships. The main Appointment Committee was supplemented by two stakeholder panels, one assessing leadership and the other academic endeavour and the student experience.

Consultation builds credibility

Building credibility into the process required wider stakeholder consultation. We spent around five weeks doing this. Our model though was simple and straightforward. The Chair of Council and I ran seven focus groups, each populated by different stakeholders, ranging from the Students’ Union Sabbatical Officers, to academic Heads of Department and professional service leaders. We also met with trade unions, alumni, and city region leaders. In addition we created a dedicated webpage to post updates and an email account for anyone to share their thoughts (and people frequently did).

The content of the consultation was simple too. We only asked two questions: what are the key roles and priorities for the new VC, and what kind of VC do you want? The responses added a genuine richness and an authentic voice to the eventual job description, person specification and selection activities.

Consultants and cultural fit

It is common to engage search consultants, which we did early on in the process. It’s increasingly normal for our peer group to moan about headhunters, arguing that they’re all the same and charge far too much for the privilege. That poor or indifferent experience may be because too many headhunters focus exclusively on landing the best person for the job.

In my view, that’s wrong. We wanted to appoint the best team for the job, so our consultants invested genuine time to understand the extant leadership and cultural fit. Also, we considered long-term reputation; the experience of all our candidates mattered. I’ve certainly learnt that all search consultants are not the same. Some excel at hyperbole and others unassumingly deliver. Fortunately, we chose the latter.

Focusing on individuals

The selection process itself was pretty standard – CV application, longlisting, longlist interviews, shortlisting and final interviews. The addition of a somewhat gruelling media assessment proved interesting and useful.

The final selection process involved spending around half a day with each individual shortlisted candidate. This proved logistically easier for the panel, whilst maintaining confidentiality for the candidate. Furthermore, it ensured a focus on the applicant’s ability to do the job, rather than their relative merits against each other.

Transparency is crucial

From past experience, we had diarised significant time after the final interviews to undertake a range of requisite activities, including Chancellor engagement, Council ratification, contractual negotiation, liaison over marketing and media releases, etc. We remained particularly mindful that Sheffield would be one of the first to appoint a Vice-Chancellor after the publication of the CUC Remuneration Code and following various controversies over senior pay and expenses. Scrutiny, appropriateness, and transparency are dominant words within our nomenclature.

Upon personal reflection, the whole process was a rather peculiar blend of sadness that comes from travelling towards the departure of one eminent boss, with the excitement of forging a new relationship with an incoming Vice-Chancellor.

As well as this more visceral reflection, managing the process was a lot of hard graft, drawing upon knowledge, experience and deftness, making it all a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable task. It’s not, though, a job I want to have to undertake again in the foreseeable future.