My last post about jerks in academia struck a chord with many but also raised questions – jerks abound, yes, but what should we do about them? What can we do to ‘out’ them and so to attempt to ameliorate their behaviour? I said that I believed strong leadership was crucial so in this post I’ll expand on what it might be possible to do. Leadership in higher education is a strange beast, as spelled out in a recent article in the Guardian. Academics are driven by love of their subject and they tend not to react well to others telling them what to do – that would certainly be the case if someone wanted to drive their research direction. An ex-head of my department used to say of attempting to steer the department as a whole that it was like herding cats – a phrase that I suspect many in similar positions would use. Many academics simply don’t care about the big, departmental picture, they only want to solve their pet problem, get their experiment to work or write up their Big Idea. And that is where jerkish attributes can start to creep in, whether or not with conscious or malicious intent.
So what can a head of department do? Another phrase I have heard used regarding these tiresome people is that heads of department have no sanctions. I only partially agree with that statement, I think it’s a cop-out, a pale excuse for not even trying to do anything. Cultural/peer-group pressure does matter. (Note that I have not been a head of department myself, so these are only theoretical thoughts, not ones I have had an opportunity myself to put into practice to try out their effectiveness.) Let me give you an example contrasting two different departments in Cambridge. In my own, all faculty are required to teach, without exception. People from outside are sometimes surprised to find that someone as senior as the Cavendish Professor, Sir Richard Friend, despite having so many other irons in the fire including 3 spin-out companies, does his fair share of teaching and examining. He regards it as his duty and quite recently wrote (and delivered) an entirely new course on Energy.
Contrast that with another science department in the University, equally full of superstars as my own but where they are allowed to buy themselves out of their teaching duties, literally ‘buy’ or just by being difficult I don’t know. Consequently the early-career potential superstars of tomorrow have to shoulder a greater burden of teaching than they otherwise would, to their own detriment. Now the senior professors no doubt say (as I’ve heard at least one mutter) ‘’the best thing I can do for the department is pull in the grants/write Nature papers”. I believe that is a self-serving justification, an attempt to fool themselves that their selfish behaviour is acceptable. Why is their need to write papers or grants more warranted than for those setting out on their careers? Shouldn’t they be thinking of how they would have felt 20 years earlier in a similar situation?The thing is, in my department, because it is the expectation that everyone will contribute to the teaching load, everyone does do it, more or less competently but with good grace. In the other department it is a source of friction. Who is allowed off? At what stage of seniority can you start pulling rank and say ‘no’? The head of department who originally allowed this to happen made a grave mistake and one it is extraordinarily difficult to turn around.
That is one specific example of where the leadership can establish a framework in which everyone settles in and just acquiesces in an acceptable state of affairs. I would rue the day if any subsequent head of my own department changed the norm. The most recent development on this front, which should strengthen things further, has grown out of our department’s Athena Swan application. We are currently a Silver Award holder and in our last submission’s action plan we stated we would set up a workload model. This we have now done, so that the head of department is able to see exactly who is doing what. The model covers a great deal more than simply teaching and examining (which we had always monitored through an annual survey): it now includes administrative work within the department and beyond, all those committees that occupy time centrally and in the department; it includes responsibilities such as running one of the major groups (of which there are around 10 in the department), outreach, mentoring and appraisal; and it includes any teaching in college. Each of us can see where we sit on the histogram which includes everyone else, although we can’t actually identify any of the other individuals on it. It means that the head of department has ammunition to prod the more idle members of the department into accepting a little more responsibility and a few more tasks. It is too early to know how well it will work – and one can always argue about how different activities should be weighted - but it does at least provide a good starting point for considering who are the good citizens and who the lazy devils are who need a stiff talking to. Outside Cambridge such a model may be quite normal, inside it is something of an exception.
Other departments could probably cite other expectations of the norm which ‘enforce’ appropriate behaviour. But let me turn to another topic, which I touched on in the last post, that of promotion. Here it is the university as a whole that needs to set expectations, with whoever sets the criteria for promotion needing to think beyond the obvious paper-writing/grant-winning/research set of activities. I am in the middle of reading the paperwork for this year’s cycle in Cambridge, so let me share some specific facts about Cambridge’s new procedures (these are public documents, as far as I know available beyond Cambridge without password).
For promotion, a threshold must be reached (and of course just reaching the threshold won’t be sufficient due to the numbers applying, exceeding it is usually required) in each of three categories: research (which has 3 times the weight of the other headings), teaching and ‘general’. For promotion to professor, the requirement in this last category is
There must be an effective contribution to the subject other than in teaching and research. This may include administration and, where appropriate, management of research groups, and the creation and management of multi-institutional/national/ international research facilities. It may also include contributions to the subject made more widely, for example, widening participation activity and the design and delivery of outreach programmes, also editorial work, and clinical work (if applicable).
So a wide range of activities can be highlighted in this section, including quite explicitly outreach and widening participation. But, and this is the crucial thing, if an applicant can’t find anything virtuous in terms of good citizenry to insert here, their application will fail. It is not sufficient to say they are wonderful in research with prizes galore to their name, a fistful of papers in Science and Nature and millions of pounds in grant income; they will fail if they can’t demonstrate at least some modicum of good behaviour under this ‘general’ heading (and of course have some decent quality teaching to their name too). This is a good start in stopping jerkish behaviour setting in too soon and has come about over the years because the leadership within the University has realised that these activities need to be valued, not just assumed to go through on the nod, as I suspect happened in years gone by.
Unfortunately, I fear too often some of the worst offenders are those who have already reached the giddy heights of a professorship. However, maybe those who are progressing through the system, having to think about their behaviour now at an early stage, may be less likely to fall into bad habits if they know promotion depends on contributing something to the greater good. Of course, some of the things in the above list can still be carried out entirely selfishly – running a research group really is a sine qua non if you’ve got a team together to write all those top-notch papers and may serve your own interests more than those of the department; organising conferences can simply be an opportunity for a bit of networking and trading invited talks. Nevertheless, the list also implies that those who do some of the stuff that others may regard as drudgery, including outreach but also the perhaps less attractive administrative tasks such as admissions or safety committees, will get due credit. That may help to sweeten the pill just a little for those who find (too) much of their time is absorbed by these activities.
I would be interested to hear what other departmental or instutional strategies people are familiar with that may serve to encourage good behaviour and ‘punish’ bad. I am sure there must be good examples that have been developed to suit different environments, and I hope people will add these in the comment stream as a way of disseminating best practice.