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!