Laurie Taylor and Simeon Underwood offer some helpful insights into the current antipathy between academics and university managers (“Keeping the peace”, Features, 28 May). Underwood is right to point out the need for specialised administrators. I and most of my colleagues recognise that we are privileged to work with some of the very best in student support and academic support. This regard, however, does not always attach itself to those bearing the designation “manager”. It may be helpful to distinguish between the two, if we are to build bridges in universities.
Unlike the administrators who support academics in teaching, assessment and research, it can appear that managers are less ready to facilitate academics’ contribution to these areas. Formerly, a head of department would be a rotating position, occupied by a senior academic who could be counted on to defend their subject and support other academics. The importance of this role was never questioned.
In recent years, however, a new kind of manager has emerged, one who bears allegiance to the university’s senior management team. Rather then subject-facing, they are management-facing. The university provides training courses to ensure this conversion from academic to manager. In some cases, it’s as if the managers have joined an exclusionary cult. The role has become associated with tedious formalities such as appraisal, quality processes, audit and constant requests to justify our work. When all the essential support is supplied by administrators, and nobody really notices the absence of managers, we might question whether some of these roles fulfil the criterion of David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs”. So my recommendation for managers would be to show your subject colours a bit more often, and act like a leader, not a manager.
Oh dear, Laurie Taylor.
I fell in love with you as a young undergraduate at the University of York in the 1980s, I have basked in your warm appreciation of the marvellous Birkbeck, University of London, where I have worked for more than a decade, and enjoyed your weekly Poppletonian page, recognising both Keith Ponting (30) and the references to the Poppleton villages on the outskirts of the city centre that was my home. But now I’m sat feeling disillusioned and sad.
For the past 10 years, I have celebrated the academics at Birkbeck who transform the lives of our non-traditional students. I have rejoiced in the rich academic traditions of a college that pushes back the boundaries of knowledge, helps to solve world problems and contributes to building a future society we might all want to live in. And while the academics are busy doing that, I’m out playing my part. My talented team of professionals work tirelessly to lobby on behalf of part-time and mature learners; we recruit and retain students; publicise our remarkable research activities; gather the support of our extended community into the life of our institution; and bring in philanthropic money to support both our academics and our students so that money isn’t a barrier. We are what you call “managers” and what Times Higher Education and the Higher Education Statistics Agency keep labelling as “non-academic” staff. I hate to be defined by what I am not rather that what I am. And what I am is a member of the senior leadership team from a professional background with a set of skills that can help my remarkable institution to survive and thrive when endless government policies seen intent on preventing that.
I am lucky and grateful that Birkbeck recognises and values the contribution of all its staff. We may model something that the sector can learn from. When you’re in trouble, through no fault of your own, a partnership of all the talent is what will help you to survive. Please stop perpetuating the notion of a class system that makes so many dedicated staff feel very demoralised. We are not the enemy.
Pro-vice master and director of external relations
Birkbeck, University of London