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Herding Cats: Being Advice to Aspiring Academic and Research Leaders

Malcolm Gillies enjoys this aphoristic guide to university life but fears time may have moved on

Herding Cats will be sitting beneath many a tree this Christmas. Concise, ironic and conveniently transnational, it is the ideal gift for the hard-to-please academic relative.

Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies believe academics are like cats. They won't be commanded. They choose their owners. And managing them is more about tempting and luring ("carrots") than pushing and cajoling ("sticks"). This is a non-ideological, aphoristic little book, a 21st-century update of F.M. Cornford's charming Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician of 1908. Both pretend to be advice for the upwardly thrusting younger academic.

Herding Cats is not a through-written text. Two supreme academic leaders of long pedigree have invited 50 peers of similar stature to contribute their experiences, resulting in a distinctive melange of authorial comment, anonymised advice from mates and occasional direct quotation of the rich or famous.

So, the more slender Chapter A on "Culture" and Chapter D on "Strategy" frame the meat of the book: "Getting the job done" (Chapter B) and "Managing the people" (Chapter C). But the nuggets of advice cluster around 12 keywords: the 12 Cs that form the checklist for aspiring leaders of these academic cats: Culture, Conflict, Collaboration (Chapter A); Charge (the taking of), Composure, Committees, Cash (Chapter B); Colleagues, Communication, Credit (Chapter C); Choice and Change (Chapter D). If you can get through all of that successfully and keep the cats' respect, then you may find that these academic cats make good Companions. The 13th C.

Within these many Cs there is a fair balance between harder words of managerial achievement, such as charge, cash, credit, choice, change, and the softer, "with" words of cultural positioning: flicting with, labouring with, posing with, meeting with, leaguing with, and lots of "muning" with these strange academic cats. That's why, in the end, the 13th C is the highest "with" word of all: breaking bread with (companionship).

Cornford, a Classical scholar, would have fully appreciated this mingling of the harder and softer C words in Garrett and Davies' text. Indeed, despite the intervening century of wars, new technology and mass society, academic leadership still poses itself as a relatively non-specialised business of people management, where that ultimate companionship is earned through a blend of academic and leadership credibility, and where style and trust play such key roles.

But is this the way of the future? I think not. Garrett and Davies, and their co-contributors, eloquently reflect the way we were, or how some still may be, but not "where the puck's gonna be", to quote ice-hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

Herding Cats is about academics. Students are out of sight. But no aspiring academic leader, even at Oxbridge, can now afford to overlook the new chief stakeholder and funding agent: the student.

The growing number of dogs on the Square are overlooked in Herding Cats. It assumes a stable world in which the companionship of "clean, humorous intellect" (Cornford) might still be appreciated. Would it were so! But ours now is a world of private providers, rampant educational commercialisation and "minimal state" governments, which find that companionship collusive and even threatening. Is another C needed: Competition?

Herding Cats says little about university governors ("no surprises"; faith in "big-name consultants"), but our councils, now dominated by high achievers in business, have onerous new responsibilities for the strategy, finances and efficient operation of their institutions. God-professors are no more; nor God-vice-chancellors. Perhaps another C for the aspiring leader: the Council?

Finally, Herding Cats is about an Anglo world of similar values (42 of its 50 collaborators are from the UK, Australia or the US; one is from Asia). As the centre of gravity of higher education and research moves decisively eastward, multicultural and multilingual skills must be in high demand. A final C for the aspiring leader: China?

Herding Cats: Being Advice to Aspiring Academic and Research Leaders

By Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies

Triarchy Press, 136pp, £15.00

ISBN 9780956537959

Published 16 August 2010

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