Towards a bottom-up approach to university place leadership: aligning institutional strategy to support academic agency

Universities are a key actor in contemporary place-based leadership; universities are also dependent upon local support for their own success. They contribute best to local environments when they are able to align themselves with their regions, and allow their staff and students to use their own agency in engagement.

Universities have been facing growing expectations regarding their contribution to regional development processes, most frequently through their engagement in stakeholder partnerships and collaborative regional coalitions. They are increasingly pressured to assume further regional responsibilities, for example, helping create an entrepreneurial ecosystem (Santos & Caseiro, 2015), fostering associative governance (Gunasekara, 2006) and in guiding strategic processes (see discourse on the smart specialisation framework, Foray et al. (2012)). However, universities are complex organisations, shaped not only by their own private interests, but also by external forces that can be extremely diverse. Although university top management can commit to regional leadership roles and align projects along pre-defined priorities, they cannot compel the academics of different departments, groups and communities to do specific engagement activities that might be requested by regions. Therefore, as universities may be hindered in their capacity to enact consistent and meaningful place leadership through informal partnerships/coalitions, the question arises of what universities actually have to do in order to play their best leadership role.

In our research, we have approached universities’ institutional architecture and regional place-leadership potential by adapting literature from Benneworth, Pinheiro, & Karlsen (2014), Clark (1998) and Nedeva (2008). We think of the “university” as being made up of five elements:

  1. Formal leadership, that enters into formal agreements and which to the outside world appears to speak for the university;
  2. Academic staff, the real heart of the university, that organise themselves into disciplines and units that reflect their own teaching and research needs;
  3. Formal structures, that hold these diverse academic communities together such as committees and policies;
  4. Informal institutions, that is shared understandings of what it means for diverse academics to do ‘good’ teaching, research and public activities;
  5. Potential support structures, such as technology transfer offices or science parks that promote engagement activities.

In a forthcoming chapter (Fonseca et al., 2020), we have explored the ways in which these different elements, that we term ‘the university institutional architecture’, hang together, and the consequences this has for universities’ place leadership roles. We used this framework to compare six European regions where universities have been making serious efforts to engage locally, namely Aveiro (Portugal), Lincolnshire (UK), North Denmark (Denmark), Satakunta (Finland), Twente (Netherlands) and Vallès Occidental (Spain). In five of the six regions, there was a formal commitment by institutional leaders to regional engagement, the only exception being in Finland, where the higher education institution was a university consortium, a partnership of several urban universities who regarded the remote campus somewhat as an institutional outlier.

But despite this apparent managerial commitment to regional engagement, there were various ways in which this failed to harness the rest of the university to deliver those outcomes.  In five universities, for example, European structural funding was important for financing their engagement activities (support structures), but participating in those activities was not regarded by academics as a legitimate activity (academic norms). In several regions there were academics that engaged and built regional networks despite those activities being discouraged by their institutions. These various mismatches between managers’ behaviours and academic activities in turn undermined university managers’ legitimacy within informal place-based leadership coalitions.

This need to construct legitimacy with respect to their regional partners provides a means to understand how universities could provide more effective place-based leadership. Their legitimacy and effectiveness as place-leaders was built on two things:

  • Authenticity emerged when university managers realistically portrayed regional engagement activities that staff delivered and that mobilised regional networks: university claims were aligned with capacity.
  • Capacity emerged when staff was encouraged to build connections with regional partners and integrate them into teaching and research activities: universities encouraged individual bottom-up agency to build capacity.

We therefore contend that more consideration needs to be given to these two key elements, alignment and agency, to better understand the way in which universities contribute to place leadership. Universities need to better align their strategies to the real capacities that they have for place-engagement, drawing upon their existing teaching and research activities. Universities also need to enable their employees to build linkages that are useful to those university activities, even if they do not immediately align with the overall university strategic vision. Ensuring this alignment and agency will allow universities to thereby maximise their overall contribution to place leadership.



Benneworth, P., Pinheiro, R., & Karlsen, J. (2014). Strategic Agency and Institutional Change: Investigating the Role of Universities in Regional Innovation Systems. Louisville: RePEc, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Clark, B. (1998). Creating entrepreneurial universities: organizational pathways of transformation. New York: Pergamon

Fonseca, L., Nieth, L., Salomaa, M. & Benneworth, P. (2020) “Universities and Place Leadership – A question of agency and alignment” in M. Sotarauta & A. Beer (eds) Handbook on City and Regional Leadership, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Foray, D. Goddard, J. Goenaga Beldarrain, X., Landabaso, M., McCann, P., Morgan, K., Nauwelaers, C. & Ortega-Argilés, R. (2012) “Guide to Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation Strategies” Sevilla: JRC. Available online at

Gunasekara, C. (2006). The generative and developmental roles of universities in regional innovation systems. Science and Public Policy, 33(2), 137-150.

Nedeva, M. (2008). New tricks and old dogs? The ‘third mission’and the re-production of the university. In D. Epstein, R. Boden, R. Deem, F. Rizvi, & S. Wright (Eds.), The World Yearbook of Education 2008. Geographies of Knowledge, Geometries of Power: Framing the Future of Higher Education (pp. 85-105). New York: Routledge.

Santos, D., & Caseiro, N. (2015). The Challenges of Smart Specialization Strategies and the Role of Entrepreneurial Universities: A New Competitive Paradigm. In L. M. Carmo Farinha, J. J. M. Ferreira, H. L. Smith, & S. Bagchi-Sen (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Global Competitive Advantage through Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.


About the authors

Liliana Fonseca
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Lisa Nieth
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Maria Salomaa
Paul Benneworth
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