Tara Brabazon: Forget the Spanx, leaders of tomorrow

The next generation to shape academia must eschew quick-fix shortcuts and generously nurture talent without envy, says Tara Brabazon

September 9, 2009

Academic leadership is like dieting. Everyone wants a pill, potion, lotion, gastric band, girdle or vibrating Slendertone to shake, shift, tuck, tighten or excrete the unwanted flab to reveal a sleek new shape. Similarly, at a moment of crisis in universities, a new action plan, leadership post, role or committee bulges from the streamlined silhouette of business as usual. This leader-magician-guru will right the Titanic of a budget rather than rearrange the deckchairs of debt, revise a dated curriculum, solve problematic supervision policies and inspire research-inactive staff to become superheroes of scholarship. With a great leader, supposedly all institutional problems disappear like a tummy roll into Spanx.

Unfortunately, leadership is not stretchy Lycra. A quick-fix appointment will not create change. A strategic plan or leadership directive cannot cajole or force an academic to complete the preparation required to develop an inspirational hour of learning. There are no shortcuts. To make a difference in a school or department requires brutal workdays of careful and methodical effort. Fine teachers discover the most relevant research, write detailed feedback on assignments, respect students and support their professional careers.

This is a huge responsibility. It is easier to have a cup of coffee, type a few headings on PowerPoint slides and hope that an adequate (acceptable? reasonable?) lecture, tutorial or seminar is delivered. Most of us have sat in sessions where reading PowerPoint slides has become a bandage/tourniquet/safety blanket to hide a lack of preparation. It is not useful to mock teachers who replace powerful learning with PowerPoint. It is more efficient to understand why these shortcuts occur. Teaching well is tough. Any leader who does not have the expertise to sit with a staff member, diagnose the flaws in their preparation and provide concrete alternative patterns and pathways will not improve teaching and learning in that university.

There is no gastric-band academic plan to transform a team of under-confident, under-motivated, under-qualified or under-experienced scholars into the best teachers in Britain. Top-down management of teachers may create fear. It may produce stress. It will not instil the motivation for – or capacity to instigate – professional transformation.

Research activity is an even better example. “Leadership” in research provides structure, ambition and goals. But with synergetic, strategic sandpits in place, what happens to the research-inactive staff member who has never written an academic article and does not hold a postgraduate degree? How can they even begin to understand the level and form of writing required for refereed scholarship? “Encouraging” research activity – or demanding it within the context of staff development or promotion – is not effective. It is easy to create action plans. It is much harder to spend the hours each week that are necessary to move research-inactive staff through to the submission of a first article.

The point is an obvious – if unpopular – one. If research activity is a goal for an institution and a staff member is hired who has never published refereed scholarship, someone must spend the time equivalent to the supervision of a research masters to enable scholarly writing. No policy or plan can mask the tough challenge of constructing an academic article. This expertise is not downloadable at birth. It does not matter how many emails demand staff submissions to journals. It does not matter if research activity is an imperative in a strategic plan. Without deep commitment from fellow academics suggesting reading material and possible topics, sketching a structure and supporting them through the rejections as well as the successes, research-inactive staff members will flounder about trying to launch a scholarly writing career. Leadership models often confuse the motivation to begin research with a capacity to complete it.

An honest negotiation of the difference between wanting change and making change is required. A few years ago, I spoke with soon-to-be completed doctoral students about academic careers. They were an inspiring group of people, but what was interesting – and perhaps predictable – was that they wanted the academic equivalent of Spanx: the shortcuts that would allow them to move as quickly as possible from a doctoral candidature up to a senior academic post.

I understood their desire. At the point of submitting a PhD, we all think nothing will ever be as difficult. Only later do we realise that the PhD was a singular, special opportunity to concentrate on a project and topic in a supportive environment, enabled by people who cared about our research. The PhD is an apprenticeship. The career commences after the examination.

The unfortunate truth is that completing a PhD is easier than building a career. These struggles are worth it: academic life has profound rewards. Mostly though, academic jobs are like a country-music song: we work hard then we die, and even our dog will not miss us. All that remains are the students we taught, the friends who accompanied us along the trail and a beeping email inbox that will not acknowledge that we are no more.

The difficulty is how to deliver this crucial information to postgraduates without denting their confidence. Empowered by a soon-to-be completed doctorate, they think they will be a professor by Christmas. I wish they could be. The Generation X and Y students and academics I have worked with in the past decade have been imaginative, witty and innovative. The key is to ensure that their movement through academic life is easier than our own. When I tell these fine scholars that I had to move countries for my first (low-level) appointment, which was only a one-year contract, then move again for a (low-level) lecturing post, then again for a better lecturing post, then again to another country to gain a chair, they become unsettled, frustrated and often angry. I appreciate their concern. Academic life is mobile. It ruthlessly crushes family life and friendship. I wish it could be different and that there were ways to mediate the disruptions on partners, children, parents and friends. The maxim for success remains – you move or you lose.

To gain a post and do the job well, staff must read expansively, write diligently, teach magnificently, learn respectfully, speak with kindness and maintain optimism for the future. We must be active researchers so that our students and colleagues work in an environment of dynamism and creativity. All of us – and that includes “senior” academics – must teach throughout our academic careers so that an exorbitant workload is not heaped on to the most junior staff members who are the least experienced in handling the resultant problems and traumas. Too often, a new academic has an unreasonable teaching timetable dumped on them at short notice. We know this is not right. It is not fair. Great leaders plan and care about the development of new academics, not only for the next financial year but also for the next decade.

Intellectual generosity is the characteristic of great men and women in our profession. It is important to remember that these scholars work incredibly hard. They know that there is no shortcut – no leadership Spanx – in teaching and research.

I recently had the privilege of welcoming two world-leading scholars to examine one of my doctoral students. As I bounced along with them on the train from Brighton to Moulsecoomb station, they talked about how thrilled they were to be involved in the examination because it was a break from undergraduate marking. Both were heads of departments who maintained their intellectual roles through doctoral examination and outstanding research while continuing to teach undergraduates.

For me, this is leadership. It is easy to talk about teaching. It is easy to talk about doctoral supervision. It is easy to talk about research. It is much harder – and less hypocritical – to lead by example than by running seminars telling others about research and teaching excellence. Staff members attending these sessions want to feel like Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up. They leave feeling like the Waterboys’ Whole of the Moon. If “leaders” have not written books, supervised students and managed a high teaching workload, they are in no position to comment, mentor or assist junior scholars. The managerial Spanx will split with the strain.

I hold hopes for the next 20 years of academic life. I want universities to become environments of experience, expertise, generosity, laughter and quiet reflection. Our students deserve the best legacy we can give them. Regular readers of my column know what is coming next. This is the part of the article where I mention baby-boomers. The generational angst will be temporary. Normal services will resume shortly.

Academic Gen-Xers have worked with baby-boomer leadership styles throughout our careers. We heard the stories about Cambridge in the Sixties. We heard the stories about who had sex with whom at conferences in the Seventies. We heard who had sex with postgraduates in the Eighties. We heard the promises about all the new academic jobs that would be available for those postgraduates in the Nineties. We also heard through the 2000s how many baby-boomer academics were “about” to retire.

I am not proposing a generational feud. Most of the academics I respect are in their sixties. The real question is, when these baby-boomer scholars leave our campuses, what models of leadership will the next generation create? My hope for the Generation X and Y academic community is that we excise the negativity and hypocrisy that have punctuated our professional lives. Some decisions made in and about universities in the past decade reveal the rationality of a man appearing on breakfast television explaining that he has not only seen a UFO, but believes a UFO base camp has settled at the back of his house.

I want the next 20 years of our universities to be outstanding. I want Generation Y scholars to be granted a legacy of compassionate leadership. Many of the fine students I have taught and supervised hold doctorates, teaching qualifications, outstanding research profiles, experience and expertise, and yet remain locked in the marginal academy, picking up fractional appointments and sessional tutoring. This situation must change.

I am not promoting an aromatherapy-fuelled, vegan eating, whale-song soundtrack for our institutions. I am worried that men and women in their twenties, thirties and early forties are walking away from academic life. A friend and former PhD student recently told me that he has given up the hope of owning a house because he will never attain a full-time post. He is currently working in three universities as a part-time tutor. He has a doctorate, 25 refereed articles, a book, a teaching qualification and a nomination for a teaching award. While my role is to keep him confident and applying for posts, I know that the decade of living in this way has scarred him. He is not the only one. I hear from hundreds of young academics who want a chance to teach, write, think and create. Instead, they are VLs. Although these initials supposedly stand for “visiting lecturer”, they really signify “very lost”.

For those of us in our early forties – and I turned 40 this year so I include myself in this category – we must prepare the university system for the next generation. We have to remember the treatment of friends and students in the past 20 years and make a pledge to ensure that our systems of administration, management and leadership are fair, rigorous, considerate and transparent. The era of the quick-fix course on leadership is ticking to a close.

A cheeky maxim for this moment of generational transformation comes from Australian bumper stickers, T-shirts and websites. The slogan is both a call to arms and a jolt out of complacency during difficult times: “Toughen up Princess.” This statement started life as a cry for women involved in extreme sports such as wakeboarding and motocross, was appropriated by the gay community and now describes a life plan for bogans.

Let me offer a definitional interlude. Bogans are like chavs, but without the designer labels. They are tough women and men who wear a lot of black, comfortable clothing (in other words, tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirts), smoke, drink, swear and have the confidence to ignore the judgments loaded on them by others. They also maintain a strong sense of community and an incisive realisation of what matters. While bogan is a derogatory term, it has a much wider usage than chav. Any bloke with a big car and a clunking exhaust who shares the fumes, noise and smell with his neighbours is a bogan. Any woman wearing tracksuit bottoms and UGG boots to walk down to the bottle shop is a bogan. Anyone wearing too much black, confronting personal hygiene issues or refusing to change out of a T-shirt for a few days can be a bogan.

The bogan community has bequeathed new connotations to this mantra. “Toughen up Princess” is useful advice for Generation X and Y academics. As baby-boomers vacate our universities in the fashion of Vegas Elvis at the end of a show, there will be a series of budgetary choices and relationships with business and government left to renegotiate and reconsider. Our challenge is to remember our experiences and create a university with integrity and purpose for the future, rather than an institution built on a memory of Oxford or Cambridge in the 1960s (or the consequences of watching too many Inspector Morse reruns). All of us will have to “Toughen up Princess”, to make hard decisions while rebuilding a university system for students that is aspirational and inspirational. A primary goal must be to remove the ruthlessness, anger and envy from academic life.

This is leadership. It welcomes brilliant, innovative and dynamic scholars who improve our disciplines, rather than fearing their ability or vengefully guarding our intellectual turf. It is ensuring that all academics have opportunities for professional development that are not tethered to promotion or redundancy. Most importantly, it is living a life filled with conscious decisions rather than suppressed anger at what could have been.

A vice-chancellor recently asked me, “Tara, what’s the goal?” My answer was an obvious one: to be the best professor I can be, to teach well, write well and help where I can. That was probably not the expected response, but it captures the generational shift in our universities. The greatest characteristic of leadership has nothing to do with words such as “ambition”, “strategy” and “vision”. Leaders move their ambitions out of the way to enable the development of others. Leadership comes from understanding our responsibilities to the future rather than the right to success in the present.

Academic life is a privilege. To serve education is to serve students, fellow scholars, knowledge and our nations. Graciousness emerges from knowing that after our death, the scholars who follow will improve the research we have conducted. Our legacy is in footnotes, not monuments.

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