Managerial concepts need managing, too

May 27, 2010

Last week's article on Rosemary Deem's call for a new qualification for research administrators adds to an important debate ("Managers must be qualified to herd the academic cats", 20 May).

Management is often presented as an objective, pragmatic or commonsensical approach. Rather than taking a view or having ideas about the academy's purpose, it is presented as a mere response to "real" problems that demand a set of skills unique to those trained in its theories and models.

Deem suggests that management is a meta-discipline that oversees and organises all others. She calls for shared "success indicators" that would benefit academics and administrators. Success must be measured and managers can show us how.

Deem's views are by no means without merit, but are presented in a tone and style that is characteristically managerial. She argues that the "whims" of scholars play a part in directing research, hence casting judgement about the nature of research and the journeys undergone by academics. But what appears to be a "whim" to a manager with no experience of research in a particular field may have rigour and a rationale when placed in the context of well-grounded research.

Deem's call for "recognised qualifications in research administration" is premised on the idea that certain managerial skills and knowledge apply to any and every subject. This level of abstraction presents academics with irrelevant and distanced training programmes, or "frameworks" that they are forced to follow to secure funding. This reflects unwillingness on the part of those who affirm management as a meta-discipline to examine their own claims.

Deem remarks that it is difficult to work with academics because they are "trained in criticism". This should tell us something about the discipline of management itself. It is not versed in self-criticism, in examining its own presuppositions and preconceptions. Instead of being puzzled or annoyed by the hostility of academics, those in higher education management should take the time to understand the reasons for this resistance and to examine their own pretensions.

Edward Willatt, Dorset.

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