Follow the leader?


Originally published at physicsfocus.

I very much hope that a meeting I attended last week at the University of Cambridge will prove to be a key moment, and a major catalyst, in accelerating change in academia. Delivering Equality: Women & Success was billed as a “summit of senior leaders progressing change in academia”, and, as Athene Donald discusses over at her blog, was timed to coincide with both the anniversary of the publication of The Meaning Of Success and International Women’s Day.

The meeting challenged stereotypes and (un)conscious bias, was often thought-provoking and provocative, and regularly confronted the received wisdom – in particular on the question of meritocracy. I learned a great deal both in the formal sessions and via conversations with the delegates over coffee/lunch. Nonetheless, I could have done with rather less of the vapid, corporate, faux-inspirational, TED-style delivery that was a feature of some sessions and is increasingly infesting and infecting academic meetings.

I must admit that I was rather surprised to have been invited to the summit in the first place. The delegate list read like a Who’s Who of UK Academia – Vice-Chancellors, PVCs, Deans, Directors, Chief Executives, Masters of Colleges, Heads of Department, Presidents… Not only am I not in any way involved with the upper echelons of ‘leadership’ at the University of Nottingham (or elsewhere), I have absolutely zero aspirations in that direction. (I think that my invitation to the summit might possibly have been related to this article on parenthood and academia in the Times Higher last year, to which I contributed some thoughts.)

Athene’s post on the background to the Delivering Equality meeting is important and thoroughly recommended. Here I want to focus not so much on the variety of issues that were discussed, but on the implicit – and often explicit – message throughout the day that change should be inspired by, and set in motion by, ‘leaders’: we rank-and-file academics should look to our leaders for inspiration. This is perhaps to be expected given that the summit was targeted at senior leaders, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the concept of leadership in academia. It’s yet another example of the corrosive influence of corporate thinking on our universities. Let me explain.

The ever-inspiring Mary Beard features in The Meaning Of Success. I love this line from her interview: “I’m also such an academic that if somebody says something I don’t agree with, my autopilot response is to answer back.” She also perceptively finds “that the people who are most talented in helping me rethink my ideas often don’t measure up to the more usual marks of success”. Indeed.

I didn’t become an academic in order to be led. Nor did I become an academic to lead others. I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom. And, as Prof. Beard puts it, to answer back. I don’t want to follow the leader(s), particularly not when, as described below, they so often demonstrate a remarkable paucity of original and creative thinking. Similarly, I expect PhD students and postdocs in the group to challenge me all the time – if they’re not doing this then I’m simply not doing my job right.

And it’s not just universities that are fixated with leadership. The research councils, including, in particular, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), are committed to “developing leaders”. As just one example, a very large amount of public funding was invested in their Leadership Fellowships programme over a number of years. (Disclaimer: I held one of these fellowships.)

The traditional role of academia – to speak truth to power – has been usurped, like so many aspects of the 21st-century university, by bland – though no less damaging for their blandness – corporate concepts such as brand management, ‘customer’ loyalty, and, of course, leadership. (The other aspect of corporate culture that has been imported, of course, is a rewards system which often has very little connection with performance, as discussed in an article in yesterday’s Observer: ‘Eye-watering’ salary rises for university chiefs cannot be justified, says report.)

Hand-in-hand with the concept of leadership comes a strong and corrosive focus on top-down management and centralisation: leaders have to be seen to be leading. This in turn leads to endless rounds of implementing university-wide strategic priorities, with the leaders scrabbling to assert their particular ‘vision’ for the institution. Academics at the chalkface are expected to fall in line and are not trusted to do their job without the benefit of ‘inspirational’ leadership.

The ubiquitous leadership meme would perhaps be a little less burdensome if academics were led on the basis of original and innovative strategies. But we’re not. Here’s a short, but wholly representative, excerpt from the strategy document of a leading Russell Group university. It doesn’t matter from which university’s blurb I’ve taken this, because it could have come from practically any of them:

“Our vision is to deliver research excellence across all academic disciplines…”

That’s not vision. That’s a total absence of vision. For all of the reasons discussed here, it’s a completely vacuous commitment. It’s worrying enough that this vision statement was written down in the first place; what makes it worse is that it was signed off by the leadership of the university in question. You can also be sure that the assessment of that research ‘excellence’ will be based on precisely the same tired chasing of metrics and league table rankings – no matter how flawed and volatile those tables might be – as every other university.



Lacking creativity.

Devoid of critical thinking.

I think an E grade would be a fair assessment of the majority of university strategy documents.

So what’s the alternative? Well, this blog post is already long enough as it is. In my next post I’ll grasp the nettle and suggest some alternatives to the ‘iconic, inspirational leader’ model. In the meantime, and with tongue placed rather firmly in cheek, I’ll leave you with Douglas Adams’ thoughts on governance and leadership

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

“To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”


Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

9 thoughts on “Follow the leader?”

  1. Ha! I agree entirely. However your point about “The traditional role of academia – to speak truth to power – has been usurped, like so many aspects of the 21st-century university, by bland – though no less damaging for their blandness – corporate concepts such as brand management, ‘customer’ loyalty, and, of course, leadership.”

    I don’t think that is the really the crux of the matter. What stops the ‘speaking truth to power’ is the misguided focus on citations and ‘excellence’ in its narrowest sense, and I include the REF in this, what little I understand of it. Most policy makers and business struggle to understand most social science, the research is focused on academic papers, which most people can’t access and understand. To change the incentives as I know some are trying to do, and so many researchers want, is a supertanker turning task which is disheartening and difficult.

    Not sure gender is going to massively change that, but ever little helps as the meaningless corporate slogan says.


  2. Philip,

    This is an eloquent summary of the malaise in British universities.

    I get to meet a lot of academic colleagues in physical sciences and most of them share your frustrations about the way in which the policies of senior management are afflicting not only the quality and originality of research in science, technology and mathematics, but also the intellectual development of our students. In the universities and research councils, mediocre people, many of whom have given up on their research, are getting promoted to positions of power and when they get there, feel they have to do something to impress their line managers. This leads to a policy of change for change’s sake – more often than not, with very negative consequences.

    The obsession with top-down management, league tables, organisation charts, centralisation and “one-size-fits-all” policies may well inflate the egos of senior managers but will eventually destroy what they claim to seek, namely the international competitiveness of UK universities.

    Perhaps university managers need brainstorming sessions, sandpits, away days, kite-flying and horizon-scanning to justify their existence and high salaries – but have these activities ever led to any world-changing discoveries? I know a few Nobel prizewinners, and I know what their answer would be!

    Larry (a UK-based professor doing research in experimental condensed matter physics)


  3. Yes indeed. Academic research does not need “leaders”. The term “science leaders” is particularly nauseating.
    As you say, the “leadership” concept is part of the increasing managementisation of science, but it also reflects its growing bandwagonisation and politicisation.


  4. All true Philip, and you will be cheered to know that I recognise (even in its banality) the document you cite. This has been added to our corpus for discourse analysis in a chapter on ‘audit culture’ in universities. The book as a whole will focus on managerial discourse and its metaphors, presuppositions and semantically shifting resources of control. Another chapter is on the corporate colonisation of academics. Any bon mots and anecdotes are welcome –


  5. Most of the issues are not confined to academics or universities; they are common to my experience of bureaucracies. One example: over a few years in Queensland, under a union-supported government, public service employment and pay rates rose at twice the rate of the private sector. Queensland health went from a functional officer: bureaucrat ratio of 60:40 to 45:55, with the bureaucrats justifying their roles by making doctors et al jump through more meaningless hoops. The incentives for bureaucrats are to expand their reach, at the expense of taxpayers and service recipients. Those with a genuine concern for community well-being are quickly identified as boat-rockers and marginalised. The real issue is: how do we get people to be more altruistic, to obtain satisfaction from helping others rather than self-aggrandisement. Well, “we” can’t; it’s a task which each individual must undertake. It is possible; but enough for here.


  6. Authors may enjoy my analysis of university leadership being like a Ponzi Scheme – the more suckers you can entice to invest, the more inflated your own gains. From there it becomes self-replicating, exhibiting the fractal characteristic of self-similarity. And every new member of the Ponzi has a relationship with the central figure. No wonder they all get rich like Bernie Madoff – on the tuition fees coming through the door on the backs of students.


  7. Liz, Looking forward to your book! I am an old metaphor hunter and would love to see what you have come up with.


  8. I agree entirely. Looking forward toy our follow up and I’m glad to read in the comments people are writing books on the current corporate state!

    Commiserations on having to sit through another timesink TED-esque talk. Vapid is precisely the right description.

    This following in a tangent-space to one of your sentences. If it is too unrelated, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to delete it or not.

    Frankly the phrasing ‘Delivering’ Equality makes me cringe, although I was not at the talk it reminds me of an issue in academia:
    You cannot have equality by any other way aside from treating people equal. Allow me to make this clear, consider the following:

    1: Suppose our population has ethic groups in ratio A:B:C and genders D:E” (this is an oversimplification, naturally)
    2: If our professors/students in field X are not in the exact same distribution, it’s racist/sexist.
    This is stupid, yet commonly in practice. “In order to fix bias against certain groups, we need to specifically give advantages those groups.”
    This is fighting the symptoms and not the cause.***

    If prejudice is something we sincerely try to tackle in academia, why do most applications demand your gender and ethnicity in the first place? (think about it!)
    ***I can of course understand it for jobs with interviews where they may be a subconscious bias. But many universities are in the position where the selection process is based on the application alone.

    Asking “what colour is your skin” is not a way to tackle racism. Likewise “what hormones and dangly bits do you have?” doesn’t exactly see past gender.

    Imagine if someone were to complain about the disproportionately high amount of Jews in theoretical physics? Multiculturalism isn’t saying “everyone should have the same interests” it’s embracing the nuances of our cultures and legacies equally. As long as everyone has equal oppertunity to apply and no one is put into a box by institutions.

    At best many universities want to LOOK like they have equal opportunity by considering their ratio of colours and genders, which is far from the same thing as removing bias.

    Equality opportunity means EQUAL opportunity. End of story. The way to encourage a group of people to do X is not to say “hey we need more of your ‘kind’ to do X” it’s to not single them out and treat them with the same respect and individualism as anyone else.

    mandatory “you’re racist” p.s.
    I am an egalitarian and all humans have the potential to be great physicists/etc. I also of course believe racism/sexism is still alive within certain “traditional” people in western countries.


  9. Philip,
    The business Leadership concept is meant to empower empower employees to use their own expertise and initiative to do things how you decide is best. From your article, the conference managed to get things very wrong.

    In Business, Leaders is short for team-leaders who energise their teams and synthesise the output data for other’s consumption. They aim to facilitate their team’s ability to come up with innovative, unexpected ideas and they rely on their team’s expertise. (NB -it is the reverse of “right-arm management”.)

    I have never come across any educational establishment which understands the above paragraph despite it’s simple individual words. Many, if not most, educationalists think Leaders should come up with all the ideas and then try to force it on unwilling team-members. Exactly the opposite of reality.

    This is the problem with our UK schools government auditing – Head Teachers ask their staff to provide huge amounts of detailed evidence with lots of sub-clauses, and for every activity undertaken, which are identified and marked, when all they are asked for is “evidence of children’s improvement”. Also, our NHS, UK Government and Local Governments don’t understand, either.


Comments are closed.