Saturday, December 10, 2005

Universities' Bizarre Behaviour

In a recent blog Acephalous of the University of California, Irvine wrote of his discovery of a couple having sex in his office. They abused him and threatened him with an harassment charge when he asked them to leave as he had a student coming to see him. Since then he has been in a Kafkaesque world with the university administration. Who is the culprit and who is the victim? We won't know since the university has made it a non-discloure matter.

Kafka is stalking the halls of the University of Westminster also. I wrote back in August that the university was evaluating professors in order to create a new pay system. Hay Management Consultants who are carrying out the exercise told me that they would be done by the end of August. I strongly suspect that would have been so if the university had been able to pull its act together. But here we are in mid-December and the university hasn't yet delivered all the necessary papers to Hay. And we don't know when the process will be completed...if at all...

My colleagues and I always had our suspicions that the administration of the university wouldn't handle this process to the best of its abilities. Interestingly, a survey on attitudes towards the university administration carried out in 2003 found that senior faculty were the most mistrustful. And that the personnel/"human resources" department, which is handling the job evaluation process, was found wanting. (Quite what a human resource is I'm unable to fathom. Even the Society for Human Resource Management didn't elucidate.) During early summer we met with the head of personnel and the vice-chancellor to express our concerns, namely what did it all mean, and above all ask for transparency in the process. It was assured. Five months on we await the results of the exercise.

When during September it was clear that the pace was neck and neck with the annual snail and slug race, we asked for regular updates from the personnel department. Oh well, one tries. If you have seen the movie, the Shawshank Redemption, you will appreciate this next bit. The hero becomes prison libarian and asks the state legislature for money to finance book purchases. Nothing happens so he writes each week to them asking for money. The state relents eventually and provides books. His buddy asks him if he'll now stop writing. No, he says, he will now write twice a week asking for more. Our request for regular updates was met with a similar blankness and I began to write to the personnel head each week asking for information. It always takes two emails to get him to respond, which is indicative of translucency rather than transparency. It seems there are a few job evaluations outstanding and rather than tell us the results of ours we have to wait.

This last is interesting because we discussed the fact that professors are different from each other and therefore it's not so much the group aspect as how each professor fares. On this basis there's no reason why individuals couldn't be given their results. But no, we wait for the stragglers.

What confidence there has been in the process has ebbed away. I continue to email personnel and forward their responses to my colleagues. How is it that an organization based on knowledge work could be so backward in its dealings with its most valuable "resources"? We, who are meant to be at the cutting edge of knowledge, teeter on the edge of an administrative mire. The numbers of emails I receive from my colleagues suggest that adversarialism is the dominant motif in relations between "senior management" and them. Of course there will always be a tension between administrative necessity and intellectual desire, and that can be creative. But when administrative suffocation becomes the norm with bloated bureaucracies, attempts to impose uniform "working practices" and so forth, it saps the creativity that makes universities the great institutions they can sometimes be.

In order for universities to be their best, they need a careful blend of collegiality and administration. This cannot be imposed by administrative fiat. It comes about by a creative melding of ideas from academics and administrators. My guess is that administrators now believe they are the university, whereas we know otherwise. Administration is there to service academics and students, not to demand fealty from us. That is perverse.

My experience of both American and English universities--as student and faculty--tells me that a good administration thinks about the university within society, its role and its creativity which will bring the other benefits of status and money. A small number of English universities have got the message; a greater number of American ones have known it for a long time. Is it any surprise that America now attracts the best students from the world. The English share of the market is declining in parts and may grow ever smaller. Even English undergraduates are beginning to consider American colleges for their first degrees, not just graduate work.

Using Fordist principles to run universities won't work. (And was it good for car manufacturers? Probably not.) Fortunately, my law school understands this but we stand apart from the university as a whole--we have a growing cohort of graduate students, our undergraduates are improving in quality, our faculty produce quality research and attract research grants. If the university is unable to adapt to the norms of collegiality, the results will be predictable.

The result? People leave. Already I have lost three colleagues from the law school to other universities: two to Aberdeen and one to Warwick. Other departments are suffering. It's the run up to the RAE and we should be keeping faculty not losing them. I'm not sounding optimistic, but we did so well in the last RAE, I'd hate it to be a one-shot wonder. I hope the university can see that.


johnflood said...

I just came across an interesting book on the topic of managerialism in universities. It is Steve Shelley, Working in Universities: The Realities from Porter to Professor (Humming Earth, £14.95 pbk) (ISBN 1846220092). Available at

johnflood said...

Working in Universities: The Realities from Porter to Professor

from the Humming Earth web site

"Exploring the way in which work is undertaken and managed in UK universities, Steven Shelley outlines how the UK higher education sector has been characterised by expansion with resource constraint since the 1980s. He argues that expansion has been enabled through a decentralised structure and an increasing use of market-based audit and funding mechanisms. In turn, university managers translate such structures into competitive practices which emphasise the importance of income generation and of customer service cultures as forms of work control.

In this context, the book examines how managers and staff respond to the constraints and structures of which they are part, and how the realities of university work influence the outcomes of higher education itself in terms of student learning, knowledge generation and 'quality'.

Dr Shelley draws extensively from case study research in four UK universities - a 'Russell Group' university, a provincial university established in the 1960s, a large former polytechnic, and a teaching-oriented regional former polytechnic, and analyses issues of autonomy, control, performance and the very condition of work and workers across a variety of occupations and at different levels in university organisations, quite literally from porter to professor.

Relevant to university managers and higher education policy makers; essential reading for those with responsibility for Human Resource Management and Staff Development functions in universities; the book will also appeal to students of work and HRM.

Dr Steve Shelley is Principal Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the Centre for Research in Employment Studies, University of Hertfordshire Business School."

johnflood said...

At least Acephalous in the end was considered by the university authorities to be the injured party. Since they never made it clear, he came to the meeting all lawyered up which frightened them!

johnflood said...

Just today I discovered that the personnel people had mislaid my own job description even though it had been sent to them in August! How bad can this process get? How incompetent can administrators be?

I've emailed the personnel director that he's got to rebuild trust. It's lost. If they screw up these things, what else have they messed up, that we don't know about?

Oi vey!