Higher Education Strategy Associates

Under-managed universities

I have been having some interesting conversations with folks recently about “overwork” in academia.  It is clear to me that a lot of professors are absolutely frazzled.  It is also clear to me that on average professors work hard – not necessarily because The Man is standing over them with a whip but because as a rule academics are professional and driven, and hey, status within academia is competitive and lots of people want to keep up with the Joneses.

But sometimes when I talk to profs – and for context here the ones I speak to most often are ones roughly my own age (mid-career) or younger – what I hear a lot of is about work imbalance (i.e. some professors are doing more work than others) or, to put it more bluntly, how much “deadwood” there is in universities (the consensus answer is somewhere between 20-30%).  And therefore, I think it is reasonable to ask the question: to what extent do some people’s “overwork” stem from the fact that some professors aren’t pulling their weight?

This is obviously something of a sticky question, and I had an interesting time discussing it with a number of interlocutors of twitter last week.  My impression is that opinion roughly divides up into three camps:

1)      The self-righteous Camp.  “This is ridiculous I’ve never heard professors talking like this about each other, we all work hard and anyway if anyone is unproductive it’s because they’re dealing with kids or depressed due to the uncaring, neoliberal administration smashing its boot into the face of academia forever…”

2)      The Hard Science Camp. “Well, you know there are huge differences in workload expectation across the institution – do you know how much work it is to run a lab? Those humanities profs get away with murder…”

3)       The “We’ve earned it” Camp “Hey look at all the professions where you put in the hours at the start and get to relax later on. We’re just like that. Would you want to work hours like a junior your whole life? And by the way older profs just demonstrate productivity on a broader basis than just teaching and research….”

There is probably something to each of these points of view.  People do have to juggle external priorities with academic ones at some points in their lives; that said, since most of the people who made the remarks about deadwood have young kids themselves, I doubt that explains the phenomenon. There probably are different work expectations across faculties; that said, in the examples I was using, my interlocutors were talking about people in their own units, so that’s doesn’t affect my observation, much.  Perhaps there are expectations of taking it easier as careers progress, but I never made the argument that deadwood is related to seniority so the assumption that this was what caused deadwood was… interesting).  So while acknowledging that all of these points may be worthwhile, I still tend to believe that at least part of the solution to overwork is dealing with the problem of work imbalances.

Now, at some universities – mainly ones which have significantly upped their research profile in the last couple of decades – this might genuinely be tough because the expectations of staff who were hired in the 1970s or 1980s might be very, very different than the expectations of ones hired today.  Places like Ryerson or MacEwan are obvious examples, but can also be true at places like Waterloo, which thought of itself as a mostly undergraduate institution even into the early 1990s.  Simply put, there is a huge generational gap at some universities in how people understand “the job” because they were hired in totally different contexts.

What strikes me about all of this is that neither management nor – interestingly – labour seem to have much interest in measuring workload for the purpose of equalizing it.  Sure, there’s lots of bean counting, especially in the sciences, especially when it comes to research contracts and publications and stuff like that.  But what’s missing is the desire to use to adjust individuals’ work loads in order to reach common goals more efficiently.

My impression is that in many departments, “workload management” means, at most, equalizing undergraduate teaching requirements.  Grad supervisions?  Those are all over the place.  “Service”?  Let’s not even pretend that’s well-measured.  Research effort?  Once tenure has been given, it’s largely up to individuals how much they want to do.  The fiercely competitive may take on 40 or 50 hours a week on top of their other duties, others much less.  Department heads – usually elected by professors in the department themselves – have limited incentive and means to get the overachievers to maybe cool it sometimes and the underachievers to up their game.

In short, while it’s fashionable to say that professors are being “micro-managed” by universities, I would argue that on the rather basic task of regulating workload for common good, academics are woefully under-managed.  I’d probably go even further and say most people know they are undermanaged and many wish it could change.  But at the end of the day, academics as a voting mass on Senates and faculty unions consistently seem to prefer undermanagement and “freedom” to management and (perhaps) more work fairness.

I wonder why this is. I also wonder if there is not a gender component to the issue.

What do you think?  Comments welcome.

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10 Responses to Under-managed universities

  1. Chad Nuttall says:

    Great post. Often a topic that comes up in largely unrelated meetings, consultations, etc. I think it largely rooted in people not feeling appreciated or having their hard work recognized.

    From a non-academic staff perspective … what value is there in comparing yourself against others? Fairness or equity or consistency are not compelling. I refuse to use under performers as a benchmark for myself of for my teams.

    Each year when the sunshine list comes out people say – I can’t believe so and so makes X. What impact does that have on your work, your day, your goals, etc.

    Do your best work and don’t worry about others.


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  3. Kevin says:

    I got a comment from a prof at a small university on your paragraph about when faculty were hired and expectations in universities that have transitioned over the years.

    She said, “And as long those who truly don’t understand the modern version of our jobs continue to be charge of allocating resources and judging performance there is no hope for change.”

  4. Anon to avoid outing place says:

    Absolutely this is gendered, at least in my experience. At my place, we instituted a service-points system, where every service task is given points, depending on time commitment and/or complexity, and every faculty member is assigned tasks so that each of us has about the same number of points. We are a women-dominated department in a traditionally men-dominated field, and it was the men in the department who weren’t doing their share of service work. Not coincidentally, these men also have traditional wives.

  5. Sean Lawrence says:

    I suppose that I’ll be dismissed as a member of the “self-righteous set,” but here goes:

    More management is ipso facto an overhead expense to be minimized. We don’t have to believe the extraordinary claims about management hires vs. faculty hires to understand that every hire outside faculty diminishes our concentration on the academic mission which gives universities their being.

    Management, moreover, will always have perverse results, and offer perverse incentives. Peter Higgs is on record complaining that he was always being pestered to publish more, and would have been fired if his early breakthroughs hadn’t been so significant. And every department is full of these sorts of people, people whose work is underappreciated, and unlikely to be flattered by any sort of rating system.

    The incentives offered by rating systems are also, ipso facto, perverse. Let’s say that we rate professors by how many students they take on — then we create an incentive to take on too many, and to contribute to the overproduction of PhDs. Or let’s say we rate professors by how much they publish. This just caters to the “least publishable unit” and the overproduction of low-quality research. We could, of course, rate them on how much money they bring in, but this would simply flatter fashionable research in expensive sub-fields. And so on.

    Moreover, time spent being productive is always opposed to what is truly productive, intellectually. Frazzled people can publish and meet various indices of productivity, but they can’t actually think deeply. Certainly, they are unlikely to pursue research which is unfashionable, inapplicable, or long-term. I cannot imagine a system of bean-counting capable of producing slow professors.

    In sum, systems of rating workloads are fundamentally opposed to the life of the mind, and therefore to the existence of universities as such.

    • Alex Usher says:

      No, this is a totally different argument. Not at all the same category.

      I understand the reluctance to embrace a bean-counting culture, but from my perspective your answer doesn’t get to the heart of the question: how can workloads be distributed fairly. What if my “life of the mind” generates more work for other staff members because I can’t be bothered to supervise grad students, or act as a student advisor, or do my share of committee assignments, etc? This stuff quite clearly does not resolve itself. How do you address fairness without management?

      • Sean Lawrence says:

        We could turn your question around: How do we address fairness with management? Would we Shanghai people into being student advisors, who are never going to bother learning the degree requirements? Do we force everyone to supervise grad students, regardless of whether the field needs more grad students or whether anybody wants a graduate degree in (say) Russian morphology? More broadly, how could we manage for fairness without bean-counting, and creating a bean-counting culture?

        Indeed, I’d argue that management in the form of bean-counting detracts from fairness. We wouldn’t even have the distinction between teaching and research faculty, were it not for bean-counters insisting on certain teacher/student ratios at the department level, and also on having certain levels and rates of publication at the individual level. Stop measuring things, and there’s less incentive to rob Peter and pay Paul.

        • Alex Usher says:

          A) I think you’re making an assumption that management = bean counting which I do not make
          B) Are you really making the claim that if nothing gets measured, problems evaporate?

          • Sean Lawrence says:

            You’re right that you don’t make this association, and it’s to your credit. That said, I tend to think that management does tend to turn into bean counting, especially if it tries to equalize workloads in some transparent manner.

            I’m not claiming that all problems evaporate, but those created or compounded by perverse incentives certainly would. More generally, I’m claiming that we should base our decisions more on our values than on indices, and never lose track of what universities actually are, or rather ought to be.

  6. Michael Hynes says:

    So what types of systems can be imagined that limit the tendency to produce “deadwood” (a word I don’t like and which I think is often unfairly applied to people who have different values, and still make important contributions to the University) ? With one of my own offspring currently in the process of getting a faculty position, it has become clear to me just how different reward systems (merit, progress through the ranks etc.) are across the country. A system like that in several Ontario Universities, with relatively large progress through the rank increments that are automatic on satisfactory performance, and then get smaller with increasing seniority, would seem to be a problem to me. On the other hand the system here (and at other Alberta Universities) of all increments being allocated based on merit (satisfactory performance, evaluated on all of teaching, scholarship and service, or “normal expectation” technically gets you only 0.4 of an increment (value of an increment varies from 1900 at Assistant Prof level, to 2700 for a less senior full Prof -it then goes down) , and a zero increment, if repeated, leads to procedures for dismissal, even for tenured faculty), would seem, at least superficially, to mitigate against people taking a minimalist approach to their work. How well this really works is debatable, and the process is cumbersome and time consuming, and tends to generate conflict and resentment. But our administrators and Deans can’t argue that they don’t have any tools to manage productivity, because they certainly do.

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