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 made clear that his 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 badly, 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,” a mischievous gleam coming into his eye “never ask you to do anything again.” I like to think this sage advice was a friendly attempt at sardonic humor, and much as I might like to have had this as an excuse on occasion, I never took it up – and any and all mis-steps in my administrative work over the past 12 years have been a reflection of my true competence.

This idea though is echoed by Richard Hil in his new book ‘Whackademia’, taking aim at what he sees as a degeneration of University academic life – particularly in Australia, but in general, apparently, across the English speaking world. Chief among his complaints is the growth of managerial culture and accountability in University teaching, which Hil 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’, the late paleontologist and prolific essayist Steven Jay Gould, writes:

“The Devil takes so much away – primarily in administrative burdens that fall upon all but the most resistant and singularly purposeful of SOBS. (The earthly rewards of scholarship are higher offices that extinguish the possibility of future scholarship.)”

Let’s face it, in all probability Theophrastus used to complain that the Lyceum wasn’t the place of pure scholarship it had been in Aristotle’s day.

But why this disrespect and mistrust? Are Gould and Hil right to stand atop the mount and sound a clarion call to defend the sanctity of our 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 seriously 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. Bart Cummings is credited with winning 12 Melbourne Cups. 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 second-placed Bauer himself, the real point is that he has a gift for spotting and developing talent, identifying physiologically gifted specimens and honing them to racing perfection. Were I fortunate enough to have an interest in Cummings’ stable, I would far rather he was in charge than the horses – fine specimens though they may be.

Academics are a curious breed – highly intelligent, deeply curious about the world in which we live, and passionately devoted to our fields (trust me, you don’t pursue this career for high rewards and job security). More than that, success in academic research 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 environment and these are people who really can change the world. Much like Cummings’ thoroughbreds though, outside that specialised setting, such qualities are not necessarily a recipe for success. When it comes time to man the lifeboats, it’s one thing to be a champion rower ready to help pull the oars or keep rhythm, 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 has been usurped by undeserving functionaries and administrators…but he would have it both ways, arguing that those academics who move into administrative roles represent some sort of class traitor. It is an indefensible position to suggest academics should be exempt from managerial and administrative tasks, but then complain when others step in and take on those roles. I agree with Hil that those best placed to understand the needs and demands of academic work are the academics themselves, but where I feel our views diverge are our responses. I view management and administration of complex academic systems as necessary – not a necessary evil, 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.

I have seen plenty of examples of poor management and administration in University systems – but where Hil would have us throw up our hands with a petulant ‘see, I told you so’, the real solution lies in contributing to make the system work better. Make no mistake, undertaking these duties well requires investment of time, intellect, and passion, and we should laud and respect those with the skills and desire to take on administrative duties with the care and energy they deserve.

Hil’s complaints about the changed nature of the academic profession are like those of a Colonel in the Army complaining they don’t get to use their dueling skills nowadays, and 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 – as I would advocate they should – they need to change and adapt alongside the society in which they exist

What academics – or anyone in a complex modern organization – should agitate against is not management, but bad management.

To add the oratorial sin of paraphrasing to perhaps one of the most abused and misquoted verses in the King James bible (Matthew 7:1), manage, lest ye be managed.

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