Nurturing Clever People Builds Great Universities

Oxford University

If we try to conjure up an image in our minds of a distinguished university, we will almost certainly imagine something that looks either like a two thousand-year-old Greek temple with sturdy Doric columns or perhaps like an ornate baroque masterpiece of architecture from the 17th or 18th centuries. We might also imagine hidden cloisters and quadrangles with neatly mown lawns where monks might have roamed centuries ago hidden from public view, but where there will now be academics and students pondering the great mysteries of life and the universe. Such images might suggest to us that it is the nature of the buildings and the campus environment that define a great university. Certainly, many great universities do have impressive looking campuses which give an impression of gravitas and tradition. But the reality in the twenty-first century is that many outstanding universities are fabricated from reinforced concrete and plate glass. Great contemporary universities are defined by what they achieve, not by how they look or how old they are, and what they achieve depends on their people. The only thing that distinguishes one university from another in regard to global recognition is the quality of its staff and what they collectively achieve in terms of firstly preparing their students with the knowledge and skills to become highly employable and secondly in undertaking research to solve the pressing challenges that face humanity.

As a former university Vice-Chancellor, it was always top of my priority list to recruit excellent staff. In leading a university, I knew that with the right staff everything else would fall into place and our goals as an institution would almost certainly be achieved.

But recruiting excellent staff is only part of the challenge in making a university great. The other part, is ensuring that they are retained and that they achieve amazing things in their daily efforts. This comes down to a matter of ensuring good career progression opportunities for staff and ensuring that they are managed effectively. This explains why I am passionate about career planning and progression in academia and effective management of staff to help them achieve their best. Having spent a quarter of a century in senior management and leadership in higher education in both the UK and Malaysia, I came to understand quite a lot about both topics, which prompted me to write two books for Sunway University Press reflecting my experience and some lessons learned, namely: Getting Promoted in Academia and Managing Effectively in Academia. The two books are aimed at slightly different audiences. One is for individual academics who aspire to climb the academic career ladder; the other is for those academics entrusted to supervise their colleagues, perhaps as heads of research centres, department heads, or deans of faculties, and to help them do their jobs better.

My desire to write these books was mainly motivated by two key observations. Firstly, most academics find themselves so engrossed in their day-to-day activities of teaching and research that they rarely stop and think about their own long-term career aspirations and how they might get there; career planning is often the last thing on their mind. Secondly, many academics promoted into leadership positions in universities have no training in management and have little understanding of how best to manage and motivate the teams of people for whom they take responsibility. Both of these observations led me to believe that with the right guidance given both to the academics and to the academic managers an institution would become a more enjoyable place in which to work, as well as an organisation that would excel in its core missions of teaching and research. My books were therefore written to support this objective.

Getting Promoted in Academia aims to nudge academics into thinking about their careers and into taking steps to maximise their opportunities for career progression. This includes looking at how to impress in teaching and research and, most importantly, how to establish a personal brand as a leading academic. Fundamentally, becoming a leading academic is all about diligence as an exceptional teacher or researcher, having great ideas, and building a strong reputation in one’s field —or “getting famous” as one colleague once put it. Not everyone can get famous, but following sensible advice and thinking about career progression and behaving in ways that meet institutional objectives certainly help in reaching one’s full potential.

Managing Effectively in Academia, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of motivating staff through facilitation and mentoring activity, and being seen as a coach not as a boss. In my experience, most academic managers who fail in their roles do so because of trying to be too boss-like rather than facilitators.  When you are managing a team of highly intelligent people, some of whom may even be world class experts in their fields, careful management is required and especially the use of emotional intelligence. Managing effectively in academia is not so different to managing effectively in any other field of human endeavour, but those being managed are rather special people who need very sensitive nurturing, especially when they might have great wisdom themselves. Being an academic manager is a privilege and an enjoyable one at that, if undertaken well. Hopefully the book will help academic managers achieve the best for their staff and their institutions. Ultimately, it is the efforts made to nurture the careers of outstanding academics that creates an excellent university whether that university is eight hundred years-old or eight years-old.


Graeme Wilkinson

Professor Graeme Wilkinson is a Pro-Chancellor and Emeritus Professor at the University. He graduated from Imperial College London and Oxford University. He worked as a Head of School, Dean of Faculty, and Pro Vice-Chancellor in universities in the UK before joining Sunway University. His books on higher education reflect the experiences gained from his past senior management roles.