Appointing narcissistic Vice-Chancellors leads to lower research and teaching quality as well as lower league table rankings, finds new research by Vlerick Business School.
Thanos Verousis, Professor of Sustainable Finance at Vlerick Business School, alongside colleagues, explored the relationship between Vice-Chancellor narcissism and university performance in the United Kingdom. While prior studies have predominantly looked at the impact of narcissistic leaders on for-profit organisations, this study directs its focus towards the higher education sector, where the impact of such leadership traits has been relatively underexplored.
The researchers found that the appointment of a highly narcissistic Vice-Chancellor causes a steep decline in research and teaching quality at the University, which in turn led to a drop in University league table rankings. These adverse outcomes can be attributed to the destructive leadership tendencies commonly observed in narcissistic Vice-Chancellors, including engaging in excessive financial risk-taking and prioritising empire-building over core academic activities.
This study uses “difference-in-difference” analysis to compare university performance between those led by narcissistic Vice-Chancellors and those with less self-centred leaders. It controls for other factors that could influence the results to determine the impact of narcissism on university performance. University policies, financial decision-making, and even the size of a Vice-Chancellor’s signature (a tried and tested determinant) were analysed to determine narcissism.
Empire-building is understood as increasing the size, scope and influence of their role, often at the expense of fundamental university activities like research and teaching. One example given is The University of East Anglia, where extensive campus expansion led to a £30 million financial deficit despite decreasing student numbers and increasing costs.
In addition to uncovering the detrimental effects of Vice-Chancellor narcissism, the researchers also highlighted the role of university governance in mitigating these.
“Our research shows that vice-chancellors who are highly narcissistic tend to harm the research and teaching quality of their universities, as well as their reputation and ranking. However, we also find that effective university governance can mitigate some of the negative effects of narcissistic leadership,” says Professor Thanos Verousis.
“By establishing transparent and accountable governance structures, universities can reduce the influence of individual leaders and ensure that decisions are made in the best interest of the institution and its stakeholders, rather than a Vice-chancellor using the resources of a university for their own personal benefit at the expense of the institution.”
The researchers highlight the importance of implementing more rigorous and transparent methods for assessing the personality traits of potential and current VCs, such as psychometric tests or external consultants. Additionally, universities should strengthen their governance mechanisms to effectively monitor and restrict the destructive behaviour exhibited by narcissistic VCs.
Furthermore, universities should provide more opportunities and resources for VCs to develop their leadership skills and enhance their self-awareness. Coaching, mentoring, feedback, training, and peer support can help VCs overcome narcissistic tendencies and improve emotional intelligence.
Professor Thanos Verousis authored this report alongside his colleagues Shee-Yee Khoo from Bangor University, Pietro Perotti from the University of Bath; and Richard Watermeyer from the University of Bristol. This research was funded by the British Academy.