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The Problem with University Management

Universities in general are poorly managed, although the same could be said of any other public sector organization that is not regulated by the profit motive. The purpose of this blog is to unpack why this is the case.

Let’s start with the basics. Academics, like any other public sector workers, like and expect job security. This makes sense. Job security allows us carry out our research freely, without the threat of losing our jobs for political reasons. Sometimes the results of our research are unpalatable to the powers-that-be, and we naturally seek protection in the form of tenure (a.k.a., a permanent, or a continuing, contract).

So far, so good, right? Well, not exactly. In protecting the free speech of high-performing academics, the system also protects the rights of low-performing academics to do, well, nothing. Every university suffers from what is commonly referred to as “dead wood,” a group of professors that have all but given up. For any taxpayer, this should be concerning. Shouldn’t citizens expect value for money? Oftentimes these low-performers delude themselves into thinking that they are God’s gift to humanity, so they don’t even see themselves as the problem.

“Dead wood” is much less of an issue in the private sector, for obvious reasons. Positions can be terminated fairly easily for failure to perform. When there is a mismatch between product or service and consumer demand, redundancies are implemented swiftly to return the organization back to a healthy equilibrium. Alas, this is not so in most universities.

Although publicly funded universities are not subject to the profit motive, they are subject to fluctuations in student numbers. These numbers depend on several factors, including the reputation and ranking of the university and the wider economy. When student numbers drop, there is no mechanism for swift and easy redundancies, because of the primacy that academics place on job security.

So, what happens when there is a mismatch between student numbers and academic staff? Well, university management cannot simply sack a bunch of professors (as would be the case in the private sector). Instead, the university goes through a prolonged and unbearably excruciating “crisis,” during which time management simply hopes that academics will leave voluntarily in response to what is oftentimes a toxic environment. It is the only option they have to keep labor costs down.

It doesn’t take a genius to predict which professors leave and which stay under those circumstances. The high-performing professors jump ship because they are valuable in the academic labor market. They are “in demand” and so can easily change jobs. The “dead wood” have nowhere to go, so they stay where they are. I think this helps to explain why universities in general are so poorly managed, and why job satisfaction is generally so low.

So what is to be done? Well, that’s the million-dollar question, and I guess that’s why university presidents and vice chancellors get paid millions. Do we marketize academic employment contracts and undermine job security, thus allowing universities to respond swiftly to exogenous changes? If we do, how can we protect academic freedom? Or do we continue to prioritize job security, accepting that one unfortunate consequence is that low performers will also be protected, resulting in mass exoduses of high performers and years of excruciating pain and suffering for everyone else? There is no easy answer to these questions. Maybe we need to do a controlled experiment. Someone needs to found a new university that only offers five-year renewable contracts to academic staff, but pays a significantly higher premium to offset the reduced job security. What would be the effects on performance and job security? You might be surprised.

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Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

© 2020 by Andrew R. Timming.

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