Amanda Goodall


On her book Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars

Cover Interview of December 30, 2009


Universities are among society’s oldest and most respected organizations.  If scholars are so bad administrators, why have universities done so well, often against odds like decreasing funds and more than occasional outside interference?

One might think that managerialists have led a sort of conspiracy against experts and specialists.  Time and time again whilst undertaking my research I was told that academics do not make good managers or leaders.  This opinion, often stated vociferously, came from a number of academics, administrators and those outside universities, including politicians, civil servants and business people.  The president of a powerful US university once said it to me, and I have heard it from individuals who have barely stepped foot in a university.

The opinion has reached folklore proportions.  When I ask for evidence, academics will often tell anecdotal stories about a former department chair.  Among those outside the academy there appears to be a general belief that people clever enough to be academics must lack normal human organizational abilities.

I often respond to these claims by posing a scenario:  imagine that 100 nurses and the same number of lawyers, chefs, advertising executives, engineers, journalists and academics are randomly selected.  Will we find that one group or profession stands out as natural managers?  Is it not more likely that management skills are learned through training and experience?  And that, even if leadership may be somewhat different, the propensity to manage is, approximately, evenly distributed across all professions?

Universities could be accused of being poor at training their faculty in management and leadership.  In research universities, it is usual for departmental heads to rotate every few years, and it is common for a professor to walk—or be dragged—directly into the job with no prior instruction.  But this is a different argument.

So my plea is to bring experts and specialists back into leadership positions in our major public and private institutions.

© 2009 Amanda Goodall