Insights Blog

Finding the narrative: a key to leading a university

Finding the narrative: a key to leading a university

22 February 2013, by Prof Warren Bebbington

Warren Bebbington is Vice Chancellor and President, University of Adelaide.





In most organisations, CEOs soon learn there is a common core of rather mundane skills they need--setting objectives, leading staff, engaging stakeholders, managing resources. But in universities there is a more powerful quality presidents can develop as a core of their work, one quite different from the skills generic to business leadership. In place of satisfying the shareholders with profits they can share, a university president can inspire staff, students and the community alike with something they can believe in--the university's noble history, character and values.

Put simply, the successful university president becomes a teller of tales. By reaching into stories of the lives of the university's founders, its early ambitions, major successes and aspirations, the president can construct an heroic narrative, which he can then tell again and again in speeches, presentations and publications. At its most inspirational, this narrative can ennoble the strategic plan, lift staff morale, enliven marketing materials, animate representations to government, and stimulate the case for philanthropic support. It can set staff aflame, animate students, and reawaken alumni passion in a way the advertising of a commercial product seldom does with a market.

At the University of Adelaide when I arrived in mid 2012, the preoccupation was with modernising the campus, expanding student load, and lifting research performance: "Becoming a Great Research University" had been the title of the previous 5-year Strategic Plan. It seemed to me this 140-year-old institution had forgotten its history. It had been worn down in a race to become like any other research-intensive campus, pitting itself hopelessly against larger, better-resourced universities. Staff morale was stagnant, and despite being the city's original university, it seemed to have lost ground to its younger rivals in the public mind.

Dipping into the university archives, I was therefore stunned to learn that in the 1870s the University had been at the forefront of international higher education. It had been 40 years ahead of other English-speaking universities in admitting women to degrees, years before other British Commonwealth universities it had abandoned the ancient classical curriculum of Oxford for laboratory sciences, and it had produced two Nobel prizewinners in its first four decades. What could possibly have been the cause of such rapid success? Poring over the history, eventually it became clear: the University had benefited from a visionary founder, its first Vice Chancellor, one of Adelaide's pioneers, Dr Augustus Short.

The more I read the more excited I became: here was an heroic narrative of the first order. A brilliant Oxford don, Short had taught at Christ Church College in the 1830s, producing from his students a staggering succession of world leaders: Governors-General of India and Canada, British parliamentarians, and most notably W.E. Gladstone, longest serving British Prime Minister. Coming to Australia as first Anglican Bishop of Adelaide in 1847, he campaigned for 20 years to establish a university, finally pouncing on a Scottish donor, one who was intent on doing no more than assisting a religious college, to secure the founding endowment for an innovative, secular university. Once in place, Short recruited professors internationally, threw open scholarship enrolment to any citizen of the colony, and pursued the latest in curricular innovation. Happily, his enlightened and humane vision for the campus reflected the progressive values of South Australia itself, first Australian settlement founded as a free community rather than as a penal colony. No wonder the university came so quickly to prominence. "There were giants in the lands in those days," wrote Gladstone of Short on his death. Clearly, I had found the hero for my narrative.

In discussing a new Strategic Plan, therefore, I took staff back to the vision of their founder, traced his shadow in the present shape of the university program and character, and challenged staff to recapture the boldness of the university's dazzling first era. The new Plan, called Beacon of Enlightenment after the University's motto Sub Cruce Lumen (Light under the [Southern] Cross), set out to capture a sense of the light of learning, shining against the dark southern skies, illuminating new discoveries, and bringing enlightenment to southern Australia. The Plan promised an end to continual growth, and pledged a return to the focus on individual discovery and small-group learning which characterised the Humboldtian model Short had espoused: every student in every year of every program would experience "small group discovery." The launch captured wide attention, and was favourably reviewed in both national and some parts of the international education media.

Far from making us the same as any other university, the narrative made plain we were completely unique. Staff are now abuzz, workshopping how to make the Plan operational for students entering in 2014. We have now set about animating the alumni with the same sense of their alma mater's heritage and excitement as a prelude to asking for their financial support, and we are now confidently plotting ways of recapturing the focussed international research distinction we once had in abundance.

And for the wider community, in mid 2013 a new brand campaign will be launched, refreshing the look and feel of the university in the light of its story, inviting potential students to come and seek the light of discovery and innovative learning Adelaide has always stood for. Short's portrait and his vision will permeate out new web site, our print materials and advertising campaign.

So a university president may be many generic things--an organisational leader, a strategic planner, and a resource manager. But a president also has an opportunity distinctive to universities: to become storyteller, a constant advocate of belief in the institution's noble past, its aspirational present, and its inspiring future.

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February 23rd, 2013 at 6:11am
Giles Pickford
I am excited about the new Vice-Chancellors. There is a group of recent appointments which is going to transform Higher Education.

I wish them well. There is no more important job than theirs.
March 1st, 2013 at 10:24pm
Dr Michael Fischer, University of Oxford
Warren Bebbington's leadership narrative resonates with much of our work on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme, here at Said Business School:
In our research into the development of executive leadership, we find leaders' abilities to re-animate their own and others' values-based principles of public service is a key 'mobiliser' for effective strategic leadership. Drawing upon rich narratives such as founders' vision can be a powerful means of re-invigorating the 'inner life' of tertiary education organisations.
September 26th, 2013 at 11:06pm
I worked with you briefly at Melbourne, which sorely needs to step off the treadmill of expansion (always new overlapping institutes and buildings), topping the rankings, and justifying special attention for itself in funding rounds, ARC schemes, etc. It is no longer a fun place to work and it dominated by the medical sciences. What can we do?
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