Research, teaching, and …?
… management, of course. Management is the Cinderella of science: busily scrubbing the floors and keeping the house in order, while the ugly sisters squabble over who gets to be first author. Everybody likes research and over the last couple of years it has become fashionable to speak of the importance of teaching and what a noble and enjoyable task it is, but people seldom mention management. And yet it is arguably the most fundamental of the three. Without a properly managed institution that facilitates and coordinates their work, academics would have few resources to do their research or teach. It would be a bit like Plato’s Academy, an individual scholar teaching for free, without a set curriculum, in his own house (or garden, in the case of Plato). Anything beyond that requires a material and social infrastructure, and before you know it you need rules and regulations that are decided on in meetings by committees, with directors to manage the processes who are overseen by a board, not to mention a financial administration, a personnel office, a team of secretaries, and so on and so forth. The University is a complicated machine.
“Management is the Cinderella of science: busily scrubbing the floors and keeping the house in order, while the ugly sisters squabble over who gets to be first author.”
The way this machine is governed has changed over the years. Restricting ourselves to The Netherlands, and skipping over all the details, the history looks a bit like this: Academic government used to be the prerogative of the professors. Within the limits set by the state, decisions were the product of their negotiating and scheming amongst each other. Then the student protests happened in the late 1960s, and for a brief period the University became a democracy, with students and staff at all levels having an equal say. Decisions were taken after lengthy and often heated meetings. A new law subsequently created the institutional structure that we have now. The faculties were largely stripped of their power, and university government was centralized, with the University Board, the “College van Bestuur”, taking the big decisions. Faculty and university councils now have a mostly advisory role and, at faculty and program level, professors can still set their own course, but only within the, often narrow, limits set by the Board. University governance is more or less like that of a company, structurally at least.
An important factor in these changes has been the growth of the University. As the number of students and therefore of staff increased dramatically after World War 2, the concentration of power in a small number of full professors became untenable. The democratic alternative then proved to be an inefficient way of managing a still growing institution, which necessitated a more centralised organisational structure. What the recent University protests and movements like H.NU and De Nieuwe Universiteit have shown is that the current system is now in turn also coming under under increasing strain. With the state tightening University budgets, growth has become an end in itself. University boards have adopted an ever more corporate style of governing, guided by quantitative measures of productivity and quality. But as the University is gradually turned into a factory for the efficient conversion of students into graduates and for the production of measurable research “output”, this system is starting to undermine the academic values that it supposed to support, and increasing numbers of staff and students are turning against it.
Management, the third pillar of the Academy, is often presented as the cause of the problems, and the alternative is thought to be “more democracy”.
Much of the emphasis in the protests has been on the need for a new look at the quality of education and research, away from the preoccupation with numbers, rankings, ratings, indices, impact and efficiency. Management, the third pillar of the Academy, is often presented as the cause of the problems, and the alternative is thought to be “more democracy”. This is a mistake. We must not confuse the corporate style of management that is currently reigning the University Boards with management per se. It’s true, we do need more democracy, but we will always also need good governance of the institution. Just like a parliamentary democracy like The Netherlands has a legislature (parliament) and an executive branch (the cabinet and the state’s bureaucracy), so the University cannot do without its own executive apparatus.
Unfortunately it is getting more and more difficult to find professors who are both willing and able to take up executive posts like Director or Dean. Few people look forward to saying their research goodbye for a couple of years to become what is essentially a middle manager, squeezed between rebellious staff and students on the one side, and the University Board’s bigwigs on the other. Perhaps that is the reason that we currently still do not have a new Dean, several months after the excellent Henk Kiers left. It doesn’t help that administrative work has little status. There is no glory in it. Calling someone “a very good administrator” comes perilously close to saying she is not a very impressive researcher. But if the faculties want to hold their own against the central administration and defend the academic values that their researchers and lecturers hold dear, then they need to be able to manage themselves well enough not to fall prey to the professional administrative apparatus at the top. It would be good if we learn to accept management (or governance or administration, call it what you will) as an integral part of the Academy. Perhaps we should even make it part of the curriculum.
Note: Image by Ian Burt, licenced by CC BY 2.0.