A team built by numbers won’t add up to much

Universities won’t be sustainable or fulfil their missions if they manage academics using research metrics alone, says a senior manager

April 3, 2014

Source: Joanna Kerr

To wish all staff to have a single functionally equivalent form makes no more sense than wishing every instrument in an orchestra were a violin

As a senior university manager, I am privy to some pretty horrifying diversity statistics. So I felt a strong intuitive sympathy on seeing the letter in Times Higher Education from University of Cambridge staff on how to promote greater gender balance (“Promoting gender balance”, 20 February). Sadly, what I read only made me more despondent. Not because I disagreed with it, but because anyone thought it needed saying in the first place.

The letter argued that the criteria of success in higher education should be broadened out so that involvement in activities such as teaching, administration and public engagement are valued as much as publishing in leading journals and winning large or frequent research grants.

If, as the letter claims, such “specific, quantifiable outcomes take all”, then any sense of being a university is pushed to the margins – as is any sense that the people running it understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. But a decent, competent management approach is valued not merely by those of a particular gender, but by anyone who believes that universities are different from supermarkets or bus companies.

Consider research. My view is that any academic unit that bases its decisions entirely on “quantifiable outcomes” is doomed always to be following fashions. While the Owl of Minerva may fly only at dusk, the great bustard of specific, quantifiable outcomes is just getting airborne at five to midnight. Even in the subset of fields where they are viable, metrics such as grant income and citations tell you only that someone’s work is popular with their peers. A genuinely thriving research community must also nurture people who have the potential to see the importance of things before their peers do, setting the agendas for others to follow. Judging such rare, vital people in their early careers according to metrics would probably lead to their being sifted out at the first pass.

An academic hire is not just for the next term or the next research excellence framework. You have to look at the contribution candidates could make over decades to a wide set of objectives, not simply today’s urgent priority. And that judgement is not especially tightly connected to how fashionable their previous five papers have been or how much grant-winning success they have had recently.

Significant decisions in general should be based on a mix of leading and lagging indicators – some quantifiable, others subjective. These should be articulated in terms of standards that apply to the particular subject area in question and balanced by an expert judgement (yours or that of others you trust) informed by experience as part of an academic community.

Then there is the balance of research with teaching and other activities. A university department is not a research institute; if it fails to teach the next generation appropriately, it is failing in part of its fundamental mission and social purpose. In the UK at least, it is probably also going broke: the huge efficiency of our research activity comes from academic staff moving between teaching and research through their career, and balancing the losses made in many areas of research with the surpluses to be made in some areas of teaching (typically, international students and high-value master’s and continuing professional development courses).

The financial case is less clear-cut for areas such as engagement with policymakers, professions, the public and enterprise. But don’t you think a department is going to be a more interesting place to work and study if some of its staff are engaged in one or more of those activities? If you agree, then value the staff so engaged. Good management requires understanding of how varied activities contribute over time to a unit’s financial sustainability and intellectual environment.

Finally, look at any real population of academic staff. As with any talent-based or knowledge-based activity, you’ll see not a uniform group of similarly capable, functionally equivalent individuals, but a tremendous diversity of strengths, working styles and weaknesses. That’s something to acknowledge and embrace. To wish them all to have a single functionally equivalent form makes no more sense than wishing every instrument in an orchestra were a violin.

If you follow all these principles of what I call Decent University Management, you are probably still left grappling with difficult problems to do with gender inequalities – the pay gap, the leaky pipeline, the lack of women at senior levels, to name some in my university. These will require an explicit focus to address them as the gender issues they genuinely are. Funnily enough, I reckon specific, quantifiable outcomes – in terms of targets for balanced recruitment and equal rewards – may be just what we need here.

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Reader's comments (4)

"Finally, look at any real population of academic staff. As with any talent-based or knowledge-based activity, you’ll see not a uniform group of similarly capable, functionally equivalent individuals, but a tremendous diversity of strengths, working styles and weaknesses. That’s something to acknowledge and embrace. To wish them all to have a single functionally equivalent form makes no more sense than wishing every instrument in an orchestra were a violin" This is absolutely spot-on in accuracy. Universities tend to treat staff as uniformly capable, although the distribution of talent among the academic fraternity is quite wide. There are some excellent academic administrators, teachers and researchers at any given University; sometimes there are even those (a rarity) who are uniformly capable across all these dimensions; the great fault however, is to treat academics as if they have the same capacities and aptitudes. Not all academics will become preeminent researchers, teachers or administrators. Too often Universities fail to acknowledge the existence of differential " comparative advantages" among their staff complements. The results is a wasteful use of resources whereby, for example, universities try to make all academics researchers who are required to generate X amount of research outputs per year, when in fact they would be much better off channeling those academics who have particular abilities, aptitudes and motivation into other just-as- crucial fields such as teaching and academic administration.
How wonderful to hear some sense. It's a great shame that the writer doesn't feel able to reveal their name. Young people are mostly terrified to reveal their identity, but senior managers surely need not be scared. Or is it that you feared you'd get too many job offers? I imagine that we can be fairly confident that you don't work at Queen Mary London or at Imperial, both of which have tried to impose the sort of madness that you describe. At least that's had the advantage for the rest of us that a lot of good people want to leave for places that work in a more sensible way. More details at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=5499 and http://www.dcscience.net/?p=182
Thank you to the anonymous author of this text. Well said. @David Colquhoun: If Imperial College managers are unable to make the distinction between 1. quantifiable measures of publication (and income attraction) reflecting the mixture of an individual's research popularity, capability, connectedeness and willingness to go along with the winds of the day and 2. an informed assessment of his research quality, then I expect that Imperial College may face a decline of standards, reputation and outputs in years to come. Indeed, I know of at least one Royal Society Fellow who moved away in search of an institution that would value research more than income generation. That Queen Mary senior management has tried to copy (more than once in the past two decades) Imperial College has been imparted to me by a number of senior professors. I would ask you, however, to consider the implication of listing these two institutions as "equivalent", even in the context that for you may be embarrassing to either: Let's not play music to the ears of those in charge of Queen Mary, whose size, infrastructure and history are quantitatively and qualitatively so different to Imperial College. Queen Mary is a wonderful College, but one that serves a special niche of collegiality, inclusiveness and diversity, with pockets of research excellence and a commitment to the less privileged citizens of East London. That it has attracted colleagues and students from all over the world was and continues to be a marvel. I am confident that if the decision of Prof. Gaskell to consult with his staff meaningfully on the use of its acronym becomes the rule, better days will spring before too long in the University that offered me my first independent post to teach and do research (they never wished to hear my views on administration).
If this person is senior or a leader then he or she should be willing to put his or her name to things. That's what leadership is - head above the parapet and all that.

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