The Managerial University:

A Failed Experiment?

– By David West | April 14, 2016


Photograph by Markus Spiske

Recent decades have seen a protracted attack and painstaking demolition of the traditional or ‘old’ university and an associated purging of academics. The rise of managers and ‘managerial’ doctrines were supposed to make universities more efficient and productive, more lean and transparent, and above all, more modern. In practice, managerial reforms have given rise to a range of pathologies and side effects. Bullying is widespread, many staff are unhappy. But the spread of managerialism is also threatening the university’s role as a centre of committed teaching, disinterested scholarship and critical research. Examination of the actual effects – rather than stated aims – of the managerial experiment is long overdue.

The managerial experiment has been inspired by a few guiding ideas but one basic assumption. Just as economics and political science assume that individuals and elected officials or appointed public servants behave as rational self-interested actors, this campaign assumes that university academics are generally out for themselves. According to this view, the old idea of the university as a community of self-governing scholars dedicated to humanist values of truth and learning was all very well in theory but never entirely realistic. Like many publicly-funded organisations, universities invariably fell short in practice. Scholars with guaranteed tenure became lazy. Teachers neglected their students and researchers rested on their laurels. These failings were allowed to persist, according to this story, because self-interested academics were also self-governing. These assumptions set the scene for root-and-branch reform.

In their enthusiasm for the ‘new managerialism’ and the ‘modern university’, however, politicians, bureaucrats and those academics who have hitched their fortunes to the new model seem wilfully blind to the practical results of their reforms. There is some truth in their criticisms of the old idea of the university, but in practice the management of the modern university also leaves too much to be desired. Some of the problems that beset the new model were anticipated by sceptical academics. Their criticisms were dismissed as the products of antiquated thinking and self-interest. What can you expect from academics defending their own privileges?

The theory of the modern university can be reduced to – and in fact amounts to little more than – a relatively simply set of rubrics. At the heart of the new model is the belief in the need for incentives, both positive and negative. The importance of incentives is at the heart of liberal and neoliberal convictions about the virtues of capitalism. Enterprises and workers within them are spurred to industry and innovation by rewards for success and punishment for failure. So academics must also be rewarded for their achievements and punished for their failures.

In principle, criteria of academic performance are based on the full range of academic activities including administration and outreach, teaching, research and grant applications. In practice, as most academics know, it is research output and, increasingly, grant applications that really count. The most obvious consequence of this mode of assessment is that the time and attention given by many academics to undergraduate teaching is declining, which directly compromises the quality of education.

Assessments of academic performance are translated into a schedule of rewards and punishments. Rewards or ‘carrots’ take the form of promotions, pay increases and ‘relief’ from teaching as well as more symbolic awards for varieties of ‘excellence’. Punishments consist in the absence of these rewards together with additional teaching loads, which are openly treated by managers and academic peers as penalties for failing to meet imposed research targets. Aggressive ‘performance management’ (sometimes thinly disguised as mentoring) and eventually dismissal are the ultimate ‘sticks’. Additionally, academics’ increasing administrative and teaching loads, the abolition of tenure, the phasing out of automatic salary increments and the tying of research funds to successful grant applications, mean that a successful academic career is almost impossible without the rewards. The life of the ‘underperformer’ who is subject to this schedule of punishments is unbearable.

Other features of the new university model flow directly from this commitment to incentives. One consequence is the almost exclusive focus of managers on metrics. If incentives are to be applied with all the rigour that the new model requires, then the ‘outputs’ of academics must be able to be measured and compared. In practice, since monetary values are not available for most forms of academic activity, rewards are based on quantified data sets factoring numbers of grants and publications with measures of ‘impact’ and ‘quality’. The latter are reduced to quantifiable criteria largely in the form of reputational surveys. The essential tool of the new managerialism is thus the spreadsheet, whereby qualitative complexities, varieties of insight and originality and disciplinary differences can be reduced to a table of figures.

An almost inevitable by-product of this focus on quantifiable metrics and the spreadsheet is the atrophy of managers’ ability to make judgments. Judgments concerning quality and originality, like judgments about character and personality, will always be difficult and sometimes contentious. The attraction of quantifiable data here is the promise that such judgments can be dispensed with altogether. Managers no longer feel they need to read and try to understand the work of those they assess. Academics are appointed largely on the basis of the résumé with its ever lengthening lists of grants won, publications and positive teaching evaluations.

In fact, it is risky to appoint new staff on this basis. With luck, the deceptive nature of an apparently impressive résumé may be revealed at interview, when a candidate’s shortcomings are too obvious to ignore. Even when the metrics are not deceptive, they are not designed, and so inevitably fail, to capture possible defects of character that may prove disastrous. Such mistakes are discovered only when it is far too late and then typically at great expense to the university. Mistakes are all the more likely since managers who have been relieved of the need to make judgments of quality, character or integrity quickly lose the ability to do so.

A third and related feature of the new university, already implicit in the focus on output and metrics, is the increasing reliance on image and reputation. Since quality itself obviously cannot be reliably and objectively quantified, the metrics treasured by modern management in fact rest on various kinds of opinion survey, which provide only crude, and often illusory, indicators of an academic’s performance. Teaching ability is assessed by student surveys which, whilst they may provide useful information to teachers and their departments risk confusing popularity with quality. The best journals are those that attract contributions from the best academics who, in circular fashion, must be those whose contributions are accepted by those journals on the advice of yet other ‘top-ranking’ academics recruited as editors. Furthermore, universities too are now ranked largely by surveys of reputation. The most prestigious universities are those favoured by academics at similarly prestigious universities whose status is itself based on reputation. And so it goes.

These surveys of quality and reputation are not necessarily inaccurate. In large part, however, they serve to confirm conventional views about the prestige of different institutions. But in addition to its evident circularity, a process of evaluation, whereby subjective opinions are factored into an impressively technical statistical model that delivers supposedly objective assessments of quality, is subject to at least two other problems. In the first place, it is intrinsically conservative. Academics with established reputations and often fixed ideas occupy powerful positions and stand in judgment over younger academics. An innovative idea or approach may be rejected by the guardians of received ideas and methods. In Australian universities, for example, proponents of quantitative methods are waging war on qualitative and critical approaches. Pandering to the intellectual tastes and preferences of journal editors may be the most effective means of career advancement, which rewards conformity rather than originality.

A second problem with the focus on reputational surveys is the increasing obsession with image over substance. The established universities trade heavily on their long-held reputations for quality and excellence. As newer universities struggle to improve their still small reputations, it seems easier to make an impression through clever marketing and branding strategies rather than through substantive achievements. Real improvements depend on attracting more able staff. For newer universities without an established reputation, there is obviously a vicious circularity at work. How do you attract the best academics and students when you are competing with institutions with better reputations and more resources? At lesser financial cost is the option of ‘incentivizing’ existing researchers to achieve higher levels of performance. But the personal costs for the academics subjected to such pressures, physical, psychological and familial, are likely to be considerable.

Even universities with an established reputation are tempted to exploit their existing advantages in the pursuit of further increments of reputational excellence. Fee-paying international students can be attracted to a university with an internationally recognized name, even if the quality of its teaching does not always match its marketing materials. Students who have paid for expensive degrees can hardly be failed, even if that means that academic standards must be increasingly ‘flexible’.

Such unintended consequences of the new model university are obvious to many academics – except those caught up in the euphoria of modernizing managerial reform. Yet there is an even more sinister implication of this ‘new managerialism’: a pervasive culture of control and intimidation. The imperative of the modern manager is to achieve change at all costs. Just as modern academics are judged by their research outputs, modern managers are judged by the ‘reforms’ or ‘restructuing’ they bring about. These changes are the raw material of their résumé and the condition of their further promotion or dismissal. Unsurprisingly the modern manager tends to be intolerant of opposition.

An early casualty and necessary condition of the new managerial model was the elimination of any semblance of democracy or collegial governance within the university. The self-governing faculty has been replaced by a hierarchy of managers empowered to direct and instruct subordinates whose opposition or doubts can then be safely ignored. Academics whose opinions no longer have any authority are instead endlessly consulted. As in the infamous ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ campaigns of Mao’s cultural revolution, academics’ views are sought not with any intention of taking them seriously but as useful indicators of loyalty to the regime.

Loyalty has become the unspoken condition of managerial favour and professional success. Perceptions of loyalty and disloyalty invoke a more informal schedule of rewards and punishments. Academics perceived to be disloyal are ignored, sidelined and eventually encouraged to leave or forced out altogether. In the private (and sometimes not so private) discussions of managers, dissenters are casually dismissed as poor team-players, trouble-makers or malcontents. Even people of recognized ability and achievement may be sacrificed ‘to encourage the others’. By the same token, those academics who show their loyalty to the new paradigm can expect favourable treatment in the allocation of teaching responsibilities, travel grants, even office space and furnishings. Above all, they can be safely promoted to positions of managerial authority themselves – although they will then be more closely monitored for their conformity to accepted doctrine. This is one reason why promotion in the modern university can be a mixed blessing. Being close to the top brings considerable rewards at the cost of heightened visibility and vulnerability. Ironically, managers are more likely to be dismissed for underperformance than those they manage.

It is not difficult to imagine how this organizational logic plays out in practice. As with other organizations, the modern university most rewards those who demonstrate both loyalty to superiors and effective control of subordinates. Good managers are those who gets things done, which tends to mean that they are not hampered by either sensitivity for others’ feelings or democratic scruples. They are assessed according to results rather than the methods they employ, by ends rather than means. It is little surprise, then, that managers are sometimes tempted to resort to a more intense regime of control. The rhetoric of instruction and compliance has largely replaced the more collaborative discourse of request and consent. Increasingly intense and frequent performance reviews face those who do not both perform and conform.

Not surprisingly, allegations of bullying and harassment are also becoming more common. The modern university’s organizational ecology favours the bully. Managerial powers are invested in a single ‘line manager’ whose instructions are, in principle and increasingly in practice, final and unquestionable. To dispute those instructions is an act of defiance, which most academics are, for obvious reasons, careful to avoid. What is more, junior staff face managerial fiats largely in isolation. Strict management hierarchies insulate levels and regions of the university from one another. Under ever increasing pressures to teach, publish and win grants, academics have little time for socialization or solidarity. The struggle for academic survival discourages collegiality as much as it encourages controlling and aggressive behaviour.

Not that the modern university lacks forms of governance and elaborate procedures designed to deal with bullying managers. Staff can complain to more senior managers. But they do so at the risk of acquiring a reputation for trouble making and disloyalty. In more extreme cases, they can initiate complaint or grievance procedures, which are supposed to deal with instances of bullying and harassment.

However, essential features of the modern university make the failure of these procedures almost inevitable. In the first place, as in most organizations, complaint procedures take place within the organizational hierarchy that produced the complaint in the first place, a hierarchy designed to confer authority on superiors and induce obedience in subordinates. Senior managers are, by the institutional logic of their position, inclined to support immediate subordinates who are the objects of a complaint. Finding in favour of the manager has the advantage of reinforcing the message that managerial instructions should be obeyed. The substantial ‘benefit of the doubt’ accorded to the manager is reinforced by the obvious risks of finding against him or her: risks of litigation and resulting payouts.

What advantage, on the other hand, can the institution expect from finding in favour of the complainant? Set against the legal, financial and disciplinary risks of such a step, the demands of fairness are rarely enough. As we have seen, modern managers are not selected or rewarded for their capacity for good judgment. Measurable outcomes are the order of the day. The more zealously manager are committed to the strategic plan and its ‘KPIs’ or ‘key performance indicators’, the less likely they are to make the risky call.

The ‘soft power’ of the modern university offers, in this context, a salve for troubled consciences. Human resource managers trained in psychology admit that change can be difficult, so it’s hardly surprising that some people find it difficult to adjust. The university offers counselling and courses on stress management and work-life balance. But the implicit pathologization of those who complain is never far from the surface. Healthy individuals conform, oppositional individuals are maladjusted. A case of bullying or harassment is more conveniently conceived as the result of an ‘adjustment disorder’.

What we have been describing are, of course, not yet universal pathologies but rather tendencies favoured by the prevailing institutional logic of the university. But with these tendencies we can only expect the pathologies to get worse. For one thing, those who can survive and even thrive in such an environment are, in the main, those who share the personality of the modern manager and have signed up to the ideology or can adopt the appropriate disguise. It seems likely, then, that universities will become increasingly dominated by the same mentality. By the same token, as those with dissenting perspectives depart or are expelled, we can expect the pathologies currently afflicting the university to become more persistent and extreme.

None of this is an argument for an uncritical return to the university of the past – there is no scope here for a careful analysis of its defects let alone the formulation of a less toxic alternative model. What we do need to address are the reasons why anyone outside the modern university should care. Even if outsiders accept that the modern university is becoming toxic for those who work within it, what does that matter to them?

In fact, the characteristic defects of the current university model extend far beyond the working lives of academics. The organizational logic of the modern university is responsible for other widely observed tendencies concerning its broader social role. Throughout the modern managerial university, pressures to perform and produce make breadth of learning and depth of thinking all but impossible for both students and academics alike. Current practices lead to the neglect of teaching for the sake of research ‘outputs’. The emphasis on student fees and enrolments leads to declining educational standards. The emphasis on the quantity of research outputs both undermines the quality of research and distorts its goals. In the humanities, obsession with grant applications and the number of publications encourages specialized research projects of sometimes questionable value. The grant application process undermines the intellectual freedom of researchers, subjecting them to the imperatives of government and an increasingly powerful professoriate. The impoverishment of university learning and education is surely something that must concern us all.



David West is an independent researcher living in Canberra. Until 2013, he was Associate Professor of Political Theory at the Australian National University, where he taught courses on social movements, political philosophy, Habermas and the Frankfurt School. His most recent book is Social Movements in Global Politics.

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