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Get Rid of Academic Leadership

There is no place for leaders in academia.

Insofar as academic work is devoted to understanding the world and, thereafter and within reason, acting upon it – through pedagogy, scholarship and open debate – leadership is meaningless. There may be influential researchers and teachers, and such only because and insofar as they are open to being questioned and debated with. The moment they think of themselves as charismatic or profound authority-bearing leaders it is time for them to retire. Then there are some persons whose job descriptions consist in dealing with the institutional side of academic work, mainly undertaking bureaucratic and accounting functions. The moment they begin to suffer from the delusion that they are charismatic or powerful leaders they should be made redundant (without golden or bronze handshakes). When the latter fancy themselves leader/führer/Duce and so on of their academic patch with visions of imposing some Great Order therein, by managing and strategizing and propaganda, seeking compliance and exercising opaque executive prerogatives, they start killing off academic work – become leeches on the academic body. The sooner they are chucked out the better things will be. They can stay if they are content with being bureaucrats and administrators and accountants of the academic sector.

I write this bit of polemic somewhat feelingly because there is propaganda about “academic leadership” everywhere. In the UK, at any rate, it seems so: scanning academic jobs pages, looking at Research Councils’ funding schemes, examining government HE policy documents, consulting university promotions and appraisals procedures, mulling academic workload calculations, listening to deliberations in university committees – all these suggest that the phrase has, so to speak, gone viral in a contained way. There are more scholarly-sounding publications on the subject than specialists can keep up with; numerous well-endowed firms offer expensive academic leadership training; think-tanks constantly urge the need to nurture more academic leaders and corporations vie to cultivate them; newspapers inform of the privileges of top-level academic leaders with grudging admiration. Awards for academic leadership and management are rapidly proliferating.

This posting is an addendum to my earlier posting on “academic busyness”. While what I identify there as Phase 7 in the rationalising of academic work settles into the UK, propelled particularly on the back of “austerity”, more academic leaders keep thrusting themselves out of the woodwork and the air is rent with mindless droning about academic leadership. It is time to get rid of it. And of course, as behoves academics, also time to study it and understand it as any undesirable social symptom should be.

The phrase “academic leadership” has been in vogue for a while, gradually since the late 1970s, but even as such there have been indicative shifts in what it suggests through that period. In contemplating it, the first point to register is that “academic leadership” is now, in the 2010s, not what it seems to mean or used to mean in, say, the 1970s. The phrase has little to do with “academic leadership”, or leadership informed by and therefore bearing upon engagement with teaching and research; it is now unequivocally taken as “management of academic workers and institutions from above”. The going wisdom is that such leaders do not need to have (or even have had) any investment in academic work themselves, much as management consultants need no involvement in the work of business firms they give advice on. If some would-be leaders happen to have such investments, the sooner they disinvest the better their prospects. The second point to register speedily is that academic leaders, thus understood, are now consensually regarded as being worth more than academics of any sort. It seems thoroughly understandable that the relative symbolic capital of “upper-level academic leaders” and of academic workers at the top of their pecking orders (so-called “senior academics”) in universities is signified by differentiations in material capital investments: crudely put, the former get paid a lot more than the latter, often several times more. It is clear where aspirations in academia are likely to be pinned now. 

That a shift has gradually taken place from “academic leadership” to “managing academic workers and institutions from above” in the use of the phrase is evident to all whose careers in academia stretch back to the 1970s, or who have informed themselves of the matter. Yet the stickiness of the phrase itself, so that it has constantly increased its misleading traction, especially since the 1990s, is possibly encouraged to disguise this shift – to confer on bureaucrats with thin academic credentials a veil of academic respectability. The process and step-by-step implications of that shift are fairly difficult to pin down in historicist terms, partly because many academics have been persuaded into it unthinkingly, and partly because texts on the subject are overwhelmingly in the nature of technical guidebooks and fact-collocations to help academic leaders do their jobs. Most such texts are produced by such leaders themselves, with the spin that suits them (it is considered that no one can be an “expert” in academic leadership without having been a leader).

Nevertheless, a historicist approach to this shift in understanding what “academic leadership” consists in is much to be desired, because it clarifies a broader shift – an incremental and comprehensive reorientation of the condition of academic work itself, of the very understanding of what scholarship and pedagogy consists in and why these should be undertaken in HE. The shift in conceiving “academic leadership” is a locus around which this broader change can be apprehended, and it’s of especial interest because it has rather sneaked up on us. Of course, the shift does have something to do with the ever growing grip of managerialism -- aligning state bureaucratic and corporate business functioning --  which, since the Second World War, has been periodically rediscovered with some surprise as operating through and as academia to the detriment of academic work. In the early 1970s, for instance, growing managerialism in academia was regarded with dismay as both an impetus to radicalising 1960s university students (e.g. Otten 1970, Ch.7; Westby 1976, Ch.3) and as emerging dominant after the student movement (even by those very far from friendly to the ideological thrust of that movement, such as Nisbet 1971). In the more temperate and globally coherent HE environment after four decades, the prevalence of “new managerialism” is found at large in global academia with similar misgivings – in the USA (e.g.Martinez-Aléman 2012), in UK (e.g. Deem, Hillyard, Reed 2007), in Ireland (Lynch, Grummell, Devine 2012), and so on. A synthesis of such investigations from the 1970s to the 2010s, tracking the passage of managerialism in HE, which is the same as tracking the shifting relationship between academic leadership and the conditions of academic work, would undoubtedly illuminate the shift mentioned above. Or, perhaps, a historicist approach could trace a path of changing HE funding regimes and accountability practices therein (for instance, from Finn 1978 to Knapp and Siegel’s monumental three volumes, 2009), and trace the relationship of leadership and academic work accordingly.  Or yet again, possibly a historicist approach could begin with early anticipations of that shift, and determine how those anticipations become realities or came to be modified in reality. I mean, anticipations such as Edward H. Litchfield’s (1959, then Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh) in envisaging university “administration” (it was not quite “management” then) as drawn from principles “in the business corporation, in the public service, in military organizations, in the church, and in other large-scale, non-educational settings” (p.490). Or anticipations found in Daniel Bell’s sociological forecasting of the university’s place in “post-industrial society” as he took his neoconservative turn; when, having been struck by the proliferating functions of American universities (in Bell 1966), he raised a set of questions about the future of the university (Bell 1973, pp.263-65). Answering those questions, in many ways, has been the stuff of the shift in question. Such anticipations offer a way of retrospective clarification of what happened, a kind of meeting of future-gazing and looking-back.

These are very preliminary thoughts, by way of beginning an investigation into the curious and resistible rise of “academic leadership” while calling for the extirpation of the idea that academia is in need of something called “leadership”.   


  • Bell, Daniel (1966). The Reforming of General Education. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Bell, Daniel (1973). The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Basic.
  • Deem, R., S. Hillyard, and M. Reed (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Finn, Chester E. (1978). Scholars, Dollars and Bureaucrats. Washington DC: Brookings Institution.
  • Knapp, J.C. and D.J. Siegel eds. (2009). The Business of Higher Education (3 volumes). Santa Barbara CA: Greenwood.
  • Litchfield, Edward H. (1959). “Organization in Large American Universities: the Administration”. The Journal of Higher Education 30: 9, December. 489-504.
  • Lynch, K., B. Grummell and D. Devine (2012). New Managerialism in Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Martinez-Aléman, Ana M. (2012). Accountability, Pragmatic Aims, and the American University. New York: Routledge.
  • Nisbet, Robert A. (1971). The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. New York: Basic.
  • Otten, C. Michael (1970). University Authority and the Student. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Westby, David L. (1976). The Clouded Vision: The Student Movement in the United States in the 1960s. Cranbury NJ: Associated University Presses.

Suman Gupta, June 2015