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.

Maarten Derksen studied Theoretical Psychology at the University of Leiden. He received his PhD from the University of Groningen for a study of the rhetoric with which psychologists demarcate their discipline from common sense. He is still interested in the boundaries of psychology; other current research topics include the possibilities and limitations of biological approaches in psychology, and social technology. He is the chair of the examencommisie for psychology, at RUG, and an associate of the ‘What makes organisation?‘ research programme at the Copenhagen Business School.

You can also find him, and most of his papers, on

Select Publications

Derksen, M. (in press). Putting Popper to work. Theory & Psychology.

Derksen, M. (2017). Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, N. A., & Derksen, M. (2015). Ecologies of deception in psychology and rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 101(4), 633–654.

Rymarczuk, R., & Derksen, M. (2014). Different spaces: Exploring Facebook as heterotopia. First Monday, 19(6).

Derksen, M. (2014). Turning Men into Machines? Scientific Management, Industrial Psychology, and the “Human Factor.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 50(2), 148–165.

Derksen, M. & Wierenga, T. (2013). The history of “Social Technology”, 1898–1930. History and Technology, 29(4), 311–330.

Derksen, M. (2012). Control and resistance in the psychology of lying. Theory & Psychology, 22(2), 196-212.

Derksen, M., Vikkelsø, S. & Beaulieu, A. (2012). Social technologies: Cross-disciplinary reflections on technologies in and from the social sciences. Theory & Psychology, 22(2), 139-147.

Derksen, M. & Beaulieu, A. (2011). Social technology. In I. Jarvie, I. & J. Zamora-Bonilla (eds), Handbook of the philosophy of the social sciences (pp. 703-720). London: Sage.

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  • Marije aan het Rot October 6, 2015  

    Hi Maarten, thank you for posting on the topic. What if being “a very good administrator” would be part of the tenure-track criteria (in that administration would count as much as research grants and publications do)? What if who gets to do which administrative job would be less of an issue (e.g., some jobs are reserved for full professors only, and postdocs are often excluded altogether)? In any case let’s not start a “working group” to find out…

  • Casper Albers October 7, 2015  

    Very interesting read, Maarten.

    An interesting parallel with Cinderella. At the start of the fairy tale, Cinderella is indeed the one scrubbing the floor, doing the dishes, and helping her sisters in any which way she can. At the end, however, Cinderella gets to marry the prince, gets a filthy amount of money and power, lives happily ever after and leaves her sisters to do all the chores she used to do by themselves. Let’s hope that only the first part has its parallels with Academia.

    I agree that it is very worrysome that there seems little interest – both in our faculty as outside – for management jobs like the dean. I’m reluctant to follow Marije’s suggestion to add something like this in the tenure track demand list. (Note that doing ‘some management tasks’ is already a TT-requirement; and note also that the demand list is already very long). Requiring someone to be the dean might solve the problem of not having a dean, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem: academic staff doesn’t seem to be interested in this type of position. Tackling this underlying problem is the real challenge (but not something that can be done on the short term). Perhaps one of the reasons that professors are not interested in taking up such a management job for a four-year period, is that the amount of management taks they have to do in their regular academic job has grown a lot over the years. By the time they reach the position where they could become dean, they feel that they already did their share of management duties. I believe that a (long-term) solution to this problem could be to have a serious scrutiny of all the management/editorial tasks that researchers and teachers have to perform (there are dozens of committees within the faculty, some with close to 20 members. Is this the most efficient?), and reduce the management workload of the general researcher.
    A short-term solution, finding a dean who already has a good knowledge of how our beautiful faculty works, unfortunately is unavailable.

  • Maarten Derksen October 7, 2015  

    In answer to Marije, yes, I do think administrative skills should be in the tenure track criteria, and on an equal footing with research and teaching. If you’re terrible at management, you shouldn’t be a full professor, no matter how good your research is. I realize that the list of demands in the TT criteria is already long, but this seems to me an essential skill for a full professor. I can also imagine that, as Casper says, full professors have a long list of management duties and for that reason feel they’ve already done their share by the time they’re asked to become dean. And yes, there do seem to be a lot management tasks, committees, working groups etcetera. I’m not saying there should be more management, just that we should appreciate its importance more. So I agree with Casper we should take a good look at the management structure and try to make it more efficient. I also agree with Marije that one thing that should be reconsidered is whether it’s really necessary to restrict some tasks and positions to full professors only. But note that there are one or two complicating factors involved in that issue: one reason that full professors are paid more is precisely that they have these extra responsibilities, and are thought to have the skills and experience to take them on. So if you redistribute management tasks, you should take the ‘function profiles’, or whatever they’re called in English, into account.

  • Marije aan het Rot October 16, 2015  

    To add to my previous comment. If (full) professors are required to take up complicated administrative tasks, then the faculty should also invest in providing training and time. Or the faculty could hire skilled people for these tasks – this may be in fact be more efficient and a relief for those who now take up administrative tasks simply because they feel pressured to do so. I am actually quite pleased with the prospect of an externally recruited dean.

  • Tassos Sarampalis November 12, 2015  

    An interesting set of lessons from Martin Binks, former dean of Nottingham University Business School, today in The Guardian:

    Some favourites:
    2. Priorities are built on ever-shifting sands
    4. Teaching is a duty, not an option
    6. Dinosaurs are getting younger
    7. Freedom is relative


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