Dark Matters: Management is Good for You

Darth“Dark Matters” will be a category of blog posts in which I will seek to give a positive view of academic management. English universities face a range of really tricky problems right now and, even if you want to blame government for the problems, it is university managements that will have to find solutions.

I will start with two points that I think are fundamental.

  • Management is important: the quality of universities depends critically on the quality of academic management, so if we want good universities we need to get clever people interested in managing them.
  • Management is fun: it is a satisfying occupation for people who are good at research, although it definitely requires some differences in approach.

Management is Important

Would the garden be this pretty without the work of a gardener?

Would the garden be this pretty without the work of a gardener?

To make my point about the importance of management, it is helpful to draw an analogy between an academic department and a flower garden. Individual plants grow by themselves, just as academics do their research and teaching with a very high degree of autonomy. However a great deal of work is needed to create an attractive garden and to maintain it. Plants must be carefully selected; they must be watered, fed and protected from changes in the weather; their growth must be monitored and managed; slow growers may need protection and encouragement; aggressive species must be cut back; dead plants must be removed and replaced. This analogy has its limits but the point is that nobody would expect a garden to look good without a good gardener.

A university is much more complicated than a garden and it needs much more management. In order for academics to be happily and productively engaged in teaching and research, a host of issues need to be taken care of. There must be enough staff of the right calibre, work should be shared equitably, they should feel encouraged, supported, motivated, competent and adequately resourced to carry out their work, they should have the right range of opportunities to develop, there must be enough undergraduate and postgraduate students, appropriate buildings and so on. These are all issues that used to be taken for granted, but they are increasingly difficult to control. In the last few years rapid and unpredictable changes in the constraints on different kinds of funding, in employment law and in the ease with which different subjects can recruit have made it more difficult still.

Management is Fun

It’s ten years this month since I first became a manager and I have enjoyed it immensely. Like research, management is a huge exercise in problem solving with immense scope for creativity. Managing a faculty was a long-running exercise in constrained optimisation. The constant question was “How can we do X in a way that makes the university better?”

One of the hard lessons – which I learned once but had to teach many times – is that whenever you want to start a new activity there are never any new resources. You gain a new resource by sacrificing an existing one. For example you might create 2 lectureships by sacrificing a professorship. You may think that this sounds stupid. Why would you rob Peter to pay Paul? But it is actually a great way of optimising. If you want do do something new but it’s no better than all the things that you are already doing, why do you want to do it?

One of the big barriers to good management is a failure to acknowledge that management is real work and it takes time, in exactly the same way as does productive work, teaching and research. Heads of department frequently carry heavy, often heavier than normal, teaching and research loads. This is a crazy misuse of resources. Management is a difficult and important job. Its purpose is to create the conditions under which academics can work effectively. Managers who carry heavy academic workloads are unlikely to do their management jobs properly. They are only human.