Academics v. University administrators…. part 94…

A picture from the TV programme 'Yes Minister'This week’s Times Higher has another article about Benjamin Ginsberg’s book  The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters.  It’s written about the US, but it has obvious implications for the UK t00, where complaints from some academics about “bureaucrats” are far from uncommon.  Whether it’s that administrators are taking over, or that the tail is wagging the dog, or that we’re all too expensive/have too much power/are too numerous, such complaints are far from uncommon in the UK.

There’s two ways, I think, in which I would like to respond to Ginsberg and his ilk.  And it’s the “ilk” I’m more interested, as I haven’t read his book and don’t intend to.

The first way I could respond is to write a critical blog post, probably with at least one reference to the classic ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?‘ scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“But apart from recruiting our students, hiring our researchers, fixing our computers, booking our conferences, balancing the books, and timetabling our classes, what have administrators ever done for us?”).  It would probably involve a kind of riposte-by-parody – there are plenty of things I could say about academics based upon stereotypes and a lack of understanding, insight, or empathy into what their roles actually entail.  Something about having summers off, being unable or unwilling or unable to complete even the most basic administrative tasks, being totally devoid of any common sense, rarely if ever turning up at work… etcetera and so on.  I might even be tempted to chuck in an anecdote or two, like the time when I had to explain to an absolutely furious Prof exactly why good governance meant that I wasn’t allowed to simply write a cheque – on demand – on the university’s behalf to anyone she chose to nominate.

The second way of responding is to consider whether Ginsberg and other critics might have a point.

On the whole, I don’t think they do, and I’ll say why later on.  But clearly, reading the views attributed to Ginsberg, some of the comments that I’ve heard over the years, and the kind of comments that get posted below articles like Paul Greatrix’s defence of “back office” staff (also in the Times Higher), there’s an awful lot of anger and resentment out there – barely constrained fury in some cases.  And rather than simply dismissing it, I think it’s worthwhile for non-academics to reflect on that anger, and to consider whether we’re guilty of any of the sins of which we’re accused.

I didn’t want to be a university administrator when I was growing up.  It’s something I fell into almost by accident.  I had decided against “progressing” my research from MPhil to PhD, because although  I was confident that I could complete a PhD (I passed my MPhil without corrections), I was much less confident about the job market.  Was I good enough to be an academic?  Maybe.  Did I want it enough?  No.  But it gave me a level of understanding and insight into – and a huge amount of respect for – those who did want it enough.  Two more years (at least) living like a student?  Being willing to up sticks and move to the other end of the country or the other side of the world for a ten month temporary contract?  Thanks, but not for me.  I was ready to move towards putting down roots.  I was all set to go off and start teacher training when a job at Keele University came up that caught my eye.  And that job was on what was then known as the “academic related” scale.  And that’s how I saw myself, and still do.  Academic related.

My point is, I didn’t sign up to be obstructive, to wield power over academics, to build an ’empire’, or – worst of all – to be a jobsworth.  I’ve never had a role where I’ve actually had formal authority over academics, but I have had roles where I’ve been responsible for setting up and running approval processes – for conference funding, for sabbatical leave, for the submission of research grant applications, and (at the moment) for ethical approval for research.  When I had managerial responsibility for an academic unit, my aim was for academics to do academic tasks, and for managers and administrators to do managerial/academic tasks.  That’s how I used to explain my former role – in terms of what tasks that previously fell to academics would now fall to me.   Nevertheless, academics were filling in forms and following administrative processes designed and implemented by me.  While that’s not power, it’s responsibility.  I’m giving them things to do which are only instrumentally related to their primary goal of research.  I am contributing to their administrative workload, and it’s down to me to make sure that anything I introduce is justified and proportionate, and that any systems I’m responsible for are as efficient as possible.

So when I hear complaints about ‘administration’ and ‘bureaucracy’ and university managers, whether those complaints are very specific or very general,  I hope I’ll always respond by questioning and checking what I do, and by at least being open to the possibility that the critics have a point.

However, I don’t think most of these complaints are aimed at the likes of me.  Partly because I’ve always had good feedback from academics (though what they say behind my back I have no idea….) but mainly because I’ve always been based in a School or Institute – I’ve never had a role in a central service department.  Thus my work tends to be more visible and more understood.  I have the opportunity to build relationships with academics because we interact on a variety of different issues on a semi-regular basis, which generally doesn’t happen for those based centrally.

And I think it’s those based centrally who usually get the worst flack in these kinds of debates.  I’m not immune from the odd grumble about central service departments myself in the past when I’ve not got what I wanted from them when I want it.  But if I’m honest, I have to accept that I don’t have a good understanding of what it is they do, what their priorities are, and what kinds of pressure they’re under.  And I try to remind myself of that.  I wonder how many people who posted critical comments on Paul’s article would actually be able to give a good account of what (say) the Registry actually does?  I would imagine that relatively few of the academic critics have very much experience of management at any level in a large and complex organisation.

I’m not sure, however, that all of the critics bother to remind themselves of this.  It’s similar to the kinds of complaints about the civil service and the public sector in general.  ‘Faceless bureaucrats’ is an interesting and revealing term – what it really means is that you, the critic, don’t know them and don’t know or understand what it is they do.  ‘Non-job’ is another favourite of mine.  There many sectors that I don’t understand. and which have job titles and job descriptions which make no sense to me, but I’m not so lacking on imagination or so arrogant to assume that that means that they’re “non-jobs”.  In fact, I’d say the belief that there are large groups of administrators – whether in universities or elsewhere – who exist only to make work for themselves and to expand their ’empire’, is a belief bordering on conspiracy theory.  Especially in the absence of evidence.  And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  That’s not to say that there is no scope for efficiencies, of course, but that’s a different scale of response entirely.

By all means, let’s make sure that non-academic staff keep a relentless focus on the core mission of the university.  Let’s question what we do, and consider how we could reduce the burden on academic staff, and be open to the possibility that the critics have a point.

But let’s not be too quick to denigrate what we don’t understand.  And let’s not mistake ‘Yes Prime Minster’ for a hard-hitting documentary….

9 thoughts on “Academics v. University administrators…. part 94…”

  1. I think it is necessary to separate anecdote from analysis in looking at the rise of the university administrator. There is clearly a problem that you raise that there has been an uncritical tendency of academics undergoing increasing pressures to put together their own negative experiences, along with lazy stereotypes and prejudices to create the kind of story that you recount above.

    But at the same time, what sociological analysis (in the research field, Public Administration – Higher Education Management) shows is that there has been a transformation of the organisation of university, from a collegial self-governing organisation towards a much more centralised and strategically managed kind of organisation.

    The idea behind these changes are part of a concern with efficiency in public expenditure, but making universities more competitive to give them the autonomy to pursue different kinds of funding opportunities, and thereby to drive a division of labour and derive its attendant efficiencies.

    But what this has necessitated is a change in the way that universities are managed – if you are going to compete for different kinds of funding opportunities, then that is helped by quick decision-making and the ability to reconfigure the university to make it better at competing. That means a greater role for a stronger steering centre, and much less autonomy for academics, who have previously enjoyed a great deal of freedom from external interference.

    Where there has been resistance to the rise of academic bureaucrats is where university strategic managers have built up bureaucracies which have as their point strategic management and flexibility. So rather than helping with what you might think of the primary purposes of universities, teaching and research, they are doing things like identifying strategic opportunities, and then dismantling and reassembling the raw matter of the university (the academics) to better chase those opportunities, with no regard for the welfare or career development/ trajectory of those academics .

    The experience of this for academics has been extremely destabilising, because they have been used to high levels of autonomy, and suddenly everything is made contingent.

    That contingency has also come in ways that make life complicated, like internal budgeting and resource models, and these are rightly seen not only as additional effort for already hard-pressed staff, but as things which give bureaucrats leverage to dismantle and reassemble the raw matter of universities to chase strategic priorities identified by strategic managers.

    So you can for example set a (high) minimum day rate for research contracts, and then say that the only exceptions are for strategically important proposals, and that distinction is madeby a Research Dean or Board Member. That gives the strategic steering centre great administrative – bureaucratic – power over academics’ ability to submit research proposals, which is in turn necessary for academics to secure their career survival and progress.

    What the negative anecdotes you identify can be interpreted are a perhaps understandable response of a group of people who are being corralled and disciplined towards strategic objectives that they in all likelihood don’t agree with beyond the most general.

    The truth they convey is that universities are undergoing a transformation that is being deliberately driven politically, with more speed in some countries than others, and that there is a negative perception of bureaucrats who are associated with the transformation, which in turn is leading to a general – and unwarranted – criticism of university administration, of which a part is still devoted to making the primary purpose more efficient – like research management staff who help preparing financial reports for funding proposals.

    But there is a problem that many positions have dual roles – so imagine a research manager that prepares financials for a funding bid that has to go for ‘approval’ to a Faculty Research Dean who can prevent a PI from submitting a bid. In that sense, even the most academic-focused RM is part of a process which is about subtly controlling and removing autonomy from academics, as part of this strategic modernisation of universities.

    So by all means don’t read the book, but it’s worth not rejecting the sense that there are big changes afoot in universities as organisations, as there are some truth in these anecdotes, albeit not the truths that those telling the stories perceive.

  2. I guess my answer to complaints about strategic plans and management, growing managerialism, budgeting, resource models etc and so on is: if not this form of governance, then what?

    I’m very open to the possibilities that the fact that I don’t have a clear answer is a failure of imagination on my part, or that I’ve not read the book, or that I lack historical perspective, but I’ve yet to come across anything like an articulation of a coherent alternative vision that addresses the needs of the socio-politico-economic climate. Some golden-age stuff, yes, some appeals to various abstract concepts, but nothing clearer than that. But I blog to share ideas, not just to dispense them….

    For example, I was thinking about procedures for allocation of conference funding as I was writing the blog. One radical option that occurred to me might be not to have any kind of approval procedure, and just have some kind of loose post-hoc examination of expenses claims. If everyone followed the letter and spirit of some simple rules, we’d end up with (broadly) the same outcomes, but without a burdensome administrative procedure. The problem is that I doubt that everyone would follow the letter and spirit of the rules, and unless we had vast resources to pay for everyone to go anywhere for any reason, we’d end up horribly overspent. Enough questionable practice is attempted even with these systems to give an impression of what would happen without (see also: MPs expenses).

    I’m all for academic freedom, but “academic autonomy” strikes me as a rather more slippery concept, and I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by it. It surely doesn’t mean the right for each individual to behave as they see fit, regardless of the consequences, and without any kind of oversight and accountability.

    Approval for research grant applications and the setting of minimum day rates is a difficult one, and I’ve no doubt that it’s done well in some places and very badly in others. But we need to have some form of oversight. Even leaving aside the current ESRC Demand Management exercise, if academics continually submit what are judged by their peers to be poor quality applications, it will eventually reflect badly on the institution. If projects aren’t costed properly, they’ll end up gobbling up resources meant for other (academic) purposes. If an academic brings in a very small research grant and expects a very large ‘buy out’ from teaching, that burden falls on their colleagues. In fact, in all these cases, it’s their colleagues that lose out. And the oversight in all settings that I have experience of us undertaking by academics – and not the “deanlings” that Ginsberg imagines, but achievers in research in their own right. Of course, it may not be the same everywhere. But I wonder whether there’s a tendency to regard ‘good’ leadership and management as an example of enlightened, good old fashioned collegiate primus inter pares governance, and ‘bad’ management as being the work of those evil centralising faceless bureaucrats. Are academic leaders ‘Deans’ when things go well/make popular decisions, and ‘Deanlings’ when they go badly/make unpopular decisions?

    Another point I’d make is that some academics seem to believe that they are only ‘victims’ of organisational change/priority setting/institutional strategy etc. Actually, the people who usually lose out are other administrative staff. In my ten years in HE, I’ve been on the receiving end of major restructuring on three separate occasions, and in two of them, my job effectively vanished in its current form. And I don’t think that’s an unusual experience. Academics threatened with compulsory redundancy = national sector news. Administrators = barely newsworthy even in their institution. That’s as it should be, but a little more awareness and a little more empathy from some academics (not you, Paul!) wouldn’t go amiss.

  3. In my experience, there is little or no professional role conflict between academics and administrators in UK universities. What there is a good deal of is conflict between departments – between academic departments and central departments but also between academic and academic and central and central.
    Whilst it is true as Paul says that universities are more corporately managed than they used to be fifty years ago, I’m less convinced this is still a live issue (as opposed to a rhetorical one). Colleagues who remember the good old days must be thinking back to before the UGC cuts – so the late 70s. The vast majority of working academics and administrators have never known anything expect the corporate university.
    So I think neither the academic/administrator divide nor the managed/autonomous one are the real issues here. I think these are rhetorical strategies used primarily in inter-departmental conflicts such as you find in any large bureaucracy.
    As a second point, I think the idea of the ‘rise’ of the administrator is dubious at best. The evidence suggests to me that the profession of university administration (so far as it exists at all) is being hollowed out, and instead of professional university administrators we increasingly have professionals from estates, HR or whatever specific discipline spending only a portion of their careers in universities. Centralised administrations controlled by registrars are increasingly uncommon outside the elite institutions, and the modern approach is to have administrative units report to PVCs – almost all of whom are career academics. The rise of ‘managers’ and the rise of ‘administrators’ are not he same things at all.

  4. It is important here not to make a category error here in interpreting my comments and I am not sure if I have been explicit enough, so I’ll respond to your comments. What my comments attempted to do was to explain your observations and put them in the context in a set of more general shifts in the nature of universities (in the abstract) that research (sociology of HE) has identified.

    My aim was not to argue that this was good, or bad, or the intentions of those taking decisions in particular places by particular people was good or bad.

    So my hypothetical dean was just that, hypothetical: the reality is that in order to deliver accountability, universities have to think about the cost and pricing of their research, and make exceptions to profit rules based on what is strategically important and where internal cross-subsidies have to be made.

    Where I would say it is good is where this does happen – unis can invest in emerging areas, create critical masses and give chances to promising researchers that cannot otherwise acquire funding. Where it is bad is where the ability to make that decision is used in an opportunistic and favouristic way. So the change is not good or bad – it is context dependent.

    I want to say is that there has been a change, and that has impinged upon the autonomy of academics, and that has led to the complaints that you identified. I like your comment here:

    > ‘good’ leadership and management as an example of enlightened, good old fashioned
    > collegiate primus inter pares governance, and ‘bad’ management as being the work
    > of those evil centralising faceless bureaucrats.

    That’s exactly it – academics are not generally unreasonable and understand a need for additional accountability, so respect good, rational decision-making. What is annoying is where there is favouritism and opportunism, or its appearance.

    There is a problem when some academics use their annoyance – for example with an administrative requirement – as an indicator that there has been opportunism, so regard all bureaucracy as an attempt to increase the power of the centre over the academics.

    But that is a classic argument along the lines of “a dog has four legs, this table has four legs, this table is a dog.” So those academics are wrong, but it does not mean that they are not less powerful, they have just misdiagnosed the unwanted administration as a cause of their reduced academic autonomy.

    So, my argument is that when research managers are criticised for doing things that are generally necessary given the increased accountability that massively increased public resources have entailed, it has to be understood in the context of academics who are aggrieved at the loss of their academic autonomy, and feel that the additional impositions are disproportionate to the benefits brought.

    At this point, I also want to be more repcise about how I am using the idea of academic autonomy. Academic autonomy is a concept for thinking about academic governance. In its ideal type it can be defined as ‘the freedom that tenured academics have from the pressure to justify every decision in return for delivering teaching’.

    It describes a situation, and is not a normative claim that academics should have autonomy – it is way of describing a situation where academics are largely in control of the decisions that shape their environments.

    One of the main features of systems where academic autonomy was an important feature was academic self-governance and it worked – as William Cullen Brown pointed out yesterday – only in the context of a relatively small system involving limited public expenditure.

    So examples of academic self-governance are academics deciding on which courses to offer, how those courses would be taught and examined. What kept the system running was the fact of a sense of duty, to colleagues, students and to the institution, duties accepted in return for the tenured academic position.

    Another element of that might be academics deciding for themselves how much and what kinds of scholarship or research to pursue, and making those decisions based on what they felt was appropriate given their duties they accepted in return for tenure.

    So academic autonomy has been eroded by changes in public governance, as well as the massive expansion of the sector.

    There has been a shift towards ‘strategic autonomy’, a freedom by institutions to take the decisions necessary to demonstrate that they are spending public and client funds wisely. ‘Strategic autonomy’ can be thought as one pole and academic autonomy being the other.

    Strategic autonomy for universities has tended to go hand-in-hand with a shift to top down governance of academics by non-academics. There has been an increase in administration, and in particular in administrators who have the power to take decisions that bind academics in areas that previously academics have had the autonomy to take.

    This change has not necessarily been maliciously intended. With the hugely increased funds flowing into the sector, an argument can be made that there needs to be more accountability for that funding, and administrators help to provide that accountability. But at the same time, these administrators have more power over academics who have been used to a ‘deal’ where they have a high degree of self-determination.

    But saying that this shift in the nature of autonomy, and the impacts it has had on the way academics are governed, is not to make an argument that it is good or bad, or desirable, or undesirable. It is just to offer an explanation for why there are complaints about the rise of admin staff in universities, and that has a cause, even if the kind of complaints you highlight have not identified the correct cause and effect.

    Academic freedom is a totally different concept, and it is a far slippier concept.

    One version is that academics should be free to pronounce on things that they have not directly done research on because of their scholastic training, without punishment by their institution – a public duty for academics.

    Another is that academics should be free to set their own research questions without interference from agents who are not bound by the rules of the game (so research questions can be rejected because they are not innovative or nonsensical according to the paradigm/community, but not because they are challenge powerful actors).

    And finally as a coda, I think personally think Research Managers are Heroes!

  5. Hi Paul – I understand that you’re writing from a sociological point of view, and that’s one of the things that’s particularly interesting about your comments. Your ‘neutral’ narrative (in the sense of reporting the phenomena, not judging it) gives a very helpful insight into the fragments which form more hostile narratives. While the overall narrative may be false, the fragments are true. I wonder whether the mistake that some critics of “administration” are making is confusing the reduction in the autonomy at the level of individual academic (undoubtedly true) with a reduction in the autonomy/self determination of academics (as a community) within a university (much more disputable).

    Perhaps ultimately there’s just good management/communication/strategy and bad.

  6. Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right about the main fault line being between Departments. Having spent all of my career in an academic unit, I’ve always felt more in common with academics than with central service departments. At times (and I’m not proud of this), I’ve been involved in fighting more or less running conflicts – the narrative usually being us claiming that we’re different in a relevant way and deserve distinctive/special treatment, and them claiming that we’re not and we don’t. We see a ‘centre’ that’s distant and ill-informed, they see an academic unit that doesn’t realise it’s one among a great many. We think we’re asking for a little flexibility, they’re hearing a recipe for anarchy.

    I do think, though, that the changes in the experiences of academics (loss of individual autonomy) that Paul identifies are real, but I don’t think the cause is in any way the “rise of the administrator”.

    It’s interesting what you say about academic administrative careers. I guess many are (say) HR professionals first and university administrators second. But even though I have transferable skills, my expertise is largely sector-specific, and my professional identity is very much tied to universities in particular. It’s interesting if the balance between the two is shifting….

  7. Adam, I am the same as an HE lifer with highly sector-specific skills, but we are the exception whereas we were once the rule. Even then, where our predecessors would once both have been generalists and filled many roles in the course of a career, we are both I suspect pretty specialised and unlikely to find our career paths overlapping.

    As to the loss of autonomy for academics, I don’t deny that *as a class* academics have lost autonomy, but for the most part they did it so long ago that only in very old-fashioned and slow moving universities can there be many individual staff left who actually remember the good old days.

    p.s. what really grates for me is when all the academic units want different/special treatment and then turn round and complain that we central units are costly, slow and make lots of mistakes. What is it about cause and effect that you guys don’t understand?

  8. Another interesting post and discussion. Like Adam, I fell into university (research) administration, but have enjoyed swimming in its waters ever since. I laughed at your analogy with the Life of Brian scene, and agree that a lot of what both sides do – and have to contend with – goes unrecognised. I have always felt that my role is very much at the service of the academics, and I think that’s right: we should enable and facilitate, not obstruct and obfuscate. However, I think there is a certain amount of messenger-shooting going on: I think many of the issues that academics have with administrators is more to do with the external policies that administrators are having to implement rather than the administrators themselves. fEC/REF/EC timesheets etc etc anyone?

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