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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Get Varsity Leaders with Talent, Vision

Get Varsity Leaders With Talent, Vision

June 27th, 2005

[Reprinted from The Sun Daily June 24, 2005]

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Editorial lead: At present all university vice-chancellors are appointed by the minister. If he makes wise decisions, the universities and the nation would benefit. If his judgment were otherwise, the entire system would suffer.

MALAYSIAN public universities are grabbing the headlines lately, alas for all the wrong reasons. As the fate of an institution is determined largely by its leader, the recent death of Universiti Utara Malaysia’s (UUM) Vice-Chancellor provides the Minister of Higher Education an opportunity to re-examine how such leaders are selected.

At present all vice-chancellors are appointed by the minister. If he makes wise decisions, the universities and the nation would benefit. If his judgment is otherwise, the entire system would suffer. That our public universities are enjoying less than stellar reputation is directly the consequence of less than sensible earlier appointments.

In choosing UUM’s next vice-chancellor, I suggest one of the following options for the minister. One, hire a “head hunting” firm; two, appoint a selection committee with wide representation; or three, use the Delphi method to narrow the candidates.

The use of a search firm is straightforward. It will use its resources to scout for the right candidates. Many universities are opting for this, as it tends to broaden the search to outside of academia.

Local selection committees are the traditional route. The advantage is local input. Those committee members of academics, students and alumni know best what is needed for their institution. The finalists would be interviewed not only by the committee but also by the other major stakeholders (deans, senior academics) who would then apprise the committee of their views.

Note, both methods only make recommendations; the ultimate choice is still the minister’s.
If the minister wants to be personally engaged in the selection, then I would suggest the Delphi method. I would e-mail all the vice-chancellors (past and present), leading academics, student leaders, and major employers and ask them to list the four or five major problems facing our universities generally and UUM specifically. At the same time I would ask them to name four or five individuals other than themselves who would best manage those problems and lead UUM. Then I would interview the top four or five candidates.

During the interview, I would ask the finalists what they think are UUM’s major priorities and how they would solve them. I would also gauge the candidates’ general philosophy and yes, also political views. There is no point selecting someone who does not share your vision. On the other hand, appointing someone who shares your vision but is otherwise less than capable would be counter-productive as he or she would not be able to execute your vision.

The ideal candidate would be an accomplished and highly regarded scholar, has the necessary executive talent, and above all, shares your vision.

There are two further considerations. First, one does not need to belong to the same political party or be of the same race and nationality in order to share the same vision. So there is no need to limit the search to a particular race or nationality. This point bears emphasizing, for presently political considerations weigh heavily on such appointments, to the detriment of the institution.

Second, and far more important, it is much easier to convert someone who is otherwise competent but does not share your vision to your side than it is to make someone incompetent, competent. That the latter enthusiastically embraces your politics is no consolation.

All these methods have their limitations. Using a professional firm would shift the lobbying from the minister’s office to that of the firm. However, by selecting a company of known integrity and sterling reputation, you reduce this greatly. Local selection committees tend to perpetuate the status quo. At times an institution would be best served by a total outsider who would shake the existing structure in order to lead it to greater heights. Such candidates would not likely have warm receptions with local committees.

The Delphi technique, originally designed for forecasting trends, would also tend to select mainstream candidates. It is not likely to pick the one unique individual who may just have the right combination of contrarian insight and executive talent to lead the institution into a new direction. The Delphi method would miss the real trail blazers.
One thing is certain. Whatever the limitations of these techniques, they are far superior to the present method, whatever that may be.


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