Manage, Lest ye be Managed

When I first began in academic life as a lecturer in the UK, I was offered a piece of earnest advice by a more experienced colleague: “Geoff,” he said, “you seem a conscientious and well meaning chap…so let me warn you – they will ask you to start taking on administrative duties as part of your contribution to the department.” His grim demeanor as he said this made it clear that such an eventuality was the worst thing he could imagine. “Whatever they ask of you,” he continued, leaning in conspiratorially now “you must do it badly. Not just below-par, but really drop-the-ball-incompetent badly. It might make you look bad at first, but you’re young and will be forgiven – and they will never,” he grinned, a mischievous gleam coming into his eye “never ask you to do anything again.”

I looked on this sage advice as a friendly attempt at sardonic humor, and I have to say I never took it up, with any administrative mis-steps (and I’d like to think there weren’t too many) over the ensuing years I spent in the Higher Education sector neither more nor less than a reflection of my true competence in the area.

This idea though – management as anathema to academic life – seems to be echoed by Australian academic Richard Hil in his 2012 book ‘Whackademia’. Hil takes aim at what he sees as a degeneration of University academic life – particularly in Australia, but also in general, he argues, across the English speaking world. Chief among his complaints is the growth of managerial culture and accountability in University teaching, which he argues has curtailed the freedoms and creativity previously comprising the core of higher education.

While hankering after a lost golden age is hardly a unique call to arms, the theme that administration and management are somehow inimical to productive research and teaching does seem to be a common view among University academics.

Speaking to this perceived clash in his 1989 book ‘Wonderful Life’, for example, the late paleontologist and prolific essayist Steven Jay Gould, wrote:

“The earthly rewards of scholarship are higher offices that extinguish the possibility of future scholarship.”

Indeed, so commonly were such grumblings heard around faculty staffrooms during my own time in the Tertiary education sector that I can almost sense their primal origins in Theophrastus complaining to his fellow philosophers in ancient Athens that the Lyceum wasn’t the place of pure scholarship it had been in Aristotle’s day (and yes, any classics scholars out there who may be able to fill me in on this point, please feel free to drop a line).

But why this disrespect and mistrust? Are Gould and Hil (not to mention my imagined Theophrastus) right to stand atop the mount and sound a clarion call to defend the sanctity of the academic profession?

Management is a key aspect of elite achievement in any field. Given recent performances I admit the possibility that I may be wrong on this next point, but I doubt the manager of the Fremantle Dockers football team invests in assembling the best squad of players that he can and then just says “right guys, rock up at the stadium every Saturday for the season and let’s hope for the best.”

Good management is about enabling and supporting optimum performance from your team. The late Bart Cummings was credited with winning 12 Melbourne Cups in his superlative career as a horse trainer. Where Hil would have us sneer that it was champion thoroughbred Viewed who took out the 2008 cup in a photo finish and Cummings couldn’t have outrun the second-placed Bauer himself, the real point is that he had a gift for spotting and developing talent – identifying physiologically gifted equine specimens and honing them to racing perfection. Were I fortunate enough to have had an interest in his stable, I would have been grateful that it was Cummings who was in charge, rather than his horses – fine specimens though they may have been.

University academics are a specialized group – intelligent, curious, and devoted – often to the point of passion – to their chosen fields (trust me, this career isn’t generally pursued for its high rewards and job security). More than that though, success in the academic sector requires independence of thought, a splash of iconoclasm, and an ability – quite literally – to see problems from a different perspective to other people. Set these talents to work in a well-structured University environment and these are people who really can change the world. Much like Cummings’ thoroughbreds though, outside that specialized setting, such qualities may not always be a recipe for success. When it comes time to man the lifeboats after all, it’s one thing to be a champion rower ready to help pull the oars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be the one responsible for steering the boat. Awareness of your own strengths and limitations, together with a willingness to support those navigating the stormy seas, are critical to your ultimate success.

Hil’s thesis boils down to the idea that control of academic activity and direction in Universities have been usurped by undeserving functionaries and administrators. At the same time, however, he argues that those academics who move into administrative roles represent some sort of ‘class traitor’. Hil’s ‘have it both ways’ logic in this regard is simply indefensible – suggesting in effect that University academics should be exempt from managerial and administrative tasks, but that they should join him in complaining when others step in and take on those roles. I agree with Hil, up to a point, that those best placed to understand the needs and demands of the Higher Education sector are probably the academics themselves. We diverge, however, in the responses we would favour to deal with this situation. To me, management and administration of complex academic systems seem clearly necessary – not a necessary evil, as a charitable reading of Hil’s arguments might frame it, but a vital element of the successful function of the University system. In light of this, where the need arises to take charge of these procedures, I would rather it fell to those with an interest and talent in these areas – whatever their background.

I would be happy to admit that I too have seen plenty of examples of poor management and administration in University systems around the world. Where Hil would have us throw up our hands with a petulant ‘see, I told you so’, however, my belief is that the real solution lies in the participants contributing to make the system work better. Call it a philosophy of “manage, lest ye be managed”, perhaps. Make no mistake, undertaking such duties well requires the investment of time, intellect, and passion, and we should laud and respect those with the skills and desire to take them on with the care and energy they deserve.

In their essence, Hil’s complaints about the changed nature of the academic profession are like those of a military commander complaining that it’s been ages since they last got to lead a decent cavalry charge. The world changes, and for universities to remain a part of that world, they need to change and adapt alongside the society in which they exist

When it comes down to it, what academics – or anyone in a complex modern organization – should agitate against is not management in and of itself, but bad management.


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