A titular misnomer and a degree of analytic error

Stewart Clegg, University of Technology, Sydney

Amanda H. Goodall Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009 (208 pp). ISBN 9-78069113-800-8 (hard cover) RRP $45.95.

Socrates wrote nothing of which we are directly aware. We know him mostly through the works of Plato. Socrates was an advocate of the dialogical rather than the textual word; for an essentially bibliometric analysis of citations of scholarship by university vice chancellors, principals, presidents, and business school deans, Socrates in the Boardroom, is a title that is singularly ill chosen. The book is not an analysis of the dialogic interventions of powerful people as they attend to the development of their strategies in practice; rather, it is an analysis of the metrics of what vice chancellors have been cited as having written, not that which we do not, and could not know of, except at second hand. Socrates was, if Plato is to be believed, as much of an anti-careerist as one might seek to find: the agora rather than the boardroom was his habitual place, or in more contemporary terms, what one might call ‘the street’. Moreover, in recent times, as the book makes apparent, not so many vice chancellors, principals, presidents, and business school deans have been prepared to take the hemlock rather than compromise themselves when a difficult and ethically challenging decision presented itself. Finally, the boardroom is the last place Socrates would have wanted to be found in, given what we know of his life. In every way the book seems inappropriately titled … and I haven’t even addressed the sub-title yet—but I will.

The book asks a simple research question: ‘is there a relationship between university performance and leadership by an accomplished researcher? The central conclusion, supported by evidence, is that top scholars should lead research universities’ (p. 2). Note that while the first part of the statement is empirical the latter half is normative. Thus, the research moves from analysis to prescription.

The question and subsequent prescription are situated with a specific context: it is

motivated in part by the recent emphasis on ‘managerialism’ in universities and more widely in the public sectors in a number of countries. There has been a suggestion that managers as leaders may be preferable. This book argues that in universities, where the majority of employees are expert workers, having a leader who is also an expert is likely to be beneficial; to the institutions long-term performance. The alternative argument takes the form: what a leader in a university or knowledge based sector needs is primarily high managerial ability allied to merely to some acceptable minimal level of technical ability (p. 3).

More specifically, the advent of managerialism is linked to the politics introduced into the United Kingdom by Prime Ministers Thatcher and Blair, with the suggestion being ‘that the managerial systems introduced and monitored by civil servants have become means in themselves rather than a means to an end’ (p. 10). This is a popular line with which one who has worked in universities in Australia and abroad for 35 years or so can easily agree: as Amanda Goodall says: ‘It is unlikely to be beneficial for universities if the time of scientists and other scholars, whose research is vital to the success of institutions, is diverted towards bureaucratic functions’ (p. 10). For those of us who have experience of reporting research outputs, research proposals, ethics agreements and so on, which is almost all productive researchers working in universities today, sometimes to multiple and incompatible systems, one could not agree more.

Socrates wrote nothing of which we are directly aware.

In scholarly terms the author situates her work as a contribution to the burgeoning leadership literature. She does consider some organisational studies of universities, starting with Michael Cohen and James March’s Leadership and Ambiguity (1974). The book is a contribution that is well known to organisation theorists and students of decision-making. It follows on from their analysis of decision-making in organised anarchies as akin to a garbage can (Cohen, March & Olsen 1972). It is worth considering their argument, which she dismisses in view of what the author claims is the longevity—hundreds of years—of the research university as an institution. This seems to be an extraordinary claim: many universities might like to make it, but it flies in the face of the relatively recent conversion to research as the central mission of universities that was initiated in the United States in the late 19th century, modelled on German institutions and Humboldt’s design (Röhrs 1987). Prior to this time, teaching and the transmission of faith were more important elements in the mission. While ancient universities construct teleologies for themselves, emphasising their contribution to knowledge over many centuries, their histories are, in fact, a series of discontinuities and ruptures. The research university is actually a very recent form. That important research takes place within the university itself is, of course, a moot point. Would Karl Marx have made it onto the faculty? Thorstein Veblen famously did not. C. Wright Mills, a research star if ever there was one, was ambivalent about Columbia and Columbia about him, despite his being housed in its hallowed corridors.

Cohen, March and Olsen (1972) and Cohen and Johan Olsen (1974) are less concerned with the structure of the university as an organisation and more concerned with the processes that go on in it; hence, Goodall’s criticism of the relevance of their analysis misses the mark. The main point that these authors make is that, in practice, decision-making does not accord with rational decision-making criteria. They develop the notion of the garbage can. It follows in the tradition of Herbert Simon, who was a long-time collaborator of Jim March. The research sought to understand what happened in the decision-making process. Their premise was that many organisations are chaotic with loosely defined procedures for making strategic decisions—or are ‘organised anarchies’ to use their terminology. Instead of a linear decision-making process being followed—whereby a problem was identified, a set of alternatives were proposed and then analysed, before a decision was made—what they found was that decision-making was less linear and more random.

The garbage can is a metaphor which seeks to capture the image of problems, solutions, opportunities and busy decision-makers as being adjacent to each other more or less at random. The central premise of the garbage can is that specific decisions are not the outcome of an orderly process but, rather, are the outcome of several comparatively independent streams of events within the organisation. A decision gets made when solutions, problems, participants, and choices flow around and coincide at a certain point. Like garbage in a can, these adjacencies are often purely random. As we shall see, in view of some of Goodall’s findings, it would have been as well to have addressed this literature a little more carefully. I shall return to this point.

The close of the first chapter provides a brief guide to the rest of the book. The argument is engaged in the next chapter, which is a masterly exercise in statistical empiricism. The data dealt with is largely bibliometric, drawn and sorted from the Institute of Science Information Web of Knowledge data base so as to ‘clean’ the data set in order to remove the troubling problem of actually being able to attribute, for instance, Jane Smith’s citations to the Jane Smith in question. There is a sound discussion of the pitfalls involved in using citation data and university rankings.

Would Karl Marx have made it onto the faculty?

Now is the time to address an initial methodological issue. If the research question is whether there is a relationship between university performance and leadership by an accomplished researcher, then looking at the top 100 universities (according to the Jiao Tong index) will hardly answer such a question. As Goodall states (p. 32), 98 of the top universities in the world had in fact appointed a top scholar to the job of academic leader (vice chancellor, principal, president etc; the nomenclature varies with place). If there is little or no variance in the data that is significant in terms of the research question, whatever answer is provided will explain very little. The analysis of the data suggests that the more prestigious the university the more likely it is that that the president (the generic term used) will be more widely cited. A number of statistical tests establish the significance of the findings. Among distinguished scholars, the most distinguished run the top places.

Of course, the notion of being distinguished is only addressed in terms of comparative worth of presidents; it is not a judgement made in relation to the peer group in disciplinary terms. To have done this would have been worthwhile: it would answer a number of questions that are not directly posed, such as how distinguished these presidents are in terms of the norms of their discipline (which is, actually, the only meaningful measure of comparative worth). The rankings that are achieved through the statistics are based upon citation data normalised as citation scores by dividing the President’s lifetime citation score with their subject score, in order to even out the different probability of citation of say, poetry and physic professors. On this basis it is established that the most prestigious universities have the most highly cited presidents in terms of the regression analysis. The relationship is robust for the 51 per cent of the sample drawn from the United States but not for the non-US sample. US presidents are twice as cited as those in the rest of the world. The relationship is there, but in a weak form, and at a lower level of citation, for the UK sample. In this chapter there is no explanation of why these findings hold: the possibility that the data might be telling us more about the nature of those journals sampled in the Institute of Science Information Web of Knowledge, their national origin, and the probability of being published in them depending on graduate school, country of residence, and so on, is not really addressed.

The third chapter of the book looks at the data for business schools, in one of which I work. Here the rankings used are the Financial Times Global MBA Rankings 2001 of the top 100 schools as measured by the indicators deemed significant by the Financial Times. (Only two Australian B-schools make this list: Melbourne Business School at 63 and the Australian Graduate School of Management at 84.) Interestingly, these lists are not generated on the basis of research excellence, scholarly merit or publication data: most of the ranking, as befits the Financial Times, is allocated to the salary of graduates, with only 20 per cent being attributed to a rough indicator of research quality (5 per cent for faculty PhD density; 5 per cent for graduate outcomes for Doctoral students in terms of gaining positions at the top 50 business schools in the FT list; with 10 per cent weight for the number of articles that appear in a very restricted range of 40 journals, largely oriented towards finance and economics: see Free, Salterio & Shearer 2009.

There is no explanation of why these findings hold.

Only four (according to p. 49) or three (according to p. 51) of these top 100 deans are highly cited but, on a binary basis, splitting the top 100 into the top and bottom halves respectively, those in the top 50 have a higher average number of citations than those in the bottom 50 at a conventional level of statistical significance. US deans are more highly cited than non-US deans. There is no statistically significant relationship for the deans in the non-US data when these are abstracted but there is for the UK sub-sample of fourteen.

In chapter four, the 2001 RAE rankings of 55 UK universities are regressed on the leader characteristics in terms of lifetime citations of those who were in charge of the universities in 1992 and 1996. Again, normalised data is used. (Interestingly, Anthony Giddens’ tenure at the London School of Economics distorts the figures because of Giddens’ status as a citation outlier—few scholars are as widely cited as he is.) The findings are that the more highly cited the vice chancellor the better the institution performs in the RAE.

Why should the regression equations in chapter four be as they are? This question is addressed in chapter five which uses qualitative data drawn from 32 semi-structured qualitative interviews with leaders to try and address how and why scholar-leaders improve performance: the answer is couched in terms of credibility, expert knowledge, standard bearing, and legitimation signals. Interestingly, in marked contrast to the caution and controls used in the analysis of the statistical data, the author seems to relax all standards of analysis when dealing with qualitative data. The data is taken for granted and treated as self evident. There is simple verbatim reportage of what respondents say. No analysis is provided nor are we aware of the questions asked—which can always bias the answers given. The analysis would have been more compelling if the same care and attention that was paid to the quantitative artefacts had been applied to the qualitative artefacts. Perhaps some frequency accounts of themes, a little discourse analysis of the dominant narratives used, might have been expected. Instead we have literal reportage. To take things for granted is not the hallmark of good science.

On the basis of the literal analysis of what a sample of 26 vice chancellors say, four explanatory categories are constructed. These are categories in search of theory. The categories are credibility, expert knowledge, standard bearing and signalling. All of these terms may be regarded as dimensions of legitimacy and legitimacy has had a particular theoretical role to play in organisation theories for the past 30 years. The theory I have in mind is called institutional theory.

The histories of organisation studies position few works as citation classics but DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) ‘The Iron Cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields’ is undoubtedly one such paper. The paper considered how rational myths lodged in institutional settings shape organisational action to the extent that they can secure semblances of organisational legitimacy in order to capture resources and mobilise support. These authors focused on mechanisms of organisational change through institutional isomorphism. Institutional isomorphism has become, perhaps, the key concept for much mainstream organisation studies work of the past decade. Three ideal type mechanism of organisational change by institutional isomorphism have been sketched: coercive (when external agencies impose changes on organisations—most obviously through practices of state regulation—such as the RAE or ERA), normative (when professionalisation projects shape entire occupational fields—the Humboldt inspired reforms of 19th century US universities) and mimetic mechanisms (essentially the copying of what is constituted as culturally valuable ways of doing or arranging things—cultural capital—as when managerialism becomes fashionable.

The case study is an almost perfect fit with the garbage can thesis.

Pamela Tolbert and Lynne Zucker (1983, p. 25) suggested three indicators of institutionalised practices: they are widely followed, without debate, and exhibit permanence. The idea that captured the imagination of institutional theorists was that organisations are influenced by their institutional context, that is, by widespread social understandings (rationalised myths) that define what it means to be rational. John Meyer and Brian Rowan (1983, p. 84) referred to the institutional context as ‘the rules, norms, and ideologies of the wider society’. Zucker (1983, p. 105) looked to ‘common understandings of what is appropriate and, fundamentally, meaningful behaviour’. The underlying focus of these institutional theorists, in short, was the role of shared meanings, institutional processes (such as cultural prescriptions, see Zucker 1977) and institutional conformity.

From the perspective of institutional theory one should be more sceptical with respect to the accounts given by the 26 leaders interviewed. Rather than treat them as reports on an apparent reality, would one not anticipate that what one was hearing were the rationalised myths institutionalised in the highest ranks of academia? And, if that were the case, then wouldn’t one then have a causal mechanism to explain the results uncovered thus far? That is, that these myths are more deeply institutionalised in the United States than elsewhere, although, due to same language transmission, they are becoming institutionalised in the United Kingdom. The author appears to be no more aware of the existence of institutional theory than she is of the need to be critical in the use of qualitative research methods such as interviews (Silverman 2007). Interview statements need to be seen less as an index of some internal mental state of affairs or reports of external reality and more as expressions of vocabularies and grammars of motive that are socially ascribed. That ‘there was consensus amongst those that came from a traditional academic background that business people or politicians usually do not make appropriate university leaders’(p. 104) may be telling more than is said.

Chapter six also would have benefited from wider reading. Goodall addresses the question of whether there is evidence that leaders may be partially chosen because they differ markedly from their predecessors thus creating an alternating leader cycle (p. 106). She finds, on the basis of data on 157 UK university heads, that this is the case. She suggests that ‘ideas on alternating leaders do not appear to have been scrutinized empirically’ (p. 106) and that ‘the possibility of a pendulum effect has gone largely unreported in the academic literature’ (p. 107). Not so.

The hypothesis of alternating leadership is well known to political sociologists. Machiavelli asserted that a prince must imitate the lion and the fox. For Pareto, these two metaphors reflect tendencies within society as well as among individuals. The type of the lion reflects an aggressive, power seeking way of creating new groupings and institutions. The fox type, by contrast, favours conserving the status quo. Lions rely on forcefulness while foxes are cunning and crafty. In business, entrepreneurial speculators are lions, out for conquest in high-risk adventures; rentiers are foxes, risk-averse and content with incremental but sure gains. Politically, the metaphor of the lion accounts for liberal tendencies, that of the fox for conservative tendencies. In academic terms the lions would be the high citation counts, while the foxes would be lower count, more bureaucratic and cautious, types.

We do not know if these presidents were elite members of their disciplines.

The sixth chapter sits somewhat uneasily in the book as a whole. On the one hand the alternating leadership hypothesis is confirmed by the data but its confirmation is not taken as a refutation of the guiding thesis of the book that there is a positive relationship between university performance and leadership by an accomplished researcher. I do not see how one can have it both ways. If there is a pendulum effect, and it is significant, and Goodall finds that there is, then it would seem to undercut her overarching thesis.

In this chapter Goodall also provides a case study of the appointment of a vice chancellor in a British university. Here the sageness of the ‘organised anarchies’ perspective of Cohen and March, which was summarily dismissed early in the book, may be adduced. The case study is an almost perfect fit with the garbage can thesis: there was ambiguity aplenty about the person specifications; there was disagreement among participants about whether there was agreement among the members of the committee; the second choice candidate differed markedly from the specifications of the first favoured candidate (a fox versus a lion), and the head hunters had a key role to play as participants throughout the process, while the engagement of other stakeholders was more a matter of random participation. As Goodall states ‘the evidence suggest that the selection committee chose a leader in a somewhat arbitrary fashion, as opposed to making a choice that fit with a predetermined strategy’ (p. 119). Sounds pretty much like a garbage can model to me.

The seventh chapter seeks to broaden the thesis of the book to professional in sport and the arts and adds little of value to what has gone before.

The conclusions could not be clearer: they are trumpeted at the start of the concluding chapter eight. ‘Research universities should be led by brilliant scholars, not merely talented managers’ (p. 136). Well, perhaps they should, but, as the author advises us near the outset, of the 100 universities she looks at in the main sample 98 of them already are run by ‘top scholars’. The scourge of managerialism seems remote if it is assumed that it will only occur when dedicated managers who are non-scholars are in position to implement it. (Which experience suggests it does not. Scholars can be as managerialist in their management as non-scholars.) The normative conclusion, while it might be true, cannot readily be derived from the analysis of the data presented. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

First, the sample did not bifurcate on the scholar/non-scholar axis. Doubtless if it had the relations would have been more strongly associated—but a correlation is not a cause and the causal argument is not well made, given the lack of analysis of the data taken as offering an explanation. The data that supports this finding is both disconnected from the wider statistical study and is effectively unanalysed: it is presented as reportage. Second, although there is a clear relation between the very top and slightly lower ranked universities—but still elite—at least in the United States and the citations of their presidents, the differences are fairly small and the relationship between the normalised scores of the presidents and others in their field are not known; hence it is difficult to draw the conclusions that are drawn. We do not know if these presidents, irrespective of their scores, were elite members of their disciplines, which is surely the relevant point of comparison. It may well be that they were regarded as competent foot soldiers or flat-footed mediocrities before they took the managerial turn and were propelled into the Senatus Academicus as primes inter pares. Third, there is no convincing theoretical explanation of the patterns found in the data, although, as I have suggested, there is an appropriate theory available. Fourth, given that the alternating leadership hypothesis (for which there is an available Paretian theory that is not addressed) is found to hold, does this not act as a refutation of the overarching thesis?

Leadership in the presidential suite cannot and does not steer the university alone.

Various readers are suggested for the volume: social science researchers in management, policy makers, professors, chairs of boards of university governors, head hunters and recruiters, and chairs of research councils. To all of them I would advise a careful reading: Socrates may be in the boardroom but his spirit is not to be found in this book. Rather than a careful and thorough dialogical interrogation of the evidence we have a good example of statistically defined empiricism, a cavalier attitude to qualitative data, a degree of indifference to contradictions in the research findings reported, and a relative neglect of existing theories of organisation and management that might have been useful, such as the garbage can model, institutional theory, and the Pareto-inspired stream of research in political sociology.

That research universities should be led by brilliant scholars, not merely talented managers, is a case not proven. What we can establish is that top universities employ more cited scholars, sometimes, and that often they choose less cited ones as their successors, and then choose more cited ones as the successors of these people; we do not know how brilliant these scholars are from the fact that when they are in positions in higher status institutions they are more cited, because we do not have a point of comparison between these scholars and their disciplinary peers. Nor is managerialism a trait that infects only those who have not been immunised by scholarly citations any more than scholarly citations make one immune from it. The whole institutional context of funding models, regulatory environments, shifting patterns of international trade in student enrolments contingent on untoward events, etcetera, all need to be considered. To take one variable, the number of citations that a university leader has, and lag that as a casual mechanism that predicts performance measure in rankings that are themselves socially constructed, is empiricism of a breathtaking naivety. Leaders may make a difference—but they do so in complexly negotiated and socially constructed contexts in which to emphasise singular variables causing determinate effects over a period of some years is hardly tenable. It is certainly not Socratic to see such a simple solution to the intellectual puzzle posed.

At my editor’s insistence, I will allow a personal note to intrude: I have worked in quite a few universities, in several countries, over number of years, under diverse leaderships. The experiences have been mixed and being in the better university has not necessarily meant better leadership. What I draw from my variegated experiences is a sense that leadership in the presidential suite cannot and does not steer the university alone. Where it makes a difference it is through instilling firm policies for hiring, tenure, and promotion in which it is made clear that only excellence can be an acceptable basis for progress. In my experience, sadly, such excellence is of diminishing importance in the contemporary university. In one’s bleaker moments one sometimes sees preferment occur that is based on only modest managerial success, if even that, and even more modest scholarship, articulated with a demeanour that could shame Anthony Trollope’s (1953) Mr. Slope, irrespective of the qualities of the remote leaders in their chancelleries. And the modern university produces ever more remote chancelleries as the demands for accountability increase from all quarters of the operating environment, requiring more specialists in the division of labour to monitor and report, and more centralisation as a result of their increased reporting. As organisations grow in size organisational contingency theorists suggest that they tend to become more bureaucratically formalised, routinised, specialised and centralised, and universities, on the whole, seem to be no exception (Pugh & Hickson 1976).

Occasionally, where extremely interventionist leaders and their deputies made a point of sitting in on all committees that appoint, tenure and promote, ensuring that no soft deals are done, that no politically expedient wheeling and dealing occurs, that nothing other than excellence weighs in the balance as it is measured by those who know about these things, leadership makes a difference. On the whole, scholars who understand the subtle signs that signify a life lived thus, a life of scholarship as a vocation, as Max Weber (1947) referred to it, who are, perhaps, more likely to have achieved their careers in better universities—but not necessarily with better leaders—can make such a case more plausibly. The message that research universities should be led by brilliant scholars, not merely talented managers, is likely to be received with enthusiasm by good academics everywhere, but one would trust that good academics do not suspend their critical acumen in interpreting the evidence on which the message is based. The book has been widely discussed but it should be handled with caution. The evidence is interesting and deserves wide discussion but it does not wholly support the conclusions drawn.


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Stewart Clegg is Research Professor and Director of the Centre for Management and Organisation Studies Research at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is the author and editor of many books, including the recent volumes The SAGE Handbook of Power (with Mark Haugaard, Sage, 2009), The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Behaviour: Vol. II Macro Approaches (with Cary Cooper, Sage, 2009), SAGE Directions in Organization Studies (Volumes IIV, Sage 2010), Time in Organizational Research: Approaches and Methods (with Robert Roe and Mary Waller, Routledge, 2008) and A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Strategy (with Chris Carter and Martin Kornberger, Sage, 2008).

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