Managing out the geniuses will end in dismal mediocrity

Promotion criteria requiring top researchers to also be good teachers and managers undermine the nature of universities, says Andrew Oswald

June 20, 2019
Source: Liam Anslow

Universities are not in the passable-solidness business. We are in the pain-in-the-arse-genius business. I advise vice-chancellors reading this article to print those two sentences out in 80-point font and hang them over the breakfast table, regardless of spousal protestations.

Universities thrive on erratic brilliance and diversity of ideas. Yet these are being attacked. In the UK, new box-ticking promotion rules are a horrible new example, and will end in a dismally sound evenness of mediocrity.

I am sorry to have to say that most of the errors of thinking are being pushed through by well-intentioned men and women who have been influenced by – and sometimes come from – the non-university sector. Rather naturally, they admire organisations of predictability and solidity.

Imagine four boxes. Call those “research”, “teaching”, “management experience” and “public engagement and impact”. Now treat the four as having fairly equal weights. Then pass a rule that says that everyone who wishes to be promoted to a middle or senior position, like reader or professor, must get a passing minimum score on all of the four. Finally, do not ask existing readers and professors whether they think that a minimum-insistence rule is a good idea. Just do it. Then have it implemented by an HR boss or equivalent recruited from the non-university sector.

Cue frustration, bewilderment and anger.

If you do not see that such a system is likely to be disastrous for a university, you do not have a grasp of the nature of universities (and why would you if you have come from the Civil Service or an insurance company?). The unboxable tall poppies will be scythed away and deposited in the US and the continent of Europe. Regularity, reliability, steadiness and passableness will then result. Those qualities can be valuable: when I catch a train or phone the Automobile Association or order socks online, those are the qualities I want. But they are hopeless aims for a university.

Here are some cautionary anecdotes. Years ago, I was teaching at a famous university, and for the very first time we were all assessed, by the 100 students in our department, on our teaching quality. When the ranking came out, we all looked it up, of course, and a Dr X was ranked as nearly the worst teacher in the department. I imagine he was upset. A couple of years later, Dr X won an award. To pick it up he had to fly to Stockholm and wear a white bow tie. Fairly soon after, he quit for another university.

My experience has been that outstanding researchers tend to be exceptional teachers, but, unfortunately, we have to accept that, occasionally, some brilliant people do not have a spread of abilities. Google and Microsoft have also learned this. Universities need to wake up.

On another occasion, I was working in a department where the most articulate academic on television was a terrific advert for the university and his academic discipline, despite his having never, to my knowledge, published a single significant article. Another time I had a colleague who was the best office manager I have ever encountered but was a so-so researcher who could not cope with TV interviews or government commissions.

And all that is OK. The world needs uneven brilliance. Vincent Van Gogh would have been tiresome and unreliable as the manager of an art department. Moussa Sissoko is possibly the best player in the Tottenham Hotspur football team, but is so hopeless at scoring that devoted fans shout “pass the ball” when he is in front of goal. Ernest Hemingway would not have been a reassuring choice as a university personal tutor for my daughters. Marie Curie would probably have forgotten to show up for her lectures.

Universities are special in character and purpose. They are the source of the world’s ideas and, thus, their most important job is not to teach or to manage or to have immediate public impact – even though all of those matter. They are not like car factories: not even a Mercedes factory. That is why it is inappropriate in universities to have promotion systems, or any other performance-management systems, that reward steadiness and sound homogeneity. We do not need academics to be balanced human beings who can do a bit of everything.

In my judgement, research ability should be given much the dominant weight, as it has historically. A great teacher will teach students for 40 years. A great researcher will teach students for 140 years, and occasionally for 400. But not if universities’ promotion criteria have them spitting out their cornflakes and scanning the newspaper adverts for alternative lines of work.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics and behavioural science at the University of Warwick.

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Reader's comments (12)

As a one-time executive dean of a large faculty at an Australian university I find myself in furious agreement with Professor Oswald. I came to the job from outside the university world and spent three years getting a grip on how it worked. What at first seemed unmanageable slowly began to make sense. What I couldn't understand is why the best academics were put into management roles where their talents were sidelined rather than supported to devote their energies to what they did best and rewarded for it. Although I may have been part of the trend, I'm convinced the corporatisation of universities, like the corporatisation of so much else in modern societies, is a slow burning disaster.
Very insightful. Of course it also suits the mediocre to hold the brilliant back by demanding that they have ticked those frankly irrelevant boxes in the name of 'student experience', 'teaching', and admin roles. Specialisation is needed, and probably smaller, more selective institutions.
This all makes a lot of sense and certainly applies where particular skills and talents lie. It is when people who don’t excel in any one of the 4 domains claim exceptionalism that the management class get irked. But then again what would they know if they’ve spent their formative years in an insurance company or the civil service?
This is rather predicated on the idea that there's a vanishingly small pool of top talent - or indeed that ground-breaking ideas are all down to some innate personal genius, rather than that + a broader combination of factors such as a supportive and collaborative ecosystem of talented colleagues. I'd argue both premises are on shaky ground. Not everyone has to be brilliant at everything, granted, but we all know there are more PhDs coming through the system than there are academic posts. My advice? If you want to get on, accept that the modern idea of an academic has evolved, and work at your weak areas: the time of universities having to pick the brilliant-but-flawed misanthrope researcher over an exceptional *and* rounded academic are largely gone, at least for the truly world-class universities.
Do universities actually thrive on erratic brilliance? I bet there is probably some data on this. It's worth considering if universities actually thrive on occasional "geniuses" or on systematic, highly collaborative work. And can you say with certainty that being forced out of the bubble of research and into the other three areas does NOT improve your research as a whole? We can all agree that fiddling around in clunky administrative systems is a waste of time, but I believe, and have colleagues who believe, that working with people and engaging in things like outreach and science communication actually help the researcher understand her own work and the nature of the problem better. A more scandalous question is this: is one great paper (see: enough of a payoff for society as a whole to fund, for an unlimited amount of time, the office, lab space, travel and salary of a researcher? Perhaps it *is* fair to propose that great teachers should fund the great researchers. But we should be honest about 1. how likely it is that even ONE great paper/a genius is produced, and 2. the fact that when it happens, it is often a flash in the pan.
Not all academics are geniuses. Really, we should be careful with the assumption that academics are some kind of special people... We are not. However, I do agree that the current performance-driven tick box exercises are killing the morale of several very good academics. Academia, like any other place, is "team work". To expect each member of staff to perform equally well in 4 different jobs at the same is a delusion. This would be the same as expecting a football player to equally have stellar performance in ALL team roles, including goalkeeper. This is simply NOT possible. One could be exceptionally good in 1 of the 4 'jobs', average in 2 others and even mediocre in the 4th one. But they could still be a very valuable team member. The way academics are required to perform a number of roles (and some of them they have never received any kind of training for) is delusional and eventually results in staff with average/mediocre performance in ALL roles being promoted more easily than others. Then there is also the great academic who is promoted to management roles that kill their motivation and drive. Eventually, those brilliant academics will leave. The worse a management can do is to kill the motivation of your most brilliant staff to cover for the shortcomings of your most mediocre staff. This si a recipe for disaster and it is already happening in some departments.
Very old-fashioned, priviliged view in my opinion. If said genius is so brilliant, they would be able to buy out their time on teaching from research grants, which would justify no/low teaching responsibilities for promotion applications. If said genius is so brilliant, they should be able to win individual research professor grants, which stipulate the university must appoint them as professor, ie bypass home rules on chair appointments. Also, in the current day, which brilliant research is performed my insulated individuals in ivory towers, who need to be shielded from the outside world? In my view all academics must contribute to management tasks, each academic benefits from well-run supporting structures, ie said genius and their research team would benefit from well-run support, as delivered by all. Why would other academics spend boring time on admin and management tasks in support of 'parasitic colleagues', thereby taking themselves away from their own mostly very useful research? Each and every academic must be able to learn and take on management roles, otherwise precious research teams won't be run in the best way, accommodating the most diverse work force, delivering better outputs than less diverse teams.
If said genius is so brilliant, they would be able to buy out their time on teaching from research grants, which would justify no/low teaching responsibilities for promotion applications. If said genius is so brilliant, they should be able to win individual research professor grants, which stipulate the university must appoint them as professor, ie bypass home rules on chair appointments. " I thinks this is a bit of a fantasy. I have 2/3 of my time paid for with research grants but it made no difference to my teaching/admin load and that is not unusual- this is one of the points I think the article is making. The idea of a grant that stipulates that the grant holder should be made professor is more than a bit of a fantasy, it would just not happen.
Universities were founded as places of education to teach undergraduates. The idea that they should be places of research is a recent one. Teaching brings in 2/3 of income even for research intensive unis. I agree that requiring every E to be outstanding at everything is unreasonable, but clear guidelines for promotion are important to get away from a place where Charles Spiffing, the HoD's best mate gets a professorship by 40, but Jane Doe, whose record is just as good or better is still a lecturer at 50.
That mediocrity is EXACTLY what the vacuous dullard jealous and vindictive anti-academic managerialists running our universities most desire. Because it makes them feel more comfy at a #UniversityNearYou for being academic failures themselves, "going forward" "mindfully" on their "journey" of destruction.
Managers without research expertise/training trying to manage research productivity. Academic researchers without managerial expertise/training trying to manage universities. What is the world of HE coming to?
A good article. One problem: Most not-geniouses-professors will recognize their inabilities as genious skills...


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