A journey into fear

December 12, 1997

Stephen Court argues that the casualisation of academic labour represents a greater threat to academic freedom than the ending of tenure (THES, December 5). I agree, but would like to add that the increased use of fixed-term contracts (FTCs) also threatens to damage the decision-making process within universities.

FTCs are an attempt to manage by fear rather than by inspiration. The motto is: "Floggings will continue until morale improves." Their not so hidden message is that academics need the threat of dismissal hanging over them in order to perform. Under-performance should certainly be tackled, and there are many ways in which this could be done. However, threatening the axe will alienate people, making it harder to rely on goodwill and diminishing participation in the management of universities. The negative effects on loyalty are so well known that many private sector firms are phasing out FTCs.

Given time, this policy means that senior managers will pay even less attention to academic opinion than they do now: why listen to people whom you can sack if you dislike what they have to say? Thus, it will become harder to get honest feedback on decisions made, since staff will be too fearful for their jobs to speak their minds.

Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn reputedly told his staff, after his studio had produced a string of six flops: "I want you to tell me what's wrong with MGM and me - even if it means losing your jobs". This approach may be attractive in the short term, but in the longer term the quality of decision-making by anyone insulated from critical feedback always declines, while they develop illusions of indispensability, superiority and infallibility. This is widely recognised as a major problem in business. Ingratiation theory suggests that most of us provide those further up the hierarchy only with the feedback that they want to hear, particularly when they have considerable power over us. Research suggests that managers tend to imagine such defective feedback is both accurate and sincerely offered - what has been dubbed "the boss's illusion".

If those managing academics have the power to fire, this baleful process can only be exacerbated yet further. In time, I also imagine that our professional association (AUT) will be increasingly set aside for negotiating purposes. This issue should rank alongside pay as one on which our unions should be vigorously campaigning.

Dennis Tourish, School of behavioural and communication sciences University of Ulster

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