Dos and don’ts: how to hire a university boss

“When you start recruiting, don’t stuff it up” was the pithy message from departing Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake to the institution’s chancellor, the venerable philanthropist and pastoralist Tim Fairfax.

As chancellor, Fairfax was in charge of the search for a new vice-chancellor, and Coaldrake was keen to ensure his successor was up to the job.

Pressure is on university chancellors leading the search for new vice-chancellors for their institutions. Several Australian univer­sity vice-chancellors are leaving during the next year or so, and university communities are understandably nervous about their new leaders.

Fairfax remembers Coaldrake’s words echoing through his mind for months.

“I think he’d seen other universities make the wrong appointments,” he says. “Probably they were more academic and weren’t up to the management and ­administration side of it.”

With several Australian vice-chancellors leaving their univer­sities in the year to come, including those from Melbourne, Deakin, Notre Dame, Newcastle, Griffith and Central Queensland, a global search for replacement candidates is under way.

The recruitment process begins with a commercial search firm collating a longlist of potential candidates that is then whittled down to a shortlist. The university’s selection committee then exhaustively interviews four or five candidates on-site at the university and settles on a final choice. The entire process can take months.

Ideal candidates usually have a balance of commercial acumen, managerial competence and academic excellence. The perfect candidate should be comfortable dealing with government officials, senior academics — sometimes with conflicting views — the media, donors and important alumni, as well as projecting an air of calm but forceful authority.

Deakin’s chancellor, noted businessman and one-time executive director of Telstra John Stanhope, says finding the right combination of qualities is difficult, so recruitment really has to have a global spread. The incumbent Deakin vice-chancellor, Jane den Hollander, is leaving the university next year. Her position has been advertised and the search process is expected to continue for much of this year.

Deakin will not look for a ­replacement who plans a radical departure from the university’s present agenda.

“Quite clearly, in our documentation calling for interest, I’ve tried to make it clear, and the council has tried to make it clear, that we’re pretty happy as a council,” Stanhope says.

“The university is heading in the right direction, strategically. We’re not looking for somebody to come in and turn the place upside-down. We’ve made that pretty clear. But of course we would recognise that somebody who came to the role would bring their own flavour, their own tweaking to the strategy that’s in place.”

Although the ideal candidate would not necessarily be a career academic, some familiarity with the academic world would be ­desirable, he says. “We’re not ruling out someone who, for ­instance, may have a doctorate but has been in the corporate world for the past 20 years. Not at all; in fact such a person could be quite attractive.”

As a businessman, Stanhope believes any potential vice-chancellor should understand that universities must consider how to best raise their own funds for ­research and the like. “There’s a lot of intellectual property in universities around Australia that could be commercialised and the funds used not for profit but for research,” he says. “We talk a lot about R&D. We spend a lot on R and not so much on D. And so I’m looking for a person who agrees with that philosophy because that’s what we’ve decided.”

John Niland, who was vice-chancellor of University of NSW for 10 years from 1992 to 2002 and who has been a power in the Australian university sector for decades, says he has sat on three vice-chancellor selection committees for international universities and about five for Australian universities. Selecting the right candidate depends on the situation of the university, he says, its state of ­development, its budget, its governance.

Most important, and at the top of Niland’s list, is the ­capacity of an individual to consult on a particular issue, then “draw a line in the sand” and ­decide, rather than pushing difficult ­issues into process.

The ideal candidate is able to deal with controversies that arise in a calm and considered manner without alienating various constituencies and without impinging on what a modern university’s purpose should be, including the open debate of difficult issues, he says.

These days, vice-chancellors have to be comfortable with ­driving change, and the best ­applicants for vice-chancellor ­positions would have experience and standing outside academe, perhaps sitting on the board of a large company or chairing a major ­inquiry.

QUT’s Fairfax believes that academic excellence — while ­important to ensure that potential vice-chancellors understand academics’ thinking — is a quality of secondary importance.

Even the lack of a doctorate will not be a deal-­breaker if a candidate has other strengths, Fairfax says. Certainly the incumbent vice-chancellor of RMIT University, Martin Bean, does not have a doctorate but, rather, a wealth of business experience and it was that which won him his first vice-chancellorship at Britain’s the Open University.

QUT wanted a clever and careful administrator who would maintain the university’s reputation and keep the institution on an even keel as they followed on from Coaldrake’s 14-year tenure. “I think we were looking for someone who would carry on from Peter without rocking the boat,” Fairfax says. “We’ll still go into uncharted waters and it will be exciting and invigorating, but all we wanted to do was change the captain and keep us on a safe path.”

QUT’s choice — Margaret Sheil — was finalised in November and she picked up the reins at QUT in February.

The University of Melbourne’s new vice-chancellor, Britain-born infectious diseases expert Duncan Maskell from the University of Cambridge, is scheduled to start work in September, replacing the venerable Glyn Davis who has been in charge since 2005.

The university’s chancellor, the well-known barrister Allan Myers, led the search for Davis’s replacement and he says the head-hunters presented the selection committee with “a dream group of applicants from all over the world”.

“About 25, and I literally mean that, would have been appointable,” he says. Mostly men and mostly from English-speaking ­nations, the candidates came from leading univer­sities in Asia, Europe and the US, Myers says. The shortlist of five included one woman.

Each candidate in the final 10 or 15 was “very thoroughly vetted”, Myers says. “You ask them to make all sorts of disclosures, and then you undertake inquiries. This is all before you ever get the references.”

The search began almost two years before Davis was due to leave, and it came up with some interesting possibilities. “One of the candidates who in the end was not in the final group was the chief executive of a very large international corporation, but with very high academic qualifications,” Myers says.

“That person had been in the corporate world, rather than the academic world, for the past two decades. Another in the final group was a vice-chancellor from one of Asia’s leading universities. English was not that candidate’s native or mother tongue. Though of course that candidate was fluent in English, but definitely from a different culture.”

Myers says the selection committee was happy to appoint a different type of academic to the job. “You don’t want the same person, or the same sort of person, doing it for a whole generation,” he says.

“Glyn has done a fantastic job at the university, and I mean that, but he’s been in the job for 13 years. We’ve appointed a person with very different qualities. Certainly he’s not someone like Glyn, not at all. He’s very down-to-earth.

“When he finally appeared ­before the university council for the final tick, they couldn’t believe it, they said he’s just like an ­Australian. I guess they thought they were going to get some ­lisping, limp-wristed Cambridge academic.”