The turning point in Tim Wilson’s career came when he received a phone call from a newly appointed university president asking for help with a struggling institution. Wilson, whose previous experience with academia was on the corporate level, couldn’t resist the challenge. The project was a success, and he has subsequently served in a number of deputy vice chancellor (vice president) positions in the U.K. Since 2003, Wilson has served as vice chancellor (president) and chief executive officer of the University of Hertfordshire, located just north of London. Throughout his higher education career, Wilson has lived by what he considers the three most important words in leadership and management: “please,” “thank you,” and “sorry.” He claims it is the consistent use of those three words “that generates commitment to your vision.” To move to the top of the career ladder in higher education, Wilson offers the following tips.
Obtain Your Doctoral Degree. A doctoral degree is a prerequisite for leading any major university. Your doctoral qualifications ensure your credibility with the faculty, and to be successful, any university leader must gain the respect of faculty. You can also use your doctoral program as an opportunity to gain a broad knowledge of the operational and strategic dimensions of universities, the different aspects of university life, and what leadership styles are most successful.
Learn Effective Leadership Styles in Higher Education, and Publish Your Findings. You must understand how higher education institutions work. One way to gain that knowledge is through your doctorate work. For my doctoral thesis, I conducted an analysis of the effectiveness of community colleges in preparing students for four-year institutions. I also used the Knowledge Area Modules (KAMs) in my doctoral program to look at the changing profiles of research universities and pedagogic developments in different disciplines. The whole idea is to obtain a wide knowledge of the higher education business, preferably from different universities. Then you can take your findings and publish them in a higher education management or research journal.
Market Yourself. Enhance your reputation by serving on national committees and boards based on either your subject area expertise or university management experience. It is important to demonstrate that you can operate successfully on the highest level. When hiring a university president—or a chief executive officer, as we call them here in the U.K.—appointment panels look for individuals who have led committees and who are highly regarded by their peers.
Establish a Track Record of Successful Change Management. If you can’t lead change, you won’t survive in university management. Higher education is a highly volatile world in which students now view their university career as a contract that ensures they will be prepared for the world of work upon graduation. The influence of political and business interests on a university is greater than ever. You have to operate with many different groups and build consensus, effecting change with each audience through their commitment.
Understand Your Role in the Community. The higher education environment is dramatically different than it was 10 years ago or will be 10 years from now. The university’s role in society is changing. A university is part of the community infrastructure and has the ability to support economic development in a positive way. Five years ago, our university adopted a new strategy as a business-facing university. We have aligned the university with local, high-technology- and knowledge-based companies to ensure we are producing talented students with high-level skills, developing their ability to find and use knowledge with business enterprises in the region. I believe this is a model that many universities will adopt during the next decade.
Watch and read Dr. Tim Wilson's 2009 Vice-Chancellor's Lecture, “Digital, Green, and Healthy: Universities Meeting Society's Challenges.”