As Abraham Lincoln once remarked, Thucydides is not the only historical figure to get regularly misquoted. One interesting example is the line that “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”, regularly trotted out to epitomise a certain attitude prevalent within big business. At least in the UK, there is at best only a fuzzy sense of the original context – it was said by Charles Erwin Wilson in 1953, during confirmation hearings for his appointment as Secretary of Defense after being Head of General Motors – and little idea that it’s not completely accurate. What Wilson actually said, when asked whether he would be able to make a decision as Secretary of Defense that would be adverse to General Motors, was that he would, but that he couldn’t actually conceive of such a situation “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa”. That’s a great deal more reciprocal, and less dubious – and hence less useful – than the usual version.
In universities – yes, I am going somewhere with this – there has traditionally been a similar assumption, all the way down to the individual level: strong departments benefit from a strong university, successful scholars benefit from having a strong department around them, and vice versa; academics want to teach and research to the best of their ability, and that can only be good for the larger organisation. It’s a step beyond the medieval concept of the university as a college, centred on the community of scholars, but it echoes that ideal for a more complex, bureaucratic world.
As is well known, there have been significant shifts in this relationship over the last few decades; ostensibly, at least, in order to respond to ever-increasing complexity, regulation, universities as multi-million pound businesses etc., for which traditional structures and practices are taken to be inadequate. One strand is the increasing level of monitoring and discipline, of departments by the faculties and university, and of individual academics by everyone, including some of their colleagues (and, yes, as a Head of Subject with general responsibility for department research performance, i.e. preparing for the next REF, I find myself having to carry out such a role). On the face of it, certainly to non-academics, this must seem nothing special: every company needs to ensure that employees are performing adequately and complying with law, professional standards etc. – a total free-for-all is surely a recipe for disaster.
But considered in depth, in this specific context, it all starts to seem a bit more curious. In the first place, there is no proper definition of what might constitute an adequate performance, either in teaching or in research; rather, anything that falls short of excellence is treated as potentially problematic, whether that’s a class in which not every student was delighted about everything or a chapter that appears in an edited volume rather than a top peer review journal. This is aided and abetted by systems of data collection and measurement that are at best unspecific and unhelpful (just note recent research on how student feedback systematically devalues the contribution of female teachers, or the fact that research evaluation is based on individual contributions but presented in a form that is utterly useless as a basis for appraising or advising individuals). Secondly, there’s the ongoing push towards homogenisation, so that even an excellent performance may be treated as suspect if it fails to conform to expected norms – often defined by more powerful disciplines in other faculties, or (in the case of teaching) by simplified or even misunderstood versions of research in the theory of education (the often repeated claim that “we assess too much” being a case in point; I don’t think Graham Gibbs actually meant what you’re taking him to mean…).
There is a growing tendency, I would suggest, for university management to assume the worst of its employees: not that they’re lazy and dishonest (or not just that; moves to insist on a 9-5 presence in the department, and changes in expenses claims procedures, do imply certain thoughts in this direction), but that they are dangerously wilful and selfish, and that this will damage the department and the institution. The dedicated, innovative teacher who is constantly reviewing practice can easily be seen as the unpredictable malcontent who questions faculty procedures, complains about bureaucracy and creates unnecessary work by insisting on modifying their units every year. The only reason, clearly, why anyone would object to writing exam papers before teaching the unit in question is that they’re lazy, disorganised and haven’t properly prepared their lectures. In the case of the dedicated and successful researcher, meanwhile, the obvious assumption is that they are seeking to escape their other duties and dump them on their colleagues; conference attendance is a chance for a trip abroad to see friends, resulting only in some feeble chapter in a conference volume rather than a proper peer review article; overseas collaboration is likewise an indulgence, benefiting only the individual concerned, unless it brings proper money into the home university.
We can see this as the application of Fordist principles to the university, limiting the freedom of action of the individual employee in order to improve the efficiency of the production process and the consistency and quality of the product. This is a world of sausage-machine learning, with quality assurance focused on building shiny new holding pens for students and adding vitamins and antibiotics to their feed; and the academics who manage the process are similarly corralled and domesticated. Of course, the new systems of higher education are not actually thought through in these terms, or someone might have started to iron out the obvious inconsistencies or raised the question of whether this model is actually wholly appropriate for education and research. Rather, we’re facing the unexamined assumptions of the management caste, shaped by the systems they have signed up to operate and the training they receive. It’s actually incredibly outdated; it’s something of a cliche, but compare the Silicon Valley post-Fordist ideal of encouraging creativity and innovation, even allowing people time in their working day to pursue personal projects and explore new ideas without fear of failure.
The basic problem is how such an approach could be introduced (or re-introduced) into academia without it becoming a complete free-for-all – which could indeed have deleterious consequences for students and colleagues – and without it becoming yet another one more thing on top of everything else. Of course, as I’m regularly told, things like innovative assessment can be added to the regular teaching, provided that they’re not summative and so don’t need the same level of scrutiny and evidence collection – but then they just become an additional burden, rather than replacing some other, less effective teaching method. We can add reading groups, research sandpits, more tailored provision for research students to enhance their personal development – but never at the expense of providing the usual feedback and support. We can pursue new forms of writing and engagement – provided that we don’t cut back on the mainstream stuff to any serious extent, as we’ll still need at least six high-quality items to choose from for the next REF.
The answer must be to try to keep the regulated aspects to the bare minimum to ensure some space for individual expression and creativity for those who want it; working around the rules rather than trying to confront them directly (which almost never gets anywhere). Likewise, at least at departmental level, the emphasis needs to be on mentoring rather than management, assuming that everyone genuinely wants to do their best – and conforming with demands from on high for performance data, reports, strategies and the like in the manner most likely to get them to leave us alone. What’s good for individual researchers and teachers *is* good for the department, if we assume basic professionalism and good will, and so on up the feeding chain – but how to persuade the alpha predators at faculty and university level that free-range, organic academics are tastier and healthier?