The phenomenon that the anonymous senior university manager is describing when he refers to worries about the appointment of ambitious outsiders (“Rise of the replicants: management clones and shades of beige”, Opinion, 22 May) is that of a closed culture, with obscure local rules that are so coded that they cannot be communicated. This is the type of environment that encourages progression by longevity and politics, not by shared understanding, clear guidelines, overt operational codes and transferability of goals.
Sadly, the “experience” the author refers to is protectionism, silo working and negativity, which do not create a “unique culture”. People starting in new roles are “expected to know” the closed coded culture, or fail. What institutions like this need is not people who have hung around, they need people who have seen different cultures and who have experienced clear career progression based on ability.
Far from arguing for a return to the past, the anonymous senior administrator is simply pointing out that a corporate model for the governance of universities carries with it many risks that were not inherent in the collegiate principles hitherto employed.
One of these risks is that the craving for “modern” management leads to the appointment of senior staff who lack knowledge of the realities of academic life or who, in the case of former scholars, can be second-rankers mouthing the fashionable jargon but lacking the eminence of their predecessors.
A couple of years ago, I and four colleagues from Queen Mary University of London made a submission to the Institute for Public Policy Research as a contribution to its Commission on the Future of Higher Education in England. “Remedying Failures of Corporate Management in UK Universities” had the following conclusions: “We are sharply critical of the current generation of institutional leaders and senior managers, whose personal motives and incentives conflict with the long-term interests of their universities and lead them to introduce unacceptable policies and methodologies. While we accept that high fees, research audits, league tables and impact assessments will continue into the foreseeable future in some form, we urge administrators to resist, not acquiesce to, the pressures to exhibit unrestrained corporate behaviours. We believe that shared governance by academics, students, administrators and external stakeholders is a better option than executive dictatorship.”
Our concerns were noted in a single line in the 156-page report of the commission, whose membership largely consisted of…managers.