At least once a month a headhunting firm calls me seeking advice on a search for a university vice-chancellor. They want to pick my brains because of what I’ve learnt, sometimes the hard way, over seven years as a vice-chancellor, 12 years as an academic dean and two years as an administrator of struggling universities.

By the time the headhunter makes the call, the university would have advertised the position more than once but simply couldn’t find the right person for the job.

I often advise on three starting criteria. In addition, my long tenure in higher education has also taught me that there’s additional knowledge that’s useful for a university leader to have, particularly in these turbulent times facing higher education.

Let me start with the criteria that headhunters should be looking for. First, candidates need to be major scholars in their field of expertise. Your credibility as an academic is critical in a serious university. If your senate cannot respect you, you will sound foolish trying to make the case for enhancing the standards of the professoriate or demanding quality scholarship in learned journals. Second, a competent manager with broad knowledge across the range of university functions — from information technologies to residence management to internal auditing. No vice-chancellor is an expert in more than one of these managerial disciplines. But candidates must know enough to ask their directors or heads of department the right questions. And third, an inspiring leader who has the ability to connect with — and command the respect — of diverse people across the institution from workers to junior lecturers to senior professors. Some pointers for candidates Potential candidates should co...

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