It is a measure of quite how far the mighty have fallen that UK Universities may consider learning some lessons from the Catholic Church in how to deal with a crisis. This is now becoming a serious reputational risk.

The pursuit and now resignation of Dame Glynis Breakwell is not about the rate of pay for her job or payments for failure. Instead it’s about expectations of leadership of a university.

Key parts of government and the opposition expected university leaderships to have delivered a more diverse settlement, an increase in cheaper options for both students and business sponsors. Now they are coming after universities leaders to remind them that even independent and autonomous institutions that make unwritten settlement deals with society (See Willets White paper 2011) need to deliver on them. This is a systemic battle and Dame Glynis is the first casualty.

By any measure the University of Bath is a successful institution and her tenure has been a success for the university, the students and the city of Bath. Job done surely?

Whether all the success is down to Dame Glynis or whether the rewards are shared fairly or obtained justifiably is another matter. But her salary (and therefore her head) stood above the parapet. The Higher Education Funding Council for England thought the process of governance of remuneration at Bath was at fault. HEFCE was careful not to pronounce on what a VC should be paid – that is not their remit and won’t be the remit of the new Office for Students, whose Chair Sir Michael Barber is not slow to comment on VC pay and stir the pot on accountability.

But HEFCE’s soft power comment and the transparency of universities was the arrow that dealt a deadly blow. Will this be the new dynamic around the Office for Students – transparency, lists, publishing and the often destructive arrows of public scrutiny or can a new settlement be made?

Setting a single rate for a VC salary would unleash the dogs of hell on every other vice chancellor in the land, and we already have Andrew Adonis for that. Sir Antony Sheldon, VC of Buckingham, made a spirited plea in the press that no Vice Chancellor should be paid more than £350,000 (he is on £150,000). I would not advise any vice chancellor to stand up in the middle of a shopping centre in Stoke or Southampton and try justifying a £350,000 salary as a VC in the current climate.

But why not? It’s a big job. It’s a competitive world. But it not just a job, it’s an office. And with office come expectations and obligations far beyond the letter of a contract or job description. If any vice chancellor, council, board of governors does not understand that they are in trouble.

If aspiring VC’s had attended the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme a decade ago the very first lecture they received on the first day of the first week of a 6 week programme would have told them that being in charge of a university, being a vice chancellor is not just a job, it’s a public office with expectations, obligations, identity, community and emotional attachments. It is the leadership role of a huge organisation so big that a large part of management and leadership has to be to lead by example, to embody institutional values.

I know this because I was the lecturer. My task was to take senior academics, registrars, finance directors, librarians, and anyone thinking of becoming a VC or working closely with one, far out of their comfort zone and help them understand this was not just “the next step up” but a whole different universe that would challenge and tempt them in ways they could barely imagine.

Several participants have come back months and in some cases years later to say the thought had influenced them not to chase for VC jobs but to take the Attenborough option – when Sir David was in the running for Director General of the BBC he decided to stick to what he was good at and loved – natural history programming. And we are all glad he did. Most Vice Chancellors had that choice.

A Vice Chancellor is not just a job and the moment they reach for a copy of their contract, which legally you need to have, the link is likely broken and they should probably leave.
It looks like Dame Glynis reached that understanding but only after a summer of hell which has damaged the one thing money can’t buy – her reputation and the reputation of the university.

Contrast that with the action of Sir Howard Davies, Director at the LSE when the Libyan scandal threatened the reputation of the university. As institutional head he resigned, did not try to defend the publicly indefensible (who ever was responsible) diffused a crisis and the LSE moved on and prospered.

Universities are not the first public institutions to discover that when your reason for existence involves public trust and esteem; that it is more than the bottom line; the shareholders vote or the dictator’s whim then leadership needs to feel and look the part as well as be able to cope with the day job of chairing, convening, appointing, awarding, celebrating and steering.

So will Universities, like the monasteries and churches of old who allowed their wealth and opulence to cause offence, now follow the example of the Catholic Church? Will the next generation of university leaders be hair shirt abbots and Vice Chancellors more like Pope Francis, happy to be humble, forsaking the trappings and the wealth of office to walk happily once again among the lecturers and students and be loved and trusted?

The first lesson is to heal the trust. Appointment and remuneration committees take note.

Have your say!

The Office For Students – understanding the new landscape

The Education Studio will be hosting the latest in our series of roundtable discussions on Friday 8th December at Eversheds Sutherland, 1 Wood Street, London EC1 from 09.30 – 12.30.

Presenters include:

Glynne Standfield, Education Partner, Eversheds
Professor Nora Ann Colton, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), University of East London
Neil Stewart, Editorial Director, The Education Studio

We have a limited number of complimentary delegate places available at this event, if you would like to reserve a place please RSVP to