Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Department staff meeting

There's a newspaper clipping pinned on the notice board of the research lab in Cambridge where I used to work. The columnist writes about leadership in academia and management in the universities. He concludes that while the most common metaphor for what the VC or rector does is that of steering a ship, the university in fact is not one big vessel but a massive flotilla of ships, boats and dingies of different sizes and descriptions. Each of the boats have their own captains, and they are ready for a mutiny for even very small things. MOSTLY for the very small things, I might add.

To extend his analogy, it seems clear that some of the boat captains won't take orders from the admiral or are steadfast in doing exactly the opposite. Many captains also never talk to their crews. From the central administration's point of view, even establishing communication links within or between the boats, or between the admiral and the boats is challenging (I, as an academic and a Navy communications officer can attest to that), not to mention trying to get the whole carnage of boats (this is a new collective noun that I'm suggesting, it used to be a fleet of boats, but based on experiences from Cam, this is more accurate) to move in the same direction.

Why is it so difficult? Well, to start with, the selection of people for leadership positions (at all levels of uni admin) is based on rather unhelpful criteria: usually there are none, at least none that have to do with the ability to do that work. The personal motivation to take up one of these positions falls into one of these three categories:

1) they made me do it, because it is my turn
2) I'm a power-hungry bastard
3) I'm so frustrated with admin interfering with my research that I've decided to avenge by starting to interfere with the admin

None of these are especially good motives, and none of these feature in the top 10 ways to impress in the job interviews (luckily there aren't any, for these posts). While most people have chosen university careers because they have a calling for it, the calling very rarely extends to admin. In fact, many have taken up research in order to escape from admin (or anything classifiable as "real work") altogether.

Of course, for academics, "real work" becomes impossible because of the high level of qualifications and education. Rather than getting their hands dirty with real work in the real world, academics operate on the constructive nature of concepts that operationalise a number of dimensions pertaining to the discourse on certain aspects of the theories that govern the frameworks within which it becomes possible to observe the rate of change in the development of patterns in the indicators reflecting the real world in this context.

And of course, being the only person in the world who has written a thesis on how this constructive nature... applies to the mimetic and ontological analysis of 19th century German literature on health care reform, makes you a qualified specialist in everything, naturally including management of a university and the various flotation devices sailing under its flag.

On the other hand, taking part provides you with unlimited opportunities to procrastinate.

(Probably should put a disclaimer here about fictitious characters, places and events, make it clear that this text was merely inspired by the string of meetings today, and also say that any references of real work are strictly based on hearsay.)

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