Academics and admin: too ‘brilliant’ to fill in a form?

A Dutch-born scholar and research administrator wonders if the British class system plays a role in views about division of labour

January 29, 2015

“The image and identity of ‘the academic’ has been grossly (and willingly in some cases) over-romanticised and reified.”

So writes Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg in a post for the Research Whisperer blog that considers whether academics can make good administrators.

She writes with experience on both sides of the fence, for she is both a visiting fellow in the psychology department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the institution’s research development officer. In her nine-to-five “administrative world”, Dr Reigersberg says, she has often come across the view that academics are “incapable of filling in forms accurately and in a timely fashion”.

She also encounters the argument that lecturers should not be expected to engage in administration “because of their brilliant academic status”. A Dutch-born social scientist, she questions whether the “British class system” is behind such attitudes.

Such views are misguided, Dr Reigersberg adds. Today’s scholars “definitely don’t sit in ivory towers among fluffy clouds contemplating their subject materials, immune to the daily grind of the world below”. In addition to research, their workload includes teaching, marking and knowledge exchange, and administration.

But how much administration can academics be expected to do? Governments in the UK and elsewhere seek to justify expenditure on research by measuring its productivity, quality, impact and public engagement. What Dr Reigersberg calls “a fixation on transparency, Big Data, quality assurance, and impact” creates a “large amount of additional reporting, paperwork and administration”. This is where the research administrator can help.

“Engagement with administration often has very little to do with administrative talent: it tends to be a question of time, resources, and delegation, as well as areas of expertise,” Dr Reigersberg writes. “Qualified research administrators have expertise to share that can help academic research endeavours tremendously.” This expertise includes assistance at the grant application stage, in ethical clearance, and in intellectual property and copyright issues.

A good research administrator, she says, “should be a facilitator and professional equal, not an unquestioning servant or dictator”.

So who is best placed to take on such a task? Why not a researcher?

“From where I am sitting (perched on the uncomfortable fence between academia/administration), this social and perceptual division between administrative and academic job remits and identities is artificial and unhelpful,” writes Dr Reigersberg.

“Nowadays, many well-qualified early career researchers are choosing research administration as a career option or alternative to the cut-throat, unstable world of…academe. They are extremely capable of supporting research activities and some, like myself, are still active researchers in their own right. They have the skills, intelligence and empathy to contribute significantly to the success of research activities.”

Indeed, Dr Reigersberg argues, senior academics such as heads of department are administrators too, “whether they like it or not”.

“Who are we kidding?” she concludes. “To be successful in their careers, academics nowadays have to be good administrators.”

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