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Vice chancellors wanted

The future of higher education in the Punjab is at stake. Let us not use a flawed process for a wrong choice while looking for vice chancellors

Vice chancellors wanted

Punjab is currently at a critical juncture in terms of education. Within the next year nearly a dozen vice chancellors from the oldest university in the country, the University of the Punjab, to one of the youngest, Ghazi University, need to be chosen. For the development of higher education in the province, indeed the country, the correct choice of vice chancellor — the academic and administrative head of the university — is vital.

There was a time when the office of vice chancellor was merely a coordinating office. For example, until the second half of the twentieth century, the vice chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge were heads of houses who undertook this job as a part time assignment. Oxford only got a full-time vice chancellor in 1969, in the famous historian Alan Bullock, Lord Bullock, and Cambridge only made the office full time in 1989 with the appointment of legal scholar Sir David Williams.

In Pakistan too, the office of the vice chancellor was not always a full-time job and people like Sir James Ewing and Dr Charles Rice, were both concurrently principals of Forman Christian College and vice chancellor of the University of the Punjab. However, with the rapid expansion of university education, in terms of access, numbers and scope, it was increasingly felt that the office of vice chancellor should become a full time position.

In the recent past the importance of vice chancellors has risen so rapidly that their appointment process involves applications and head hunting by consulting companies, and salaries have increased exponentially, with the outgoing vice chancellor of Oxford, Andrew Hamilton, getting nearly a million dollars a year in his new position as president of New York University. Today the importance of the vice chancellor in a university is as central as that of the CEO in a company.

In Pakistan, we always complain about the dismal state of our universities. While after 2002, and the advent of the Higher Education Commission, research output in universities has increased, the quality of this research has mostly been substandard and in a number of cases not worth the paper it is being written on. The proliferation of universities since 2002 has increased access, but a lack of emphasis on quality education has led to students graduating with a 3.5 GPA or higher, without even having good English language skills — speaking, comprehension and articulation, among other things. As one retired vice chancellor recently noted: “We are striving ahead, but on the wrong road”; such is the tragedy of higher education in Pakistan!

Without a good vice chancellor even a great university can decline and with a dynamic and visionary vice chancellor even a third rate university can become world class.

In today’s world, the office of vice chancellor is of utmost importance in the university. He or she sets the direction of the university, both in terms of teaching and research, represents the university at outside forums, attracts the best faculty and research funding, and ensures that the policies and structures of the university are functioning properly. Without a good vice chancellor even a great university can decline and with a dynamic and visionary vice chancellor even a third rate university can become world class.

An inspirational vice chancellor can convince people to stay even in difficult circumstances, while a dull and dreary vice chancellor can derail a vibrant university. Hence the choice of vice chancellor is perhaps the most important single decision for the life of a university.

In the Punjab, the current process through which the vice chancellors are being appointed leaves much to be desired. While the Search Committee is composed of eminent personalities, empowering just one committee to select the vice chancellor of all public sector universities with openings is not sensible. It is not at all possible for the members of the Search Committee to be cognizant of the needs and requirements of all the universities with vacancies — nearly a dozen this year, and without in depth information about each university it is very hard to find suitable candidates for them. Therefore, the Punjab should have a tiered and extensive process for the appointment of vice chancellors.

In the first instance, there should be a Search Committee appointed at the level of the university (including members primarily from the university syndicate and academic council) itself at least a year before the tenure of the incumbent vice chancellor ends. For example, the nominating committee for the vice chancellor of Oxford began its work by October 2014, nearly two years before the retirement of the incumbent. This Search Committee should have an open consultation across the university as to the qualities needed in the new vice chancellor. This committee should draw up a detailed job description for the position keeping in view the present and future needs of the particular university. This ‘further particulars’ document should then be made public so that it is sufficiently clear what kind of a person the university is ideally looking for.

This University Search Committee should then be the first place where the position is advertised, applications sought, and the first round of interviews held. Here it is imperative to remember that the search for vice chancellors can no longer be dependent on an advertisement in the newspapers. While Oxford did advertise the position in the newspapers, it also hired a consulting firm, Perrett Laver, to help in the search.

Head hunting for such positions is very normal these days, since in such a competitive world it is not easy to find the right person for such a critical job. Concerted efforts have to be made, usually through a consulting firm, to approach and to convince people with the right credentials, expertise and experience to apply for the post. The absence of such a process deprives not only the search committee but the universities, and indeed the population of the Punjab, from finding someone really good for the job.

The University Search Committee should then draw up a list of potential candidates — around three to five, in keeping with the further particulars, for the second round of interviews by a Provincial Search Committee for the final selection which would include at least two members of the University Search Committee, so that a good mix of university specific needs and general competency is considered. This exercise would make it clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ for vice chancellors.

Each university is unique, not just in terms of subjects taught and researched, but also in terms of student body, location, resources, etc., and therefore each needs a different kind of person as its head. I heard from one candidate in the current cycle that they could tick as many universities as they wanted on the form for consideration — a ridiculous option indeed. How can one person — just by ticking a box — be considered for nearly a dozen vacancies? It is as if all universities are same and only placement needs to be made.

In the past, such an approach has led to generals being appointed vice chancellors of engineering universities, and non-academics being made vice chancellors of important general universities. The results of such blunders are now very patent.

The future of higher education in the Punjab is at stake; let us not use a flawed process for a wrong choice.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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