Management clones kill our thriving cultures

Universities undermine their identity and values when they headhunt outsiders for leadership roles, laments a senior manager

May 22, 2014

Source: Sergiy Maidukov

It worries me that the creation of an identikit class of migratory senior managers is robbing the UK system of exactly what made it successful

I have had a very fortunate academic career. Back in the early 1980s, I took the friendlier of a couple of job offers and found myself in a lovely university that has been my academic home ever since.

The ensuing years have been very good for me, and for my university. I have worked with wonderful colleagues, taught many excellent students, and published some things that still seem to have been worth the effort. I have had the pleasure of heading a (mostly) happy and effective department, before taking on a series of other senior management jobs in which I feel I haven’t done too much harm.

On balance, I think I’ve made more friends than I’ve lost, and I feel a genuine spirit of camaraderie with the hundreds of colleagues who have shared this journey. Some are great friends, while others, inevitably, are genuine pains in the backside – but I know that (almost) all of them have been doing what they thought was best for the university and our community.

There is, of course, a “but” coming. It is a very simple one: success attracts ambition. The ambitious, of course, include students and talented young academics and researchers. But they also include senior managers. When I first joined the “senior table” at my university, I looked around and saw others who had spent a significant chunk of their active academic careers at our university. Now I see very capable people who, in many cases, have built their careers – and learned their values – elsewhere.

There is obviously something to be said for recruiting new blood and getting an external perspective from time to time. But I am pretty certain that the success of my institution is based on a core set of values shared by most of the staff, so it is very frustrating to feel that many of my senior colleagues are struggling to “get” the essence of those values. Occasionally I feel that the new arrival is a kindred spirit who has finally arrived at a place where they can feel at home, but these are the exceptions.

Meanwhile, our senior common room is ever more full of long-term colleagues of great ability who have been passed over as senior or middle managers in favour of these newcomers. You can imagine that it is perhaps a less convivial place than it was five years ago. Surely we should be looking to do more in-house training to enable local recruitment into senior roles. I don’t think my university is alone in this tendency either: I sit on any number of national committees and increasingly I feel that there is a mismatch between the homogeneous individuals sitting at the table and what I know of the unique institutions they are supposed to be representing.

Holy writ asks: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Although I don’t think we have souls, I do think universities just might. It worries me that the creation of an identikit class of migratory senior managers is robbing the UK system of exactly what made it successful. Just as the presence of the same set of chain stores and global brands on almost every high street robs towns of their historic identities, so failing to reflect our home values and local community when appointing senior managers risks turning our universities into clones of each other. That would be a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale.

Who asked for this? Who wants this? Obviously, the government and funders play a part in this anonymisation of universities. The research excellence framework, for example, persistently treats universities as a set of independent research units that happen to share a postal address, rather than considering the institution as a whole and the values that link it as a community. Similarly, league table metrics imply that there is only one way to be a good university, and that all higher education institutions globally should be assessed by the same criteria.

But universities themselves are playing into the same trap. We have all been seduced by the headhunters, who depend on creating a transfer market for expensive senior managers supposedly capable of parachuting in and “transforming” an institution. If we are to avoid the “great beige university catastrophe”, we all need to think about what we are really looking for in our senior managers, and whether it is just skills and values appropriate for a university or skills and values right for this university. If, as I believe, the answer is that the particular and the local matter, why are we listening to middlemen who don’t understand local values and are clearly motivated to look away from local candidates to justify their large fees? The money would be much better spent hunting senior heads within our own communities.

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Reader's comments (7)

One of the most ridiculous pieces I've read in the THE in a long time - a recipe for creating cultures of complacency, jobs for life and expectations that promotion relies on buggin's turn rather than genuine competition for the best candidate. People should be free to choose their preferred path and career mobility is good for both individuals and organisations; it's nothing to do with headhunters.
I agree with David - this piece is terrible. The phenomenon the author is describing is that of a closed culture, with obscure and unintelligible local rules that are so misunderstood and coded that they cannot be communicated either internally, externally or to new entrants. This is the type of environment that encourages progression by longevity and politics, but not by shared understanding, clear guidelines, overt operational codes and transferability of goals. Sadly the 'experience' the author refers to is in fact protectionism, silo working and negativity - all of which don't, as is commonly believed, create a 'unique culture' but sadly it creates an all-too-common culture of slow development, incompetence, 'someone who knows' rather than defined responsibility given to roles (a test - if you have called up someone in your institution for advice on something they used to do three or four roles ago because the person in the role now isn't 'up to speed' yet - you have this culture) ( this is because people starting in new roles are 'expected to know' or fail because of the closed coded culture and so every role cannot be communicated easily to each new entrant - the fun game for the sad embittered lifers is to watch 'new blood' flounder because no-one can explain how the last person did the job. What institutions like this need isn't, as the author seems to think- people who went to school, a-levels, university.. and then hung around, they need people who have seen up to date, functioning well-managed organisations, different cultures and who have experienced transferability, clear career progression based on ability rather than politics, and explainable job roles. Sure its nice to have a cosy high-public salaried hub of paranoid 'executives' resistant to newcomers, and wary of change - and yes I can see where the authors benefits are - no challenge, friends rather than professionals, corner cutting allowed, but where are the benefits to the institution?
I agree with the previous comments. Not quite sure why THE decided to publish this but I am hoping it was as a provocation - in which case it worked! The world preferred by this anonymous author is one that would have excluded me and many others besides. A great many injustices and mistakes have been made in changes to HE in the UK. But consigning this sort of attitude to the dustbin of history is one of the positives.
Due to an error 4 comments were removed from this thread. I had said that upon reading this article as it appeared I had been left with mixed feelings. The Times Higher Education seems to be publishing regularly "anonymous managers". On a previous occasion Anthony Heyes remarked: "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." http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/a-team-built-bynumbers-wont-add-up-to-much/2012378.article I was expecting a similar reaction, but this time I see four [now three] named individuals strongly disagreeing over the general tone and message of this contribution. My question over this dialogue between managers (of the old type and the new breed) is as follows: Is there disagreement on the following premise of this anonymous author? "the success of my institution is based on a core set of values shared by most of the staff" The passionate reaction may suggest a different value system shared by the preceding commentators. And there seems to be no disagreement that the new managerial class is being- parachuted in to transform the institutions. I hold that decision making has to arise from the academic committee of each department in constant dialogue with the centre and that the centre should not be open to foreign (i.e. non-academic) interests. Advice is welcome, imposition is fatal.
The somewhat hysterical tone of the first three posts above, presumably from managers, suggests our anonymous senior administrator has hit the nail on the head. Far from arguing to return to the past, he 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 genuine eminence of their predecessors. Of course there may be reasons for the appearance of this new cadre, after all which true don wishes to crown his or her career by sacking colleagues, but there are plenty of examples outside universities of enterprises which have been damaged by aggressive leadership of the kind now emerging in the academy (the railways, the banks, the NHS, HMRC to name a few), and it’s fair to plead that higher education not be added to the list. A worrying trend in modern managers, post-Jarratt, is disdain for the opinions of their academic colleagues and thus a slide from governance by intelligent discussion to rule by diktat. Among the more obvious consequences is the loss of identity in individual institutions as every university competes in a fantasy league to be “world class”, “paradigm-breaking”, “top decile” etc. Voices in opposition to these changes seem to be few. A couple of years ago, I and four colleagues from Queen Mary made a detailed submission to the Institute for Public Policy Research as a contribution to their Commission on the Future of Higher Education in England. Our piece entitled “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 ensuing 156-page Report of the Commission, whose membership largely consisted of …. managers. I think the issue is more important than this.
It's a pity that the first four people who commented failed to declare their interests. They clearly aren't scientists. They sound to me precisely like the sort of people who can be guaranteed to do great harm to an academic institution. The astonishing rude and hysterical language they use should disqualify them from any senior job, never mind a job that needs some knowledge about how science advances. At least we now know the names of four people who, I hope, won't be getting jobs as managers at UCL. [Footnote, 25 May. The comment by Alan Lea has been deleted now, but I hope it will be restored. He said "In my view this is the rants and pathetic views of hovering, holding, jobs-worth, manager looking forward to retirement". Readers of THE should be aware that there exist 'managers' who are capable of such venom.]
I also support the view of the encroachment of "professional" (a euphemism for bad?) managers damaging universities. As others have pointed out, the early comments are likely from these kinds of people, rather like attacks on FT articles in 2008 criticising the banks came from overpaid bankers. That the adverse comments are replete with the kind of hackneyed expressions loved by their ilk illustrates very well why this article is right.

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