In the academic leadership research, an empirical focus on university leadership encompasses two remarkable strands: (a) the leader’s influence on organizational performance and (b) the changes of leader’s individual characteristics over time. While the bibliography on these topics we present here is not exhaustive, it surely provides a good starting point to “dig deeper” into the research field.
Our attention here is limited to senior officials in a university. Note that the senior university leaders have different titles across countries; their positions may be termed the university president (US), the vice-chancellor (UK), the chancellor (Germany) or the rector (Russia).
First of all, if you are interested in studying university presidents you may start with recent review published by Studies in Higher Education “Changing analytical levels and methods of leadership research on university presidents”. The authors presented the results of a systematic literature review of 111 studies published between 1969 and 2018. The review offers a guiding tool for understanding the scope of empirical research and shares ideas on advancing future research in this area.
How important is leadership for how universities perform?
Studies on the effects of academic leadership on university performance find contradicting results. The president’s influence on university performance was studied in a pioneering paper by Amanda Goodall published in 2006. She analyzed top research universities and found a positive correlation between a leader’s academic achievements—measured by citation count—and the university’s position in an international ranking.
The study of British universities’ key performance indicators (KPIs) and leader’s backgrounds shows somewhat different results than Goodall’s. Breakwell and Tytherleigh found that university leaders’ characteristics and leadership change have no observable influence on university performance. Recent studies on academic leadership conclude that the question is not whether there is a link between leadership and organizational performance, but what type of leaders or under what conditions leaders are in a position to influence university performance.
Baltaru, Roxana-Diana. 2018. “Do Non-Academic Professionals Enhance Universities’ Performance? Reputation vs. Organization.” Studies in Higher Education 44 (7): 1183–96.
Birnbaum, Robert. 1989. “Presidential Succession and Institutional Functioning in Higher Education.” The Journal of Higher Education 60 (2): 123–35.
Cohen, Michael D., and James G. March. 1986. Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Goodall, Amanda H. 2005. “Should Top Universities Be Led by Top Researchers and Are They? A Citations Analysis.” Journal of Documentation 62 (3): 388–411.
Goodall, Amanda H. 2009. “Highly Cited Leaders and the Performance of Research Universities.” Research Policy 38 (7): 1079–92.
Singell Jr, Larry D., and Hui-Hsuan Tang. 2013. “Pomp and Circumstance: University Presidents and the Role of Human Capital in Determining Who Leads US Research Institutions.” Economics of Education Review 32: 219–33.
Gerashchenko, Daria. 2021. “Academic Leadership and University Performance: Do Russian Universities Improve When They are Led by Top Researchers?” Higher Education.
Changing patterns in university leadership
Have new leaders governed the universities? Researchers widely expect that New Public Management has catalyzed significant changes in the presidential leadership, particularly in the professional backgrounds of recent leaders. In particular, management skills are now of at least as much importance as academic reputation. Lars Engwall emphasizes the role of management actors who promote the ideal of strategic leaders: “Universities were in this way receiving the message that omnipotent leaders, preferably from the outside, would be necessary in order to shake up dormant and lethargic academic institutions”.
The key questions are: How are universities responding to these changes regarding who should govern and manage universities? What are the typical career paths for new university leaders? Are new leaders typically external professionals, i.e. those who have not previously worked at a university? How do the individual characteristics of the rectors or presidents relate to the organizational features of the universities?
Badillo-Vega, Rosalba, Georg Krücken, and Pedro Pineda. 2019. “Changing Analytical Levels and Methods of Leadership Research on University Presidents.” Studies in Higher Education 1 (1): 1–13.
Breakwell, Glynis M., and Michelle Y. Tytherleigh. 2008. “UK University Leaders at the Turn of the 21st Century: Changing Patterns in their Socio-Demographic Characteristics.” Higher Education 56 (1): 109–27.
Breakwell, Glynis M., and Michelle Y. Tytherleigh. 2010. “University Leaders and University Performance in the United Kingdom: Is It ‘Who’Leads, or ‘Where’They Lead That Matters Most?” Higher Education 60 (5): 491–506.
Engwall, Lars. 2014. “The Recruitment of University Top Leaders: Politics, Communities and Markets in Interaction.” Scandinavian Journal of Management 30 (3): 332–43.
Engwall, Lars, Charlotta Levay, and Rufus Lidman. 1999. “The Roles of University and College Rectors.” Higher Education Management 11 (2): 75-93.
Mignot-Gérard, Stéphanie. 2010. “Presidents and Deans in French Universities: A Collective Approach to Academic Leadership. In The Changing Dynamics of Higher Education Middle Management, edited by V. Lynn Meek, Leo Goedegebuure, Rui Santiago, and Teresa Carvalho, 119-145. Dordrecht Heidelberg London New York: Springer.
O’Meara, Bernard, and Stanley Petzall. 2005. “Vice Chancellors for the 21st Century? A Study of Contemporary Recruitment and Selection Practices in Australian Universities.” Management Research News 28 (6): 18–35.
Shepherd, Sue. 2018. “Strengthening the University Executive: The Expanding Roles and Remit of Deputy and Pro-Vice-Chancellors.” Higher Education Quarterly 72 (1): 40–50.
Smith, David, Catherine Bargh, Jean Bocock, and Peter Scot. 1999. “New Leaders at the Top? The Educational and Career Paths of UK University Vice-chancellors (1960-1996)”. Higher Education Management 11(2): 113–135.
Huang, Futao. 2017. “Who Leads China’s Leading Universities?” Studies in Higher Education 42 (1): 79–96.
We found that organizational analysis literature could serve as a valuable source of hypotheses for different strands of empirical research on academic leadership. Organizational scientists, in general, believe that institutional leaders are in a strategic position to influence the implementation of organizational goals. Good leaders make organizations more consistent and stable. However, leaders’ potential to influence institutional courses of action can be restricted, and organizational research provides insights on different factors related to the leader’s potential.
Cannella, Albert and Michael Lubatkin. 1993. “Succession as a Sociopolitical Process: Internal Impediments to Outsider Selection.” Academy of Management Journal 36 (4): 763–93.
Finkelstein, Sidney, and Donald Hambrick. 1996. Strategic Leadership: Top Executives and Their Effects on Organizations. Minneapolis: West Publishing Company.
Fligstein, Neil. 1987. “The Intraorganizational Power Struggle: Rise of Finance Personnel to Top Leadership in Large Corporations, 1919-1979.” American Sociological Review 52 (1): 44–58.
Grusky, Oscar. 1960. “Administrative Succession in Formal Organizations.” Social Forces 39 (2): 105–15.
Hambrick, Donald C., and Phyllis A. Mason. 1984. “Upper Echelons: The Organization as a Reflection of Its Top Managers.” Academy of Management Review 9 (2): 193–206.
Helmich, Donald L. 1975. “Succession: A longitudinal look.” Journal of Business Research 3 (4): 355–64.
Kraatz, Matthew, and James Moore. 2002. “Executive Migration and Institutional Change.” Academy of Management Journal 45 (1): 120–43.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey. 1981. Power in Organizations. MA: Pitman Marshfield.
Staw, Barry. 1980. “The Consequences of Turnover.” Journal of Occupational Behaviour 1(4): 253–273.
Zhang, Yan, and Nandini Rajagopalan. 2004. “When the Known Devil is better Than an Unknown God: An Empirical Study of the Antecedents and Consequences of Relay CEO Successions.” Academy of Management Journal 47 (4): 483–500.
Daria Geraschenko is a junior researcher at the Centre for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education, European University at St. Petersburg. In 2019, she received a Master of Arts in Public Policy at Central European University. Her current research focuses on academic leadership and its correspondence with university performance.
Katerina Guba is a lead researcher at the Centre for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education, European University at St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2015, she defended her thesis on the comparative analysis of the journal publishing market in American and Russian sociology. You can follow Katerina on Twitter.