Zip code: AUA searches for the right metaphor

The division between academics and university administrators persists despite attempts to bring the two camps closer together, an international study suggests.

April 28, 2011

Maree Conway, former president of the Association for Tertiary Education Management in Australia, has been conducting a long-term study of relationships between the two parties.

Discussing Ms Conway's findings last week, Alison Johns, president of the UK's Association of University Administrators, said that attitudes remained polarised.

"Senior administrators say that, if the relationship doesn't change, their institution may not survive. Academics, however, just see a future of more and more administrators," she said.

Ms Johns added that common metaphors used by academic staff to describe their colleagues in administration were almost always negative.

She had heard support staff described as an "administration mafia", "a dark cloud descending upon universities" and "the good, the bad and the ugly".

The labels echoed those reported by delegates at the AUA conference in 2008, when Ms Conway held a session in which she asked administrators to share their experiences.

One recounted being called "the enemy within" by an academic, while another said that initiatives such as "admin-free Fridays" had left her and her colleagues feeling undervalued.

Delegates at the AUA's annual conference in Nottingham last week were invited to come up with more positive images.

They settled on the metaphor of a zip, in which "the two sides are useless unless they come together".

Ms Johns said that greater cohesion was particularly important during a time of upheaval in the academy.

"We are experiencing a paradigm shift in higher education. It's one of the biggest experiments we will see in our lifetimes. The speed of change is like nothing we have experienced before," she said.

To cope, administrators had to be a "bit more radical" in their thinking, she added.

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