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.