Self-important university leaders have long been the scourge of faculty, and a British study supports that view—finding evidence that “narcissistic” vice chancellors, who are equivalent to American university presidents, really do make an institution worse.
Displayed through “excessive financial risk taking and empire building,” narcissism damages an institution’s research and teaching, as well as its performance in rankings, the paper found.
Researchers measured narcissism based on the size of a vice chancellor’s signature—an approach used in recent research in accounting, finance and management—and tracked the performance of U.K. universities between 2009–10 and 2019–20.
The study, published in Research Policy, examined the signatures of the leaders of 133 universities, a total of 261 vice chancellors over that period, and found that those deemed to have more narcissistic leaders registered declines in key measures, such as the National Student Survey and the Research Excellence Framework. It also showed that older and more prestigious universities were more likely to employ narcissistic bosses.
The authors described the position of vice chancellor as a “high-status, high-visibility role that is occasionally recognized with a knighthood.” As such, it arguably provides narcissistic individuals with opportunities to satisfy their need for excessive admiration and a stage to perform on, they said.
“We argue that it is worthwhile to examine universities as they represent the ideal environment for narcissists to shine.”
One of the authors, Richard Watermeyer, professor of education at the University of Bristol, told Times Higher Education that there were many notable examples of narcissistic university leaders, such as those who refused to negotiate on pay and conditions, which has formed the cornerstone of recent industrial action.
Speaking on behalf of the group of researchers, he added, “There is good evidence that universities, as hypercompetitive and highly stratified organizations, are tolerant of and even incentivize and reward narcissistic behavior, and at all levels, allowing those who choose to act in such ways to do so with impunity.”
The four-person team identified excessive financial risk-taking and empire-building strategies as key characteristics of narcissism.
Watermeyer said extreme narcissism causes people to privilege their own needs for reassurance and admiration above all else; as the trait is associated with overconfidence, it often means that narcissists ignore the advice of others.
“Not quite the clear head required for leading highly complex organizations, and research and teaching missions, of multiple moving parts, whose success depends on the integration of multiple leadership contributions,” he added.
Those in charge of hiring leaders should measure the egotism of candidates using psychometric tests, suggested the research team, which included Thanos Verousis of Vlerick Business School, Shee-Yee Khoo of Bangor Business School and Pietro Perotti of the University of Bath.
They also said universities should consider the expected negative effect of narcissism on university performance when setting the wages of a vice chancellor.
However, Watermeyer said narcissism was not a problem exclusive to university leaders—but rather was ubiquitous in academic life as a form of self-preservation and resilience to rejection.
“It may also be theorized as a response to hypercompetition, which requires those in universities to constantly broadcast their excellence to get and stay ahead of a chasing pack,” he added.