Being a Vice-Chancellor or Head of an Institution of Higher Education is not a bed of roses as lot of people and aspirants for such jobs may be thinking. These positions are extremely difficult, and not a lot of bright people want that kind of job. It is an unfortunate situation that the system we have set up in higher education seems to recruit for such positions from a pool of candidates that have neither been trained nor have they been given any incentives to develop the skills necessary for academic leadership. With the rise of alternative education options, crises in financial outlays and devaluation of formal college degrees, HEIs face challenging times in the decades to come and there is more need than ever before to hire the right leaders with the right experiences and the right skill sets.
Repeatedly, media has been flagging the issue about leadership-crisis in HEIs, for public attention, which has always been known to people in academics and the government. News18 had done a story (https://www.news18.com/news/india/unfit-dozens-in-the-vice-chancellor-pro-vice-chancellor-race-515870.html ) in 2012, “Unfit dozens in the Vice Chancellor, Pro Vice Chancellor race.” The Hindu had done a story titled – ‘Public inquiry’ by JNUTA finds V-C unfit for position – on JNU V-C Jagadesh Kumar in October 2017 (https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/public-inquiry-by-jnuta-finds-v-c-unfit-for-position/article19935324.ece ). Times of India had also reported it prominently. It cannot be a mere accident that Prof. Jagadesh Kumar now heads the UGC. Times News Network, in 2019 had published a research finding that 75% of Vice Chancellors in the country were unfit for the job they held.
In academic institutions, faculty begin their careers in the role of entry-level assistant professors usually after their Ph.D. They are appointed based on their prior peer-reviewed publications and teaching skills but rarely because of their leadership and administrative skills. Few years later, the assistant professor applies for promotion presenting a docket of more than 100 pages of documentation consisting almost entirely of research publications, teaching evaluations, letters of recommendation, and grants and awards received. Particularly in top institutions, most of the weight is placed on research publications, then teaching, then service and once again, leadership and administrative experience are rarely given strong weight in promotion decisions. Without strong research publications, faculty cannot be promoted regardless of their teaching and leadership excellence. Sure, some faculty stay where they are as purely a research and teaching faculty member, but the upward career mobility is usually possible only after one has achieved a full Professor’s rank.
Faculty positions such as Professor of Psychology require people who love analysing data, investigating phenomena, and communicating results through writing or in the classroom. On the other hand, educational administrator positions like a Dean, Provost, or a Vice Chancellor require people who love problem solving, making difficult decisions, managing teams and projects, and evaluating and taking risks. Yet, it is very rare for a college or university to hire a principal or a Vice chancellor who has not been a lifelong academic.
Academics sometimes have a bit of an unfortunate reputation of being big picture thinkers, with their heads in the clouds (or ivory tower) and disconnected from the realities of everyday life. They start a research project, and then get excited by another new idea several days later, only to end up after several months with a dozen great ideas yet none close to being completed.
Faculty do not learn how to make decisions as an Assistant Professor, where their main concern is to complete the research project and get it published in some top journal that only a handful of other academics in their field will read. Research publications take months if not years to go through the peer review and editing process. Decisions in higher education leadership, especially in the face of crises such as a pandemic, need to be made within days if not hours. The work context is completely different as well, even though both the jobs are in academia.
One reason why leadership in HEIs has been losing its credibility is that so many academic leaders are not good at making long-run decisions for the health of their institutions. The most obvious example is where they fail protect the integrity of the curriculum in the face of faculty desires to teach whatever the faculty finds interesting. Higher education is quickly losing its value proposition, becoming out-of-date, inefficient, and losing credibility in the workplace, due to mindless tactical tinkering with the curriculum and the processes. We may have been so focused on hiring high-quality researchers and teachers, that we forgot they need to also be high-quality leaders and administrators.
So what is the solution?
First and foremost, early career faculty, regardless of their core field of study, must receive training on leadership, team development, risk management and related skills required for higher education administration.
Second, there is a need to change the tenure and promotion criteria for faculty to pursue such trainings. Unless one wants to remain a research or teaching professor for rest of one’s career, tenure and promotion should be granted only that faculty, who can also lead and administer.
Third and finally, academia should consider outside leaders and businessmen who have the necessary skill sets to lead large complex organizations. There are a whole community of people who got their PhD but decided against traditional research and teaching careers. They may be qualified and exceptional in academic leadership positions.