Leadership challenges and opportunities for Greek universities

Leadership challenges and opportunities for Greek universities

The empirical and academic literature shows that good management of public organizations, such as universities, requires that they must be accountable to taxpayers and society in the same way that a corporate governance framework provides accountability for the shareholders of corporations/companies.

Danish universities are a case in point, according to Times Higher Education, where running universities like corporations has helped them connect to society and industry.

In Denmark, a 2023 law introduced management boards made up mostly of non-academic members, to help develop research strategies, manage finances and appoint and oversee rectors.

Two decades on, the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, an independent expert body, gathered responses from 3,000 researchers and 100 department heads to review the effects of the 2003 university act in order to address gaps and shortcomings, such as a hollowed-out leadership that made staff feel distant from decisions.

The Danish case of running universities like companies is common across nations, even though the governance models vary. Yet until recent times, the management of Greek universities did not include the role of an overarching governing council as part of their governance, both as an institutional counterweight to the rector’s executive powers and also as a pillar of strategy.

In this direction, the Greek education minister correctly paved the way with legislation that introduced a governing council. According to the law, academic staff elect six internal members of the council; these members in turn select five external members, following an international call for applicants.

The 11-member governing council elects the rector from among the council’s six internal members; the rector is appointed as the chairperson of the council, which is supposed to act as an institutional counterweight to the rector’s executive powers.

In this way, the proposed management model partially misses its “corporate” goal, which in theory is the creation of an institutional counterweight to the executive powers of the rector and his/her chosen team of vice rectors.

It is problematic that the same person will preside over two administrative bodies, one of which, the governing council, has supervisory and auditing powers, while the second, the rector’s team, has executive powers. Still, it is a problem that can be overcome with the good faith of all the governing council members, and a better governance model can be developed moving forward like in Denmark, especially with input from the academic, corporate and public governance experts.

Until recent times, the management of Greek universities did not include the role of an overarching governing council as part of their governance

However, the pursuit of excellence at this level seems to have been missed at some Greek universities, where its implementation has been undermined despite its evidence-based support in the academic literature.

A case in point of the suboptimal application of the rolling out of this process is the University of Thessaly (UTH). Back in February, UTH made a second international call for the nomination of five external members to the governing council together with a call to elect six internal members.

This was the second attempt because the first round was inconclusive, as the two “competing” groups of three that formed from the six internal members had failed to reach a consensus during the selection process of the external members. It is also possible that they considered the quality of the external applicants was not to the satisfaction of the internal members or there was uncertainty as to whom they may have favored as a rector, and governing council chairperson.

One would have thought that such speculation would have been put to rest by universities providing the meeting minutes, especially for a public university with accountability to the community. If the intention of the legislation was to make public universities accountable to the taxpayers, then this ought to have been an integral part of the process.

During the second attempt at resolving this impasse at UTH, white smoke was reported, following the first meeting of the six internal members, regarding the selection of the five external members to fill the governing council respective positions. But by international standards this selection failed to address the intended requirement of some non-academic members, being skewed in favor of a clear majority of academic governing council members.

Finally, to return to the Danish universities example, we know that its implementation paid dividends as they are ranked highly and have an outward orientation that impacts positively on society and industry.

One of the improvements under way in Denmark arising from the report’s recommendations is the inclusion of a training program for external board members to ensure they have insights about the university’s conditions and priorities.

Similarly in Greece, despite the good intentions for the introduction of the law, a serious and meaningful evaluation of its implementation would be useful down the track.

Dr Steve Bakalis is an expert on international business education and management. He has held adjunct appointments with the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, and appointments at universities in the Asia Pacific and Gulf regions.

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