Effective senior leadership is a crucial ingredient for the success of any higher education institutions. The leaders are there to provide guidance, assistance, and motivation to achieve institutional goals. How is a university leader in Cambodia selected? How can we improve? These are two important questions I will highlight in this post.
International search and selection process
In many parts of the world, the appointment of university leaders (such as presidents and deans) is usually conducted through a rigorous selection procedure that disengages from a political process. The university internally creates a search committee to do the task. This committee commonly consists of people with varied expertise and positions representing key administrators, academic and non-academic staff, and students. Among other things, the search committee is responsible for advertising the position, screening and recommending candidates to the governing board which often makes the final appointment.
While the governing board has the final say regarding the appointment, the selection process allows faculty members and other stakeholders to take part as well. As a tradition, the potential candidates are invited to campus to talk to the search committee members, faculty, staff, and students. Through that visit, interested members of the university community often have a chance to meet and interact with candidates, and later provide feedback to the board for selection consideration. In consequence of such a selection process, leaders usually enjoy broad stakeholder support.
Appointment process for university leaders in Cambodia
Until now in Cambodia, the government appoints and nominates top university administrators. As clearly specified in Article 19 of the “Royal Kret (decree) on State University”: a Rector is “appointed by the sub-decree pursuant to the proposal of the supervisory minister” and “shall have the rank of Under Secretary of State” (p. 4). Such appointment carries a high patronage relationship. A university leader in Cambodian public universities thus can usually be identified as an active political party member or a politically loyal individual to the ruling establishment.
It is important to note that the Royal Decree on State University indicates that the university’s executive body and Board of Directors are responsible for determining the method of recruitment and promotion. Nevertheless, the Royal Decree seems to fall short of explicitly stating who and which level/rank both university bodies mentioned above can appoint or promote.
In many institutions and circumstances, the selection and appointment of even a departmental head are made under the arbitrary influence and/or intervention from outside the university.
The politicisation of the supposedly internal academic affairs creates a strict ‘top-down’ model of decision making that, despite good intentions, can significantly undermine institutional autonomy and academic freedom and in turn reduce the institutional effectiveness.
What should we do?
Appointment of senior university leaders should be handed over to the institutions. The government’s intervention, arbitrary and whatnot, unnecessary puts pressures on the freedom of the leaders to manage their internal matters, to plan and to act effectively.
To have an institutional management that can lead effectively, we should consider the recruitment practices other countries have institutionalised. The presidents or rectors, for example, must be appointed by the governing jurisdiction following an open competition and consultation. Standard search and selection processes should be established and used to determine which candidate has the requirements to fill the position. There should also be a clear term of office including opportunities for renewal. Following the present international trend, the appointment of the president should be based on the managerial skills in addition to experience and academic competence and credibility as well.
If the government intervenes in the appointment process is due to a shortage of qualified individuals at the institutional level, I should add that we can closely examine how countries in the Asia Pacific have overcome their challenges.
Until quite recently, countries in the Asia Pacific region, according to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, have faced many critical issues concerning the capacity of leaders of higher education. But many of them have been particularly successful in improving their situation by adopting and implementing policy reforms and strategies that focused heavily on institutional development.
Particularly, governments concentrated on developing mid-level and high-level faculty members who will become leaders. They designed training programs for rectors and university leaders to obtain needed leadership skills and knowledge while launching a new system of recruitment that involved establishing governing boards and use of appropriate search and selection processes to recruit university leaders.
Cambodia still has to overcome multiple challenges in many sectors, and for sure it cannot do them all at once. Even so, the government and the society ought to put more effort into tackling the key challenges facing the higher education system today including this issue we are talking about here. Only then will higher education institutions be able to produce qualified human capital to speed up Cambodia’s social and economic development!