Education, Development, and Change
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Leadership in Universities

Dr Shahid Siddiqui

Monday, 01 Mar, 2010
THE role of higher education is crucial in any society as it is immediately linked with its socio-economic development.

Over the decades, Pakistan has witnessed a visible quantitative expansion in universities and higher-education institutions; a welcome initiative was the establishment of universities in the private sector. The number of universities/degree-awarding institutes in the private and public sectors now stands at 132.

The increased number of universities, however, can only tackle one aspect of the issue, i.e. access. The other aspect — quality — is equally important. The issue of quality deals on the one hand with physical resources and on the other with the standard of teaching: the learning processes taking place in classrooms. The components that constitute quality education may include curricula, textbooks, teachers, students and a university’s environment.

But another factor that plays a vital role in initiating and sustaining quality is the vice chancellor of a university. He or she is supposed to provide vision and inspiration to the faculty and help create an enabling environment for the expression and realisation of talent, creativity and the construction of knowledge.

Historically, vice chancellors were picked on the basis of their reputation in the world of academia. We find a number of outstanding people in the list of Indo-Pakistan vice chancellors, such as Dr Zakir Hussain (Aligarh Muslim University), Dr Mahmood Hussain, Dr Jamil Jalibi, Dr Manzoor Ahmed and Dr Ishtiaq Qureshi (Karachi University), Dr Hamid Ahmed Khan (University of Punjab) and Prof Karrar Hussain (Balochistan University). These are just a few names that suggest the trend that characterised academic excellence and visionary leadership.

A second phase started when political parties started intervening in university affairs. Since the process of selection for vice chancellors was straightforward, there was ample room for discretion. Political parties, during their eras in power, tried to bring politics into even the appointment of vice chancellors. In Pakistan, prior to the Ziaul Haq regime, universities were considered nurseries for politics. Student unions were very active and the student community was politically conscious and acted as a pressure group in the process of important national decisions. It was during this phase that the position of the vice chancellor became important for political parties and some controversial decisions were made in this regard.

The third phase started with the expansion of the industry, when business organisations started operating along a new model where managerial skills replaced scholarship. The corporate model was so powerful that it impacted the notion of educational leadership as well. The advent of corporate culture held two direct implications for universities: first, universities were considered corporate units and second, managerial skills were considered the prime quality of a vice chancellor.

There were many implications of this preference, one direct outcome being the experiment to bring in vice chancellors from the army. The underlying assumption was that they had managerial skills, and could take care of any discipline-related problem. The result was that a number of universities were led by ex-army officers. This view of educational leadership was biased in favour of management rather than the leadership that emerges from scholarship.

It is important here to recognise the distinction between a leader and a manager. The manager is usually confined to a given job and his/her whole intention is to get things done; the leader, on the other hand, is equally sensitive to the people and the product — the leader inspires, energises and empowers people and provides space for individual creativity.

The fourth phase in educational leadership emerged when the Higher Education Commission (HEC) tried to streamline the process of the selection of vice chancellors. The apparent aim was to minimise the role of discretion and rely on the collective wisdom of search committees rather than on the whims of an individual. But the assumption that the vice chancellor’s main job is to manage still hovers over the perceptions of decision-makers.

An example is an advertisement that appeared last month for the position of vice chancellor: in the eligibility criteria, among other points, it mentioned that the candidate “should have PhD degree, preferably in management sciences, from a reputed foreign university”. The emphasis on management sciences here reflects our obsession with the management paradigm. The other important point is that locally awarded PhD degrees are discredited. However, since this is an evolving process, I am sure that the HEC will further refine the criteria.

The good thing about the proposed criteria for the selection of vice chancellors, however, is the set of comprehensive procedures laid down carefully by the HEC. These procedures include the evaluation of candidates’ applications on different counts. The short-listed candidates are then to be interviewed by the search committee and three names, in order of merit, are to be sent to the chancellor.

In the recent past the chancellor has respected the collected wisdom of the search committee and appointed the number one candidate, for example at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Karakoram University and Hazara University. The case of the Allama Iqbal Open University, however, has been pending for unknown reasons; I am sure that merit will prevail in the end.

There are some further measures, though, that can be taken while selecting vice chancellors: (a) scholarship or academic excellence should be given priority and managerial skills should be considered necessary complementary skills; (b) the preference for a PhD degree should not be confined to management sciences; (c) Locally awarded PhD degrees should be treated at par; (d) the search committee should be given the mandate to go beyond advertisements and identify suitable candidates; (e) the maximum duration for the vice chancellor’s position should be two terms, and (f) the use of discretion should be minimised at all levels.

Further fine-tuning of the procedures will ensure the induction of true educational leaders in our universities, who are able to share an inspiring vision, create an enabling environment, motivate and empower the faculty and generate spaces for the construction of knowledge.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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