How to create diversity in academic leadership recruitment

Elizabeth James offers a spotlight on research profiles and issues in recruiting diverse leadership candidates

The subject of diverse representation across academic disciplines from both a student and staff perspective is not going away.  While various schemes and projects (most particularly Athena SWAN) have had a significant impact in delivering attitudinal and operational change, there is recognition that the journey is ongoing and there can be no complacency. 

This is further amplified by the contemporary debate on issues surrounding the role of institutions, including no-platforming of speakers, safe spaces and trigger warnings.  Just recently, Priyamvada Gopal’s coverage of her experience as a BAME academic has brought sharp attention to what may be viewed as structural inequalities at the heart of the UK university system

There is scope to think differently and, perhaps, reconsidering expectations regarding a research profile in certain leadership positions could help

The extent to which a more diverse cohort of the brightest and best staff can be attracted is critical to ensuring UK universities can maintain their international position. As universities seek to appoint leaders in both research and broader academic positions, there are a number of “pinch-points” in the hierarchy of a typical institution, yet there is scope to look at things slightly differently in order to open up the talent pipeline.   

One such role is that of the head of school. Positions at this level are often cited as being the most difficult to fulfil, owing to the need for them to be a bridge between strategy and delivery while also maintaining a research profile and having ongoing student interaction. 

Regardless of discipline, when approaching well-qualified individuals for posts at this level, the response is often that they do not wish to progress this route as the impact upon their research will be too great. Clearly, some prospective candidates are at a stage where they are sufficiently well-established to be confident in applying, but for others, the additional workload (and professional accolades) versus salary and profile considerations do not add up to a risk that they wish to take. 

A question often asked is about the necessity of a strong research profile at this level.  The leadership credentials demanded of heads of schools can be gained in environments that are not necessarily research-focused and while “credibility” is often cited as the driver, the scale and breadth of academic provision globally mean that it is less of a ‘must-have’ than in the past. The extent to which someone who does not have a chair title can line-manage those that do is a consideration, but this is perhaps a question of culture and personal presence rather.

Yet, there are circumstances where this is not the case. If, for example, a school, or even a whole institution, is seeking to intensify their research focus, then research talent and track record are more of a priority than they would be in a well-established research environment.  But even then, the growing importance of knowledge exchange activities invites consideration of individuals who have research outputs that are not defined by grant income and peer-reviewed publications.

Clearly, there is no panacea to ensuring that diverse representation happens overnight but surely there is scope to think differently and, perhaps, reconsidering expectations regarding a research profile in certain leadership positions could help.

Elizabeth James is an academic appointment specialist and Head of the Higher Education practice at Berwick Partners.

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