University leaders as revolutionaries?

Dr Mark Pegg considers the changing  emphasis of what makes a university leader.


Can leaders of universities be revolutionaries? Revolutionary leaders in history tend to be outsiders not authority figures – does that apply to leaders in the higher education sector and what does it mean for leadership in the sector? These are the thought-provoking questions I’ve been asked to respond to at a university conference in 2014.

My initial reaction was that today’s university leader must have a revolutionary or at least radical mindset. It is a time for revolutionary thinking, for the transformational change needed to deal with the sheer pace, depth and breadth of change the sector faces. Evolution will not be enough and, without sitting in on interview panels, I suspect few university leaders will be appointed without a transformational change agenda tucked under their arm.

Whether it needs a revolutionary leader to deliver this change agenda is, I accept, a related but different question. University councils expect their leaders to have the ambition to grow and strengthen their institution in an increasingly competitive world; the test is whether this needs a revolutionary leader to do it. Newly appointed leaders I speak to regularly tell me of the radical agenda and ferocious ambition they have to change their university and many aspects of its culture to rise in the rankings and attract new students. Even those for whom defence of the historic traditions of the university is the prime directive, leading in a time of dynamic change still requires revolutionary thinking. To stand still requires huge effort on the treadmill of university life – the imperative to find new sources to fund leading edge research, widening access and developing state of the art facilities.

Revolutionary thinking fits well with the special combination of enquiry and independence universities must possess: an uncompromising willingness to speak truth to power. A restless inquisitiveness, pursuit of knowledge and thirst for discovery, matched to a culture where personal freedom and autonomy are prized above all. A place where the daily diet is to ask ‘why?’ ‘how?’ ‘what?’, nurtures special kinds of leaders who must have a revolutionary mindset; thought leaders to influence the establishment, to influence those in authority and shape the thinking and decisions taken by the decision makers.

In my lifetime, I have seen a revolution in higher education leadership. I read history when only 4% of the UK population went to university, when men outnumbered women 4:1. The revolutionaries of one generation often stand for the accepted convention, even commonplace of another; 19th century radicals fought to found many of the universities of today, radical academics wanted to teach subjects other than classics, it was revolutionary to allow women to read for degrees. Having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report, what was revolutionary then is all received wisdom today and the new universities are already an established part of the UK landscape.

My first ‘rag week’ T-shirt had the iconic picture of Che Guevara with ‘Rebellion 69!’ as the strapline. Today you can buy virtually the same T-shirt in Primark for £5.99.  Arguably, many of the causes Che fought for – nationalism, democracy and freedoms – have seen significant progress to a lesser or greater extent. If what seemed revolutionary then seems so ordinary now, how will revolutionary leaders prepare for the commonplace of 2050?

My feeling is the revolution will come from leaders who are also consummate insiders, revolutionary because of the ‘way’ they lead rather than the ‘what’, or the ‘how’ they lead. There will still be great men and women leaders – charismatic, able to inspire by their personal impact, but the supply is strictly limited. For many universities the revolution will come from leaders skilled in employee engagement and delegation, from great team work. These leaders will need to be social networkers who are able to inspire leadership at every level in their university. They will more likely be women and/or non-UK nationals. They will be great communicators and motivators and will challenge accepted wisdoms about where good leadership takes place in their institution.

So the answers is yes – revolutionary leaders can exist happily in the sector and can enable their universities to prosper, but they will do it differently to the revolutionaries of the past. Less likely to be authority figures making a call to arms, they will  be subtler more nuanced leaders, with the skills to influence and ability to empower others. They will be about changing cultures to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation. He will be giving a talk on the revolutionary leader at the AUA conference in April.