Observations from Cambridge for UM

Sekar Shanmugam

Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

On Oct 12 last year, I had the privilege to attend a seminar on leadership delivered by the vice- chancellor of the University of Cambridge at the university's business school.

After all, the recent uproar in Malaysia about the further drop in rankings of my alma mater - the University of Malaya - in the 2006 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings, I thought I could gather some insights on the running of one of the oldest universities in the world and to share lessons with those responsible in formulating policies for higher education back home.

As the vice-chancellor was introduced to the stage, I quickly glanced through her credentials in the programme leaflet and must say that I was truly impressed even before she started to speak.

Professor Alison Richard was installed as the 344th vice-chancellor of Cambridge on Oct 1, 2003 and incidentally is the first woman to hold the position full-time. An anthropologist with a first degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of London, Richard joined the faculty of Yale University in 1972.

Her academic leadership at Yale culminated in her appointment as Provost of Yale in April 1994. The provost is the chief academic and administrative officer of the university after the president, and as provost, Richard oversaw major strengthening of Yale's financial position and significant growth in academic programmes.

Richard started her talk by dismissing the notion that challenges associated with running a university are distinct from the challenges of running a business. I was surprised by this remark as I assumed that the university - steeped in tradition - would frown upon drawing parallels with the 'dark' side that being the 'non-academic and profit-oriented' establishment of the business world.

To drive home her point, she elaborated on two areas where the challenges are similar albeit a little unique. These, in fact, are valuable lessons.

Lesson 1 - The measurement of success

While measurements of revenue, profit and shareholder value are typical 'success' benchmarks for businesses, appropriate measurements for universities are saddled with ambiguity. She went on to mention that league tables are to be taken with a pinch of salt and this, mind you, comes from the vice-chancellor of a university that was ranked second in the 2006 THES survey.

There was not even a tinge of self-proclamation of success. Instead, she humbly pointed out that these league tables are merely looking at the present and the past, and give little indication of the future.

The more pertinent measurement of a university, she feels, is how it contributes to the country's economy. To this, Richard made reference to a report by an independent research firm, the Library House. The research encompassed the university's technology cluster (that now numbers 900 innovation-based companies) concluded that if Cambridge did not exist, the impact on the UK economy will be a whopping 57.5 billion (net present value) with over 154,000 jobs needing to be replaced.

Lesson 2 - Recruiting the best

The challenge in the area of recruitment is not so much as attracting the brightest talent (the Cambridge name does a sufficient job of that) but in hiring the best candidates. In the university's context, best means brightest and being able to do both cutting edge research and to impart knowledge to others that is, to teach at undergraduate or graduate level.

She acknowledges that there will be the occasional missteps but as long as the university has the resources and commitment to hire the best, a strong sense of purpose among the leadership team to make Cambridge great and to have the honesty to examine failures, excellence will be maintained.

As I strode out of the lecture hall towards the refreshment table, I could definitely resonate with most of what she said. After being at a renowned global IT company for the greater part of my career and exposed to how global organisations run their businesses, it dawned on me that the lecture could have just about been by a CEO of a global corporation. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that it was delivered by an academic.

I definitely sensed that she is all fired up and optimistic of Cambridge achieving its future goals. In fact, she did declare that she will step down to let someone else carry the torch if the flame within her dies down.

It was indeed an eye-opener coming from the 'CEO' of an 800-year-old university who has recognised that the survival of the university in the new global platform is not to rest on its past achievements and traditions but to move forward with vigour to maintain Cambridge's stature as one of the greatest learning institutions of the world.