Doing battle with the 'dinosaurs'

Administrators share tales of their rocky working relationships with academics. John Gill reports

April 10, 2008

The divide between academics and university administrators is perpetuated by "dinosaurs" on one side and "jobsworths" on the other.

The labels were attributed by delegates at the Association of University Administrators conference last week, in a session that asked whether the division was myth or reality.

Using the opportunity to get grievances off their chests, administrators from universities across the sector described the obstacles and tensions they experienced at work.

One administrator had been called "the enemy within" by an academic, which she said was a widely held perception, while another said that initiatives such as "admin-free Fridays" left her and her colleagues feeling undervalued.

A group asked to use film titles to describe the divide suggested Jurassic Park, with academics as dinosaurs, The Enemy at the Gate, underscoring the suspicion with which administrators are viewed, and The War of the Worlds.

Another group used pictures to represent the tension from the academic perspective, and drew a cloud of administrators with academics drowning in bureaucracy.

Not all delegates agreed that the tension was necessarily a bad thing - one suggested that in the commercial world it would be considered a healthy pressure.

The vast majority, though, saw the divide as counterproductive and morale-sapping. A frequent complaint was that academics saw administrators as a burdensome waste of money rather than as colleagues sharing a workload.

One delegate said: "We're seen as high cost and low value, whereas academics see themselves as high value and the cost shouldn't matter."

Some felt that academics had time for administrators with whom they worked directly, but did not understand the roles of those in areas removed from their core work.

Another delegate summed up the tone of many of the comments when she said: "Academic freedom means the freedom to think, not the freedom to do what you like."

The session was led by Maree Conway, a strategic analyst who is carrying out an international study.

She said that as non-academic staff are now in the majority in higher education, "maybe academics should be called non-general staff".

Another point aired in the session was the view that academics buy into new policies only if they are driven by other academics.

Cultural differences between the two sides were also identified, with administrators tending to make quick decisions while academics are used to a slower, collegial approach. Delegates suggested that the need to be accountable was "part of an administrator's makeup" whereas to some academics it was "anathema".

However, there was room too for a more self-critical point of view.

One delegate said: "Some administrators are jobsworths and academic staff are what they are: being partners isn't about making other people the same as you."

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