Managers seek cure for staff cynicism

September 16, 2005

Academics' independence of mind, natural cynicism and principled stubbornness may be prized in lecture halls and on conference podiums, but they are giving university personnel managers a headache.

In a move that some might compare with trying to learn how to herd cats, the Universities Personnel Association this week tried to grapple with the question of how to manage academics - or, more specifically, how to get them to trust and respect their manager colleagues, at its annual conference in Glasgow "Academics are trained to question everything," Rob McCreath, an employment adviser to the sector, told The Times Higher ahead of his workshop on whether trust can exist in an academic environment. "This tradition of academic freedom can make it difficult for academics to co-operate with management. They don't like being told what to do."

He appeared to have resigned himself to these difficulties before his workshop had started. Titled "Trust (or was that trussed?) at Work", its publicity blurb asked: "Can trust possibly survive in an academic environment? Can it (or) should it be created or nurtured, or, if all else fails, faked?

"How does the concept of trust fit with human resource practice in today's higher education institutions? It is not anticipated that this bit will take up much time."

Mr McCreath, who works at Archon Solicitors, said that the pressure academics faced from a lack of resources and an excess of targets did not help.

"Academic work is not like operating a sausage machine, yet academics are still expected to produce the sausages."

But he added that trust could be enhanced by establishing shared aims, encouraging dialogue between academics and managers, and by communicating face to face, rather than by e-mail.

Peter Deer, chairman of UPA and director of personnel services at Cambridge University, described a "natural tension" between academics and administrators.

"A lot of academics aren't attuned to management," he said. "There's a reluctance from some academics to engage with institutions."

Roger Kline, head of universities for lecturers' union Natfhe, told The Times Higher : "The issue of trust in academic institutions is about how best to manage professional people." He added that "respect and trust were at least as important as pay" for many academic staff.

"If there's no relationship of trust, you're not going to get the best out of people," Mr Kline said.

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