Efforts to educate academic leaders and university administrators on their jobs must take into account the nuances and values of academic life and institutions.

It has recently been announced that Yale University will work with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Kozhikode to train university leaders. It is, of course, a good idea to provide professional education to university administrators and there are no established programmes in India to provide this kind of training at present. But one might raise the question as to whether management and technology institutions are the best partners to do such training. Yale University has an excellent school of management but no school of education. And neither has the IIMs nor the IITs developed any expertise on higher education management. Yale and the IITs and IIMs are outstanding institutions, but not in the field of higher education.

Not unique

This new initiative to provide training to higher education by schools of management is not unique. The universities of Bath and Southampton in the U.K. both offer MBA programmes that specialise in higher education. In each case, there are higher education experts on the faculty and programmes were organised by faculty members who are higher education specialists.

Some might argue that leadership and management are generic topics and that managing a university is the same as managing a business. This is a fallacious argument. Universities have their own cultures, practices, and organisation arrangements. These differ significantly from companies and even government bureaucracies. Their operational objectives are much more difficult to measure or quantify, and the “outcomes” are even tougher to discern. The university is a collegial institution where the professoriate has traditionally had considerable input into the governance and management of their institution. University leaders and managers tend to come from the scholarly ranks of the academic profession. Universities are for the most part not-for-profit institutions.

It is certainly the case that universities are large complex organisations and that managing them requires specialised knowledge and skill. Contemporary business models may be useful in managing academic institutions to a point. Those responsible for university management and leadership would benefit from understanding how complex organisations work and from acquiring skills in finance and accounting, but the fact remains that academic institutions are in many ways unique.

American university management has been professionalised for a long time. Higher education programmes at the masters and doctoral levels exist at perhaps 100 American universities, and a large number of middle-level administrators and even some senior leaders hold degrees in higher education administration. Typically, these programmes combine courses that address the specific realities of academic institutions along with study of management issues. Most are housed in schools of education and a few have links with business or management schools. These programmes are able to link expertise on administration, management, and leadership to the specific realities of higher education.

Top academic leaders still come from the ranks of professors, and this is likely to continue to be the case. Indeed, as Amanda Goodall has pointed out in her book, Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars (Princeton, 2009), the best academic leadership comes from people who understand universities and have been successful academics. University vice-chancellors, rectors, and presidents could certainly benefit from some professional management training. Some countries and institutions offer short seminars for incoming top academic leadership — focusing in most cases on the nuances of the modern university rather than the techniques of management. Such programmes are seldom conducted by management schools.

If Indian academic leaders are to be encouraged to develop broader perspective on university management and leadership skills, it should probably not be done exclusively by institutions without expertise in higher education. One of the problems of higher education these days is that individuals often think they are experts on universities if they have attended one — this is certainly not the case. Universities are complex and unique organisations. University leaders must understand and respect this if they are to be successful. Efforts to educate academic leaders and university administrators on their jobs must take into account the nuances and values of academic life and institutions. Exposure to business practices is not enough — and may even be subversive of academic goals and success.

(Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.)

More In: Comment | Opinion