How Not to Be a University President

21/01/2013 15:28 | Updated 19 March 2013

Why are you doing what you're doing? What can you do that no one else can do? What gives you the greatest satisfaction? How can you have impact where you think it's important?

All these questions telescope into one: What's next?

I've been searching for answers recently because I'm in an elected position as part of my university's leadership, and my term is drawing to a close. When July 31st rolls around, it'll be time for a change.

Three of the four classic universities in Norway are about to have elections for new leadership. In Tromsø, we run as a team of three. Getting there is a thorny political process: the team has to appeal to students, staff, and faculty; its rector candidate must eloquently articulate a powerful and compelling vision encompassing the interests of not only the three voting constituencies but also the myriad communities that the university engages.

For ten years, I've been privileged to serve in significant leadership positions. From 2002-2008, I was the founding director of the University of Tromsø's first national Center of Excellence. Since the beginning of 2009, I've served in a new job as Pro Rector for Research & Development as part of the university's first elected leadership team.

What skills developed in these positions, I ask myself, give me the greatest satisfaction. Where can I do the work I'm most excited about, namely moving universities forward?

Not surprisingly, these questions have led me to think seriously about assembling a team for the next period myself. While trying to decide if I should, I've been through so many rounds of on the one hand, on the other hand that I thought I'd need more palms than Mother Durga to contemplate even the most essential ingredients.

A rector's job is filled with opportunities. The central ones are easy to identify: How can we better deliver education? How can we become a more competitive research institution? How can we contribute to innovation and job creation in our region?

More difficult responsibilities lie just below the surface: How can we better nurture our human resources? How will we start raising private funds to supplement our public budget? What is our vision for the coming wave of institutional consolidations and how will they lift us higher?

These questions a rector must face pique my interest. Indeed, I read and think all the time about how universities can better succeed at delivering on their promise -- and I see a landscape as vast as the prairie of my Midwestern childhood, filled with possibilities for improvement.

I know my university well. I find it exciting to create the conditions for genuine teamwork. And the network resulting from a decade of leadership service makes it easy to imagine a team that could invigorate the university.

But for me, there's just one problem: I've been using the wrong metaphor. Instead of trying to see a way to balance the many hands of a Hindu goddess, I could have used something much simpler. Today's overused outside the box mantra could do. I think that better tells me where I want to be, at least for now. I want to take a step to an unexpected place.

While I easily see the excitement that a rector job can offer, I find the alternative exhilarating. I want to think about university leadership, and I want to write about it. Deep inside, I'm a researcher. I love the challenge of using my mind to gain insight, to solve a problem. I want to find a new way forward, one that is more meaningful, more successful, possibly even more beautiful.

Few things give me greater satisfaction than writing a good paragraph or giving a carefully worked out talk that flows so well that one or two people in the audience actually get a new idea from what I've said. My experience has shown me that I could not do this in the way I want to while sitting in the rector's chair.

Sometimes when I introduce my boss to a colleague, he jokes that I've been his brains during this elected period. While I don't really think I've had that role, I do think that when he says this, he's trying to tell me something about what I'm best at.

When I take his hint, when I ask myself what's next, I now know what the answer is: research, writing, speaking, sharing ideas. And I know what it isn't: becoming rector of the University of Tromsø in 2013.

That realization has led me to write this essay for one important reason. More people than I could possibly name, call or send individual notes to, from all constituencies and all levels of the organization, have challenged me to think hard about running. I want to thank you for that encouragement; it's been essential in a difficult process.

Each of us should try to find what we're most uniquely suited for, and we should pursue impact in ways that feel like a good fit. I see many strong potential candidates to lead the University of Tromsø. One of them will win the election, will find her style, and will surely do great things.

There's a lot of work to be done. I hope you'll follow along here with what I'm doing, and for you, I have just one question: What's next?

PS: For those of you who are concerned, I promise I won't be disappearing in July! I chair the board of as one way to pursue my interests in open access and related issues. As for my engagement in gender balance, I've recently been named to relevant national committees in Norway and Sweden, as well as at the European Science Foundation. Beyond that, I'm starting my extended period as a fulltime researcher with a book project on gender equality in research organizations. I'll continue blogging irregularly for University World News and The Huffington Post UK, and keep up my op-ed writing in Norway and internationally. Follow along by joining my blog community -- where this essay first appeared -- or else on twitter @curtrice.