Pros, not cons

April 12, 2012

I enjoyed "Creative vs accounting" (22 March). However, I think Amanda Goodall underestimates the importance of good management to institutional success. The thrust of her argument seems to be that managers stifle academics' creativity in order to run universities in a more financially driven and pleasingly bureaucratic way. So, to unlock the full power of academic creativity, we need specialists (ie, academics) leading and managing instead of generalists (ie, professional managers).

I think this can work in small-scale enterprises such as Goodall's workplace, the IZA Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, or the Stanford University start-ups the article mentions. But unless we are going to return to an elite system with significantly smaller institutions, the comparison is misleading. Universities are big and complex. They need to be managed professionally.

The challenge for managers is to sustain, nurture and protect academics to enable them to do their best work without distraction. Scholars do enjoy significant autonomy and the way in which their academic freedom is protected by university statutes is key to providing an environment in which they can flourish. The potential for excessive bureaucracy that challenges that autonomy is enormous, but most of it is externally imposed rather than internally generated.

We all want to have first-class academic staff, but appointing, developing and retaining excellent managers matters, too. Without them, systems, processes and operations can fall apart, in a way that will mean academics finding themselves wasting more of their time on "admin". It's like building an excellent Premiership football team but paying no attention to the pitch, stadium or club finances. You might win a few trophies, but sooner or later the star players will get fed up with washing their own kit, selling programmes and cutting the grass.

University management is not for everyone, but neither is it about well-meaning but misguided interference and obstructionism, as Goodall suggests. In my view, it is about providing the environment in which the best academics can do their best and most creative work. Managers can be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial, too.

Paul Greatrix, Registrar, University of Nottingham

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