Book review: Leadership Transitions in Universities

Looking to explore further the realities of leadership at universities? Dr Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham, reviews Leadership Transitions in Universities: Arriving, Surviving and Thriving at the Top

There aren’t that many people who aspire to be Vice-Chancellors and even fewer who actually succeed in being appointed. This is an excellent book for those seeking appointment but also for those who make it to the top. Whilst it is presented as a handbook for aspiring and current VCs I do think there is also much of value in here for other senior leaders too.

The book draws on the wide and deep experience of the authors in university leadership development which is usefully supplemented by a number of first hand accounts from current and previous Vice-Chancellors. It’s a comprehensive survey ranging from an exploration of the role and characteristics of  VCs to how individuals end up getting themselves appointed to such positions. Transitions are a big theme in the book with the authors rightly emphasising the importance of planning more effectively and investing more in managing transition.

The nature and complexity and many different dimensions of the VC role are explored in helpful detail, reflecting the many challenges for all in leading in a university. The authors argue, compellingly I think, that being a VC is more complicated than your regular CEO job. VCs need to develop a deep understanding of the role and place of universities in society in general, at home and internationally. Seeking to understand and interpret the university’s environment in historical and current perspectives is a key task for institutional leaders.

There is some guidance offered on the back of a brief analysis of current pathways to leadership which shows that VCs are generally appointed from within HE, are likely to be academics and already be a VC or DVC. In exploring the role of search consultants, what they are after and how to engage with them the authors do offer some sensible advice (although they omit to mention the role of Registrar or equivalent as a key element of the search process – they are likely to have been secretary to the appointment panel and have responsibilities there).

New VCs are, not uncommonly, surprised by the “time, proximity and dominance of governance as a key domain and set of relationships.” This seems absolutely right to me – a new VC has got to understand their responsibilities and may have had very little engagement with governance before appointment. The authors do say the Registrar and Secretary is “potentially significant” in this context but really do understate I think the strong supporting role they can play for a new VC.

On senior leadership teams there is also some good advice on the delicate balancing act of team leadership, on getting teams to focus on different areas, helping with decision making, on values and behaviours as well as on different approaches to team development. There are lots of good ideas in here and they do seem to me to have wider applicability than just the top team.

The chapter on responding to the pandemic is particularly insightful I thought with a good analysis of the many challenges faced by universities and their leaders and how such a crisis demands extraordinary levels of physical and emotional resilience from leaders but that we do need to remember that VCs, like all of us, are only human.

There is sensible guidance on managing external engagements and especially on the traps to avoid and why VCs need to keep their feet on the ground.

There are some excellent case studies of leadership challenges in several universities in the UK and Australia and good analyses of the resulting problems, many of which do seem to arise fundamentally from governance issues in one form or another. The need for the VC to dedicate time and effort to engagement with the Chair and other governors is therefore rightly once again reinforced here.

So overall it is a really good guide for aspiring and serving Vice-Chancellors. My only mildly critical observation and, of course, I would say this, the role of the Registrar or equivalent I would suggest is understated here. As all AHUA members would attest, we do have a key role in supporting the VC, and play an important role in supporting new or established university leaders across all dimensions of their roles as set out in the book.

Middlehurst, Robin and Kennie, Tom, 2021, Leadership Transitions in Universities: Arriving, Surviving and Thriving at the Top. Routledge Books.