Nov 022014
 

This was my last post as the pro vice chancellor at a Russell Group University. I wrote it on my new blog but it seems an apt swansong for Russell Dean.

This is an exciting week for me. Tuesday will be my last day as a University employee. From Wednesday, Parker Derrington Ltd will be where I work.

I am truly delighted to be making this change. Early signs are that I will have more interesting and varied work, a nicer house and better integration with family life.

One of the things my first coach taught me about change is the importance of looking back  as well as  forward. It is important to acknowledge what your past contributes to your present. In my case the contribution is immense.  I started at university on October 5th 1971and have worked full-time in universities ever since. A substantial part of Parker Derrington Ltd’s stock-in-trade is what I have learned during 43 years in higher education.

A lot of my learning comes from mistakes. I make so many mistakes that I have become pretty good at learning from them. The key to learning is to take responsibility for the mistake and to treat it as a learning opportunity and not as an opportunity to assign blame.

I started my mistakes early in my university career. I went to Oxford University to read medicine. This was definitely the wrong subject. I probably also chose the wrong college and maybe even the wrong university. The learning points were:-

  • Pick a subject that you will enjoy, rather than one that appears to lead directly to a well-paid job. I should have chosen economics or engineering.
  • Try to imagine how you will feel about everyday life as a student. I came from a state school and had very limited finances. In my college I constantly felt ever-so-slightly inferior to the well-heeled public school types who surrounded me. There were colleges where I would have felt more comfortable.
  • I have a heretical view of Oxbridge. I think that the quality of Oxford and Cambridge comes at too high a cost. They both take disproportionate shares of national research resources and weaken our great civic universities. However, given that they do exist, if you get the chance to go there you should: they are good places to study.

At Oxford I switched out of medicine, became obsessed with science and with a desire for a university career. I went to Cambridge to do a PhD on the development of the visual system, a subject that I had begun researching as an undergraduate. The good thing about this choice was that Cambridge was unquestionably the best place for this subject in the UK and in the top 2 or 3 in the world. The bad thing was the way I made the choice – Cambridge was the only place my fiancee could get a job. I guess that was about the last time I acted to improve my work-life balance.

I left Cambridge equipped for a stellar career in neuroscience. I had a personal fellowship that paid my salary and allowed me to work anywhere I wanted. I chose Peter Lennie’s lab in Sussex. This was a good choice for science – we produced two field-defining papers on the physiological organisation of the visual system. It was a bad choice for my career.  My plan was to become well known outside Cambridge, and return as a ‘grown up’. Bad plan: once I left Cambridge, I pretty much didn’t exist.

Sussex was a particularly bad choice for job-security. When Margaret Thatcher’s government slashed university spending in 1981, trendy lefty places like Sussex bore the brunt of it. Just as my funding ran out, the University had to cut its budget by 10%. My boss was head-hunted for a brilliant career in the US. Foolishly I chose not to go with him. The next thing I knew I was looking at adverts for graduate entry to the police force and applying frantically for grants and fellowships.  In the end I had two choices for continuing as an academic. I was offered a fellowship in Durham, with a salary, but no funds for research, or I could stay at Sussex and work for somebody else, on a funded project on bees. I chose Durham because I knew nothing about bees and didn’t want to work on somebody else’s project.

Durham  was another bad choice. It was a good job – 5 years of salary and complete scientific freedom – however I now realise that I would have learned a lot by working on someone else’s project and would have had a wider range of scientific choices when I became independent. I would also have stayed living in Brighton, which was then and is now a lot more fun than Durham.  I was too keen to stay in control of my scientific agenda and not keen enough to broaden it. I think the fact that I opted for comfortable independence in the 1980s was part of the reason that I found it convenient to move from research into management 22 years later.

In those 25 years I had three more jobs, three more bad choices.

  • The first was a lectureship. My fellowship at Durham had a fixed duration and I became increasingly anxious about whether I would be able to secure a ‘permanent’ job at the end of it. So 18 months before it ended I accepted a lectureship in the medical school at Newcastle. Although this was a permanent job, I was scientifically isolated. Consequently, although I was more successful than most of my colleagues in winning grants and writing papers, and I was unique among them in being invited to sit on research council grants committees, I couldn’t get promoted.
  • Eventually I decided that I deserved a professorship and applied for and got a chair in psychology at Nottingham. I was at the stage in my career when I should have become a head of department but nobody in Nottingham, me least of all, wanted that.
  • Ten years later I moved back to Newcastle to become head of department. This move killed my research but gave me the opportunity to discover – much to my astonishment – that I loved management. I find it to be a similar intellectual challenge to research but much more fun because of the infinite opportunities to help people develop by coaching, training and mentoring them.

Now, ten years and two jobs later, I have decided that I would like to stop moving from job to job and settle down. By far the easiest way to do this is for Amanda and me to set up a consultancy and offer our skills on the open market. So far it feels great. I have worked in a variety of organisations in the UK, the US and Austria and it’s great fun. It doesn’t feel as if I am giving up the day job at all. It feels as if I have extracted the nicest bits of it for myself and left the rest behind.

May 052013
 

I posted last week on the Guardian HE website under the headline University managers are not malicious, we are misunderstood. The post provoked a lively discussion that made me realise that I want to write more on the topic, so by way of introduction, here’s my latest version of the Guardian HE article.

Although it was over 30 years ago, I still remember the shock of discovering that I was no-longer a student.  In the middle of my first tutorial, it hit me that there was a fundamental difference in outlook between me and my students. I wanted them to understand the complexity and beauty of the brain. They wanted me to tell them how to get a good mark with minimum effort.

Many academics feel that a similar difference in outlook separates them from their senior managers. Academic values, dedication to the development of discipline and the education of students, all are under threat from managers like me. We are drowning them in a cascade of initiatives, processes and performance indicators. We put academics under pressure do things that are manifestly stupid. We want to turn first-rate universities into second-rate businesses. We are incompetent and stupid.

This accusation is wrong. Managers are not malicious. We are not stupid. We are misunderstood. Before I became a manager I thought I knew why. It is fiendishly difficult for a manager to write a message that cannot be read as a some kind of cynical attempt to undermine academic values. Well-meaning but badly-expressed messages are seen as sinister, or stupid.

After a decade in management I know that I was wrong. It’s not fiendishly difficult. It’s impossible. Someone who feels threatened – whether or not the feeling is justified – makes what I call an assumption of unreasonableness. They assume that the message is a threat and they find evidence to support that assumption.

And it is a mistake to think that, because academics are clever, they are less likely to misunderstand a well-intentioned message. The opposite is true. Clever people are better at searching for evidence. And if it is hard to find the evidence, that makes the threat more powerful because it makes it look as if the evidence was concealed. The concealment implies that management intended to deceive as well as to threaten.  Once the assumption of unreasonableness has taken root, sinister interpretations can always drive out more plausible benign ones.

The assumption of unreasonableness has a helpful twin that you can use to protect yourself from perceived threats. Before I discuss it I’d like to despatch a perennial misconception that cropped up in the live chat about grant applications that I participated in a couple of weeks ago. It occurs in several variants but the general idea is that research, particularly winning grants and producing 4*-rated publications counts for everything and someone who delivers on the research front can neglect their teaching, shirk departmental duties and still win promotion.

I do not subscribe to this idea. The strength of our universities depends on the fact that they combine teaching and research. Neglect of teaching duties should put promotion out of the question and it could lead to dismissal. I once gave a senior colleague a formal disciplinary warning for deliberately neglecting to mark a piece of student work. A further disciplinary offence would have led to dismissal. The colleague found another job within a few months.

The fact is that as a senior manager I find that my concern for academic values has increased and my focus has broadened. I spend a lot of time helping academics work out how to succeed, both in teaching and in research, and win promotion. This is the fun part of the job. Occasionally I have to help them drive out the assumption of unreasonableness and replace it with its helpful twin, from which it was separated at birth, the assumption of reasonableness.

I recommend that you try this at at work the next time that you receive an apparently  hostile pronouncement from management. I have also found it helpful for dealing with threatening emails from vindictive colleagues. You have to make the assumption that the message is, in fact, intended to be helpful, that the writer of the message does in fact share your values, but that they have written in haste, expressed themselves clumsily, and maybe made a few mistakes. You must find the evidence, however slim, that supports this assumption.

Then, act as if the assumption of reasonableness were proven. My experience from doing this is that often it is possible to get the assumption of reasonableness to replace its evil twin and to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may seem like foolishness, but it really works. It happened to me at work this week, so I want to post about it soon.

An uncomfortable question arises if the assumption of reasonableness doesn’t work. If there really is a fundamental difference in outlook between you and the senior management of your university, then you can be sure that someone is not doing a very good job. The important question to ask is this. Can you be sure it isn’t you?

And please don’t all write to tell me. I have worked it out. When I ask the same question about that tutorial 30 years ago, the answer isn’t as comfortable as I would like!