Administrators cannot offer ‘enlightened management’

Some views on administrators and academics as university leaders

Geoffrey Williams has recently argued that administrators cannot deliver enlightened management in universities. According to Williams only academics can do so:

Administration, like death and taxes, has always been here. Universities need enlightened management; the reality is that only faculty can provide this. Universities also require and employ professional managers. The situation is similar to that in hospitals, another world that requires great dedication from its staff. As everyone knows, if you leave a hospital solely in the hands of professional administrators, the patient is forgotten. Likewise, if you leave a university solely in the hands of a professional manager, there is a risk that both students and research will no longer be to the fore.

David Allen offers a rather different perspective:

Only about one in three employees of universities are academics, but given the academic purpose of universities they tend to have the biggest input in shaping the job and person description, at least in general terms, for VC and other leadership appointments. I take it as a given that senior managers in universities, even if they are not academics, must be able to empathise with academic values and to create strong, positive relations with academic colleagues. Universities are not and should not be command and control organisations. Managers need to proceed by persuasion and the force of the evidenced better argument. Creativity, tension, individuality and resistance to change are often embedded in the academic DNA. Academics have many and varied strategies to bypass managerial processes and edicts which they perceive to inhibit their activities and it is clearly more difficult for a manager who lacks academic credibility to achieve acceptance. A VC/DVC/PVC with an academic pedigree starts higher up the grid and has more of a reservoir of goodwill when difficult choices have to be made. This needs to be balanced with the changing requirements for Vice-Chancellors to be credible with business, not least in relation to fundraising. Academic credibility needs perhaps to be balanced more with other requirements for senior management success rather than as a sine qua non and a barrier to entry to the competition for otherwise well qualified candidates. This would increase the talent pool available for consideration from both within and outwith the sector.

Allen argues sensibly for an open minded approach to recruiting university leaders rather than Williams’ more exclusive approach. All of this echoes an earlier post on the issue of whether academics do indeed make the best university leaders and in particular why it is unhelpful to focus solely on this issue of who is better equipped to lead:

…if a university simply disregards the importance of a first class administration to support first class teaching and world-leading research then it will end up with disorganised, chaotic and expensive processes which hinder rather than help – it is this scenario which has the most negative impact on the productivity of researchers. It’s like building an excellent football team but paying no attention to the pitch, stadium or finances. You might perform well for a time but not sustainably. And sooner or later those star players will get fed up with washing their own kit, selling programmes and clearing up the stands after the game.

So, whilst I might remain mildly annoyed at the suggestion that someone like me could only ever offer benighted misdirection to a university, what really irks about all of this is the idea of mutual exclusivity: whatever the background of the leader, s/he will not be acting alone and will have a team of colleagues working with her/him to deliver success. Universities may well often best be led by leading academics but no one individual, whatever their background, is going to be able to do everything on their own. Universities are just too big, complex and diverse.

5 thoughts on “Administrators cannot offer ‘enlightened management’

  1. ‘Universities need enlightened management; the reality is that only faculty can provide this’

    These are both empirical claims, so one would expect evidence to be advanced. As it isn’t, this looks like trolling.

  2. Good stuff! I agree. Furthermore…

    “Managers need to proceed by persuasion and the force of the evidenced better argument.”

    …and by implication, to actively design and implement the means to generate evidence and sound reasoning. So they need to be able to switch from decision making and processing modes to investigative and creative modes using all of the best techniques that our academic disciplines have to offer. Becoming more responsive, agile, optimal and at the same time innovative demands the ability to select the most appropriate methods as required. Pragmatically.

    I’m an advocate for evidence-based service design (i’m part of the Service Development Group in our IT department). Personally, I go out and do investigations BEFORE making my mind up on what a university and its services should be like. And yet some of my colleagues are suspicious that I’m behaving like an academic. I wonder if they like the divide, as an excuse to avoid the necessity for evidence? How common is this in UK HE? How many registrars are more open minded?

  3. I would have some concern with the suggestion, as seems to be implied by Geoffrey Williams, that to be an ‘academic’ is akin to a quasi-legal status that is imparted by some higher body or being. It is not. Our universities in this country are all the richer, in my view, for having first-class administrators as well as first-class academics. Many of those administrators, including the author of this article, have higher degrees or research degrees. They are in professional administrative roles, but that does not take those qualifications away.

    What defines an ‘academic’ in this sense then – surely not qualifications, since we know that many in professional roles are as well (or more) qualified. Number of hours taught each year? Number of research articles published? Surely, not, since that suggests a ‘one size fits all’ approach which we adopt to our cost.

    Surely, as David Allen has eloquently put it “senior managers in universities, even if they are not academics, must be able to empathise with academic values and to create strong, positive relations with academic colleagues”. I would suggest, therefore, that this empathy is more important than the role from which they act. Professionalism is the most important factor.

  4. Let me preface this remark by making it clear that it is not directed at any particular administrators, and that to any conclusion there are always honourable exceptions. I should add that I have no empirical evidence to back up what I am about to write; it is just my perception as an academic. However, perceptions are also important, since even where they are erroneous they play a large role in driving our behavour. Further, I would argue that my perceptions are not entirely uninformed, since, as well as my own role as an academic, I have played an “and spouse” role that has involved interacting with a good number of fairly senior administrators in national government, local government and higher education.

    The underlying problem from my perspective is that there is clearly a pecking order in administrative jobs. Even near the top of the tree in the civil service at national government level, some departments are much more prestigious than others. In this pecking order, university administrator is distinctly middle-ranking. It should therefore not be so surprising that the quality of administrator that a higher education institution is able to recruit will not be the very cream of the crop (but please re-read disclaimer in the first sentence!). Contrast this with academics, where university faculty positions are what all aspire to. There is still some degree of pecking order between institutions, but essentially a professorial appointment is pretty much the pinnacle of our profession, and will attract the cream of the intellectual crop in our chosen career path. It is therefore surely unsurprising that there is a degree of friction when university administrators dictate terms to academics, because no-one likes the idea of being led by someone who isn’t as smart as they are. This is the fundamental reason why an organization administered by someone from an academic background is more likely to succeed: the people being led have more confidence in the basic intellectual capacity of such leadership, so will be more likely to take on trust the idea that whatever they are being asked to do is actually an optimal solution even though from the academic’s perspective it seems unnecessarily burdensome. If that level of trust does not exist in an administration, the finest administrator in the World would struggle to do a good job.

    Let me finish by once again reiterating that this is simply my perception of why there is a tension between administrators and academics that doesn’t exist to the same extent in many other professions. Although I have presented my reasoning for what I believe underlies that perception, I don’t have any objective evidence to back it up. Indeed, it would be surely impossible to measure in any objective way whether academics are better at their jobs than administrators are at theirs, but perceptions are surely actually more important than some set of statistics that is almost certainly limited by systematic error, as at the end of the day such intangibles are what dictate whether administration is successful or not.

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