Still not in the World University Rankings Top 50? Five sure-fire routes to successful academic management

quality-787673_960_720Originally published at physicsfocus.

Last time round I bemoaned the “inspirational leader” model of management that infests universities but promised that I’d be a little more constructive in my next post. In the meantime, this splendid piece on the mismanagement of universities (written by Rob Briner, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath) appeared in the Times Higher Education. In an article that provides many important insights into the malaise in management, this is perhaps the pithiest: “For all but the most careerist, obedient and authority-respecting academics, it is difficult to feel committed to goals that seem, indeed often are, arbitrary”.

THE.pngBriner points to the underwhelming appraisal of senior university managers in this year’s Times Higher’s Best University Workplace survey. The statistics show that almost 50% of all academic staff surveyed are not satisfied with the leadership of their university. Tsk. There is clearly considerable room for improvement. I would suggest that a conservative target of a 20% reduction in the Staff Disgruntlement Index (SDI) should be set (to be reached in – when else? – 2020), and progress towards this goal should form part of the annual Personal Development and Performance Review process for senior management. (Let’s call it our 2020:20 Vision.) The survey reveals that there are many senior managers who could benefit from advice and guidance on how to up their game and enhance their personal effectiveness so as to ensure that their key behavioural competencies are best exploited in attaining their university’s SDI targets. (Ooops, sorry about that – please forgive the momentary lapse into the university vernacular.)

University managers are exceptionally busy people, of course, so I thought it best to distil my advice on leadership improvement into five simple take-home messages.

1. Trust your staff

The majority of academics are highly motivated, hard-working, and keen to establish a strong reputation in their research field and to teach to the best of their ability. They want to do original work that makes a difference. They understand entirely how much competition there is for grants and how much effort they’ll have to put in to maintain their research group.

When they secured a permanent position, they were fully aware of the weight of expectation and the amount of effort it was going to take to do ground-breaking work. They know this because they had worked as a postdoc prior to getting their lectureship and will have had to compete against very strong odds to win that position. (This letter in last month’s Physics World sums up the situation for physics postdocs in the UK. About 1.7% of the postdoctoral population in physics per year can expect to get a permanent position.)

So trust them. And trust the judgement of the school/department/institute that offered them a permanent position. Don’t assume that your staff need to be continually monitored via the same sets of pseudo-statistical, faux-objective, and flawed metrics that all other universities (ab)use. Why not forgo all of that nonsense and help your university genuinely stand out from the crowd?

2. Don’t insult our intelligence

Look, it’s very simple. As a university, you can’t write this type of guff and expect anyone to take you seriously:


Nor should we need to tell you that this is misjudged and misguided:


…and if you think that trumpeting “Pursue Impossible” as your latest slogan is a good idea, maybe you should reconsider just how much money it is that you’re sinking into your “extensive consultation and market research” budget:


Content-free management- and marketing-speak is spiraling out of control in academia (see Colquhoun, passim). What’s particularly galling is that the type of student/teacher/researcher we’d like to attract – i.e. someone with critical thinking skills sufficiently well-developed that they can easily tell when they’re being sold a pup – is going to be put off by trite and embarrassing marketing slogans. If you really can’t help but chase a W1A-esque marketing approach, then at least have the gumption to realise that prestige and brand go hand in hand: for a university, not all publicity is good publicity.

So stop telling us that you’re “committed to excellence” (and parroting other empty drivel from the lexicon of #CorporateUniBollox) and specify explicitly what it is you’re going to do. How much will you spend, on what, and over how many years? Otherwise you’re about as convincing as a directionless politician trotting out empty clichés about appealing to the “aspirational class”.

3. Herding isn’t helpful

Stop wasting so much of our time on redisorganisation by attempting to herd us into your latest Strategic Prioritised Localised Research Themes scheme (to be followed in six months’ time by the new-and-improved Universal Targetified Globalised Research Themes scheme.)

There has been a very welcome, albeit sometimes rather stilted, evolution of research towards multidisciplinarity over the past couple of decades. It is a massive waste of time and effort, however, to erode disciplinary boundaries only to replace them with new barriers arising from the formation of research ‘silos’ based on university strategic priorities (which, of course, are informed by (i.e., cribbed from) the priorities of the research councils and funding bodies).

At Nottingham, for example, we currently have five Global Research Themes (capitalised and italicised, of course – this is important stuff): Cultures and Communication, Digital Futures, Health and Well-Being, Building Long-term Societies, and Transformative Technologies. (Let’s leave aside for now the question of just how fundamental scientific research that doesn’t focus on applications is smuggled into the Global Research Themes.) We’ve recently had a time-consuming Research Priority Area-defining exercise foisted upon us to identify something like thirty RPAs which are embedded within the Global Research Themes. (The graphic which maps out the interdependencies between the RPAs is, excitingly, becoming ever more complex and colourful.) And that’s before we embark on the new Centre and Institute identification process in the coming months.

University management has really only one job when it comes to supporting research: ensure that the best ideas are fostered. Just pay heed to Message #1. Don’t put artificial barriers in our way and let collaborative links and projects develop from the bottom up.

4. Massaging metrics isn’t management.

I think that, deep down, you know this, don’t you? You know that those spreadsheets – all those lovely numbers lined up in columns with colourful headings and listed to three or four ‘significant’ figures – give only an illusion of objectivity. You recognised some time ago that tables of metrics are an entirely inaccurate measure of the value of a school, a department, a ‘unit’, or an individual member of staff. You may even have read this, or this, or this and realised that, yes,using pseudostatistics and number abuse as a proxy for management is simply wrong and, in the worst cases, unethical.

And so you try to placate us. You tell us that “Of course we don’t base our decisions on a simplistic consideration of metrics like impact factor, H-index, grant income, NSS scores…”. But then you have the gall to advise us that we should choose our collaborators on the basis of citation patterns and H-indices. Or that we should improve our NSS league table position when the numbers are often so small that the opinions of one or two students can make all the difference. Or that grant income targets need to be met, regardless of how (in)expensive a scientist’s research might be or how well their research is progressing.

It doesn’t need to be like this. You can make a difference. Challenge the empty-headed abuse of metrics at every committee meeting you attend. Put your head above the parapet and point out that the emperor is stark bollock naked.

5. Chasing rankings is rank futility

By all means crow about your university’s position in a national/international league table if you must. And, if you really are so inclined, cherry-pick the tables to get the results that put your university in the best light. It’s grubby, reeks of desperation, and makes a mockery of any claims about your university’s commitment to developing the critical thinking skills of students. If, however, that’s what you think you need to do to secure your institute’s position in the ‘global marketplace’ then so be it.

But it’s likely that you were once an academic. You may even have taught – or, indeed, may still teach – students the value of being (self-)critical and rigorous in their approach to data. So ask yourself why you now expect staff, students, and parents to credulously swallow the idea that university rankings are in any way credible? Take the time to pop into the Student Room and read what A-level and undergraduate students have to say about university league tables. It’s rather telling that they are significantly more sophisticated and worldly-wise in their appraisal of university rankings than is typical for senior management.

It is futile to chase volatile and methodologically-suspect world university rankings. We become known as a world-leading university when we do world-leading research and teaching. It’s not a difficult equation. Your job, as senior management, is to establish the conditions to allow that to happen.

And that brings us neatly back to Message #1…