Wednesday, 5 May 2010

On sulks and silence

While there has been a great deal of comment about the extent and nature of forthcoming cuts in universities in the UK, the one perspective that is noticeably missing is that of the management doing the cutting. Whether it is at King’s London, Sussex, Hull, and now Middlesex, protestors protest, and managers respond – by not responding. Perfectly reasonable alarm goes unanswered, and managers seem to go out of their way to be aloof, Olympian, severe.

Not all are like this. The head of Dublin City University, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, keeps up an on-line blog which puts his point of view in a way which is witty, informed and civilised. His comments, many of which touch on the subject of university governance, the relationship between public and private, funding and research, are at

A similar openness and engagement from his British peers would help a great deal: the more they sit closested in their offices pretending not to notice, and the more they communicate only through bland public statements, then the more they create the impression that they truly are cold and uncaring of the institutions they run. I do not believe that is the case; I have no doubt that, from their point of view, they are engaging, as best they can, with difficult circumstances and are properly cheesed that their efforts are going unappreciated.

But it would be nice to know what that perspective is. There must be someone in the massed ranks of administrators who does not regard the world outside with horror, and thinks that explaining clearly not only policies, but the underlying reasons for policies, might be more than a show of weakness.

The problem is a difference of style. Academics discuss: it is the fundamental quality of their occupation. Nothing is of worth unless it is capable of withstanding counter-arguments; this applies in science as much as in the humanities. Any action or policy which is not justified by words is at best suspect, at worst fraudulent.

The world of managers is different; there justification is by deed. Effective and efficient action is all important; managers are (quite rightly) suspicious of smooth talkers as this is often a cover for inept performance. Compromise is also suspect as always producing second best policies which are neither one thing nor another.

The divide is best seen in the businessmen who are adopted by politicians, another class of humanity which trades in words. Generally speaking these are the ones who are good at talking, and at selling themselves. Time and again – going back to the 1970s – the businessmen who have been taken on as government advisors have been the ones able to talk a line; they have generally proven to be disappointingly mediocre at actually running things.

There is no better sell sign for a share than when the Chairman gets a peerage: that's when you know the company has fallen into the hands of a vainglorious egotist.(Another is when they build themselves a new corporate headquarters designed by a famous architect).

In business the most effective managers – and the ones who are often most admired – are the ones who keep quiet and get on with it, who demonstrate by what they do, not by what they say they are going to do.

This, of course creates problems when the two worldviews collide, as they do in universities. When one side values accountability over efficiency, and the other sees things the other way around, there will always be a clash, sooner or later, unless some accomodation is reached to promote mutual understanding.

The attempts by managers to show competence in their particular fashion generates suspicion; the desire of academics to be kept informed and be consulted, generates contempt. The academics think of managers as arrogant hit-men, managers think of the academics as vacuous wind-bags. The two sides understand each other less and less, just at the moment when a rigid and unbreakable unity of purpose is required.

A pity, really.

-- Iain Pears

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