Our Sector: The Changing of the Guard

In this piece an anonymous contributor muses on tactics when a new VC starts at the University

One of the most turbulent situations your University can endure is a change at the top. Whether you have a VC, Principal, or President when the revolving door turns there is everything to play for. How can a Students’ Union maximise its influence in this situation?

What happened?

The first thing you need to ascertain is what is happening to cause this change? There could be several reasons including

  • Old VC has got a new job
  • Old VC is retiring
  • Governors no longer have confidence in VC (sacked)
  • Staff no longer have confidence in VC

Whatever the reason, the PR machine will undoubtedly tell the world that everything is fine and we are really sorry to lose them and wish them well for the future. This, however triggers your first absolutely vital task.

Get your President on the appointments committee

The Union president (or equivalent officer) must be on the nominations/appointments committee for the new VC. This is something that everyone will have an opinion on and will no doubt have way too many members but there are lots of very good reasons why the President sits on the appointment – and at all stages. In many appointments across the SU sector it has been the President that swung the final decision.

What is the process of recruiting a VC? Welcome to Perrett Laver.

Almost every VC in the country has been recruited by an agency called Perrett Laver who have a near monopoly on senior manager recruitment. They will do initial selections, telephone interviews, and full prep for the board of governors to take the final decision. They should take the Union opinion on board, if they don’t then you must push to get to talk to them about what sort of person you want.

Think about what the institution needs

This is also a fundamental question, what sort of VC do you think will be right for your institution? It’s crucial to look beyond the simplistic ‘will they listen to students’ and think about what will be important to them. Will they be a figurehead, a grafter, a researcher, a lobbyist? How long will they stay? Will this be a stepping stone? This is a good discussion for the Union executive to have with SU staff before sending their chosen sabbatical into the interviews and adds real value to the discussion amongst the Governing body.

Do your research

When you are about to interview the final shortlist, get someone (you trust) to do some discreet research. You cannot, of course, just phone up another Union and say ‘hey, your deputy VC wants to be our VC what are they like?’ but you can find a lot on the internet – so dig deep. This is where the influence of a Union is very strong. If a candidate has had a run in with their current or past Union, then ask about it in interview. One candidate in a recent selection could not recover from one such question and knew the chance of a successful recruitment was fading from that question onwards. Have they authored or put their name to any reports? Ask them about the contents. Have they done any media interviews? Question them on what they said.

The aftermath

Don’t think for a moment that the appointment is where it ends, this is the beginning of your challenge. It is a well-documented phenomenon that there will be a natural churn of top staff when the VC changes.

  • Some of this is sub-conscious, a change at the top makes people rethink their career.
  • Some of it is coincidental, they were going to leave anyway.
  • Some of it is deliberate as the new broom sweeps clean (although it is more likely to be senior managers sacking middle managers that they have ‘tolerated’ for a while and are now scared their new boss will hold it against them).

You may also notice a bizarre phenomenon whereby senior managers who have ignored the Union in the past suddenly become your best buddies.

While these power plays are taking place the Students’ Union can be a safe haven for a new VC. This is not the time to be awkward, but a time to be a reassuring friend. You have plenty of time for campaigning in the future but for now make sure you are not a thorn in their side. What is coming next is a change of direction for your institution and you really want to make sure your Union is at the heart of that change.

Posted in Our sector.

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