Opinion News
April 18,2015

In search of a vice-chancellor

Dr Javaid Laghari
The Punjab government recently advertised for the position of vice chancellor for 10 public universities. With 95 public universities in Pakistan (plus 72 in the private sector) and a VC tenure being four years, the government on average needs to appoint 24 VCs every year.
The eligibility criteria is clearly defined: PhD degree, minimum of 12 years of teaching experience and 15 publications in HEC recognised journals, maximum 65 years of age and administrative and financial management experience in reputed institutes.
The government needs to be given credit for the fact that they have not compromised on the requirement of a PhD degree unlike some of the other provinces, as the only academic qualification that qualifies a professional for a VC (or for that matter a faculty) position is a PhD degree. Also it is essential that the highest degree is complimented with teaching, research and ‘academic’ administrative experience as well. This is the minimum requirement that should be required for the appointment of VCs in the country.
During my tenure as chairperson HEC, I initiated for the first time a two-day orientation programme for all newly appointed VCs every year. During the opening session, I spelt out what it takes to be a good and successful VC: academic leadership; building the administrative team; good governance; financial management; strategic planning; fund raising; building communities; building economies; building leadership; and building institutions.
We also developed a ‘performance criteria for serving VCs’, which was pending final approval of the commission. It required, among other things, how the university had fared during the tenure of the incumbent in terms of global and national ranking, the increase in the number of university research publications, competitive (non-HEC) research grants and contracts won, the number of new PhD faculty employed, and non-HEC funds raised. That is the global yardstick that most university presidents and VCs are evaluated against.
The candidates need to understand that becoming a VC is not just about budgets and perks. It is, if done right, one of the most challenging jobs on earth. SUNY Buffalo, under the tenure of Dr Steven Sample, my former colleague and president, became a top 50 university.
In his bestseller book ‘Contrarian Leadership’, he wrote, “No manner of leader, save possibly a mayor of a large city, deals with as vast and complicated cartography of stakeholders as does the head of a major American research university. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that a university president is called on to be an entertainer, a visionary, a priest, a psychologist, and a CEO of ten or twenty vastly different enterprises gathered under the seal of one university.” Sample subsequently moved on to become president of the University of Southern California (USC), a top 20 university.
So how does one go about selecting academic leadership? First of all, there needs to be transparency and above board merit in the selection process. Members of the interview panel must be world-class professionals who would not bow under any pressure. Second, there should be a marking scheme for the candidates, which should include – among others – the world ranking of the university where the candidate has graduated from, and/or has served, the number and quality (impact factor) of research publications, leadership role in academic institutions of repute, the tangible successes of the candidate in previous positions, and the honours and awards won from professional societies.
Why is it that no university from Pakistan has ever been able to make it to the top 100 universities of the world? It was only during my four year tenure as chairman HEC, and due to certain quality reforms undertaken, including the leadership orientation programmes we had locally as well as with UK universities, and the ranking exercises we initiated at the national level, that for the first time ever, seven universities from Pakistan were ranked among the top 250 universities of Asia in 2013 – from zero in 2009.
It is the individual that makes an institution through his/her team, and it is not about money, age or political patronage as some would make you believe. Dr Thomas Rosenbaum, a distinguished professor, serves as president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which is the world’s number one university – and has been for three consecutive years, of the World University Rankings. It is only 123 years old, and is very small with only 2,200 students (1,000 undergraduates and 1,200 graduates). However, it has 300 top-notch faculty, including five Nobel laureates. It is the recipient of 57 US National Medal of Science and 32 Nobel laureates from among its faculty and alumni.
Similarly, Dr Tony Chan, a former colleague from the National Science Foundation (NSF) USA, serves as president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), which was only recently established in 1991 with a mission to excel, and has now already been ranked number one in Asia for three consecutive years in a row. It also boasts of top-notch faculty of 500, with nine research institutes and 45 interdisciplinary research centres. Likewise, Dr Condoleezza Rice served as provost of Stanford University before being appointed secretary of state, and has since then returned back to her distinguished role as professor. In all such success stories, the president or VC of the university, and his/her team, has the lead role to play in enhancing the reputation of the university.
The league of residents, VCs and similar other senior academic positions, like provosts, professors and chairpersons of HECs, is a distinguished one. They are the only hope upon which the dreams of our youth are built on. Let merit not be compromised in the appointment of such distinguished professionals.
The writer is a former chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

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