Universities are not in the passable-solidness business. We are in the pain-in-the-arse-genius business. I advise vice-chancellors reading this article to print those two sentences out in 80-point font and hang them over the breakfast table, regardless of spousal protestations.
Universities thrive on erratic brilliance and diversity of ideas. Yet these are being attacked. In the UK, new box-ticking promotion rules are a horrible new example, and will end in a dismally sound evenness of mediocrity.
I am sorry to have to say that most of the errors of thinking are being pushed through by well-intentioned men and women who have been influenced by – and sometimes come from – the non-university sector. Rather naturally, they admire organisations of predictability and solidity.
Imagine four boxes. Call those “research”, “teaching”, “management experience” and “public engagement and impact”. Now treat the four as having fairly equal weights. Then pass a rule that says that everyone who wishes to be promoted to a middle or senior position, like reader or professor, must get a passing minimum score on all of the four. Finally, do not ask existing readers and professors whether they think that a minimum-insistence rule is a good idea. Just do it. Then have it implemented by an HR boss or equivalent recruited from the non-university sector.
Cue frustration, bewilderment and anger.
If you do not see that such a system is likely to be disastrous for a university, you do not have a grasp of the nature of universities (and why would you if you have come from the Civil Service or an insurance company?). The unboxable tall poppies will be scythed away and deposited in the US and the continent of Europe. Regularity, reliability, steadiness and passableness will then result. Those qualities can be valuable: when I catch a train or phone the Automobile Association or order socks online, those are the qualities I want. But they are hopeless aims for a university.
Here are some cautionary anecdotes. Years ago, I was teaching at a famous university, and for the very first time we were all assessed, by the 100 students in our department, on our teaching quality. When the ranking came out, we all looked it up, of course, and a Dr X was ranked as nearly the worst teacher in the department. I imagine he was upset. A couple of years later, Dr X won an award. To pick it up he had to fly to Stockholm and wear a white bow tie. Fairly soon after, he quit for another university.
My experience has been that outstanding researchers tend to be exceptional teachers, but, unfortunately, we have to accept that, occasionally, some brilliant people do not have a spread of abilities. Google and Microsoft have also learned this. Universities need to wake up.
On another occasion, I was working in a department where the most articulate academic on television was a terrific advert for the university and his academic discipline, despite his having never, to my knowledge, published a single significant article. Another time I had a colleague who was the best office manager I have ever encountered but was a so-so researcher who could not cope with TV interviews or government commissions.
And all that is OK. The world needs uneven brilliance. Vincent Van Gogh would have been tiresome and unreliable as the manager of an art department. Moussa Sissoko is possibly the best player in the Tottenham Hotspur football team, but is so hopeless at scoring that devoted fans shout “pass the ball” when he is in front of goal. Ernest Hemingway would not have been a reassuring choice as a university personal tutor for my daughters. Marie Curie would probably have forgotten to show up for her lectures.
Universities are special in character and purpose. They are the source of the world’s ideas and, thus, their most important job is not to teach or to manage or to have immediate public impact – even though all of those matter. They are not like car factories: not even a Mercedes factory. That is why it is inappropriate in universities to have promotion systems, or any other performance-management systems, that reward steadiness and sound homogeneity. We do not need academics to be balanced human beings who can do a bit of everything.
In my judgement, research ability should be given much the dominant weight, as it has historically. A great teacher will teach students for 40 years. A great researcher will teach students for 140 years, and occasionally for 400. But not if universities’ promotion criteria have them spitting out their cornflakes and scanning the newspaper adverts for alternative lines of work.
Andrew Oswald is professor of economics and behavioural science at the University of Warwick.
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