Narcissistic presidents linked to “deterioration” in performance, study shows

"Specifically, the VC role is a high-status, high-visibility role that is occasionally recognised with a knighthood," the authors wrote.

The root of your institution’s dwindling finances and performance challenges might very well be a narcissistic president. If this was once a gut feeling, a scientific study supports it with research-backed data.

The British study published on Research Policy examined the performance of higher education institutions by collecting data from the National Student Survey (NSS) website, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and others over 10 years beginning with the 2009-10 academic year. The researchers then compared their decade-long performance with the signature size of each institution’s vice chancellor, which is the equivalent ranking of presidents in the U.S.

As preposterous as a technique it may seem to deduce an individual’s level of narcissism based on their signature, the technique has been repeatedly validated in previous experiments that similarly analyzed for-profit CEOs across accounting, finance and management. This is the first study of its kind to study narcissism in the higher education industry, building on previous studies that yielded inconclusive findings on the correlation between narcissism and firm performance.

This decades-long experiment might suggest a more causal relationship between the two. The authors found that highly self-involved vice chancellors lead to an “overall deterioration in research and teaching performance.” This is due to their tendency to take burdensome financial risks and engage in empire-building strategies, a phenomenon they captured by examining capital expenditures and the ratio of expenses to revenue, The Financial Review reports.

The authors—Shee-Yee Khoo of Bangor Business School, Thanos Verousis of Vlerick Business School, Pietro Perotti of the University of Bath and Richard Watermeyer of the University of Bristol—believe this study further demonstrates “the moderating role of university governance.”

Why higher education is now a prime breeding ground for narcissistic leaders

The study’s authors point to the United Kingdom’s higher education system’s changing landscape to the rise in narcissistic leaders. Specifically, their system has experienced “aggressive marketization and massification.” These findings correlate with a similarly deep focus on marketing among colleges and universities in the U.S. as well, according to Forbes.

As a result, university executive leaders most likely to thrive in this environment must leverage stronger managerial traits and leadership skills similar to a CEO.

“Specifically, the VC role is a high-status, high-visibility role that is occasionally recognized with a knighthood,” the authors wrote.

As the skill requirements of university presidents today lend them to be more public-facing, narcissists yearning for admiration from community followers may seek the position to satisfy their needs.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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