The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple

Departmental dysfunctions

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By Paul Temple

The quality of the management or, if you wish, leadership of university academic departments has been a cause for concern – from both ends of the hierarchy – for as long as anyone in the system can remember. In my usual guide to finding out what people were thinking the day before yesterday about university operations – Lockwood and Davies’s 1985 Universities: The Management Challenge – John Davies remarks that heads of academic departments are “middlemen [sic] in a complicated communications network…[with] enormous intellectual, emotional and physical demands in this difficult position… the role is a target for others’ frustrations” (74). I think this nicely sums up what we still find today.

It’s fairly clear that these difficulties arise in large measure because academics in these roles find themselves doing mid-career management jobs with, at best, limited prior experience. Up until that point in their careers, they have concentrated on being good historians, physicists or whatever; whereas their equivalents in most other organisations will have done several more junior management jobs and will perhaps have worked closely with people at or near the top of their organisation, in the process learning tacitly what good management looks and feels like. (Obviously, it doesn’t always work out like that, the world not being perfect.)

What dysfunctional behaviours do we typically see in the management of academic departments that result from this lack of on-the-job learning?

  • Chaotic time management, often exacerbated by lack of outer-office support. The symptoms of this include rushing, under-prepared, from one meeting to another, perhaps arriving late and/or leaving early; allowing interruptions to scheduled meetings (“This will only take a second”); and regularly postponing planned meetings (“Can we leave this until next term?”).
  • Meeting anarchy. The symptoms here include agendas with cryptically-titled items, with no supporting papers – or when there are some, no guidance about what decision needs to be taken, let alone a recommendation; minutes with little sense of narrative and which are impenetrable to people who weren’t present; and lack of systematic follow-up on action. If you’ve ever worked in an environment where committee decisions could have the force of law, with all that follows from that, this is a nightmare vision.
  • ‘Act, don’t react’ is a great management motto. You sometimes see heads of departments passing on the complaints they’ve just received from on high, usually amplified by the emotions (see John Davies) that this has generated within them. So some mild chiding from the finance director mutates into an attack on departmental staff, for whom it is usually news that the problem even exists (if, indeed, it actually does). Departmental leaders should act as a dampener, a moderating influence, not an amplifier of complaint (especially so when the complaint is justified).
  • An alternative dysfunction arising in the communications network (nicely identified by John Davies as a critical function of these jobs) is “don’t shoot the messenger”. Here, the head of department reports back on an unworkable scheme dreamed up far from the operational front lines, and, head-in-hands, like a weak platoon commander in a war movie, tells the troops that this is what they’ve got to do, whether or not it makes sense. You have to wonder in these situations what the head of department thinks the purpose of their job actually is.
  • Budget panics. Has anyone worked in a university where there was not a supposedly serious financial crisis every second year or so? The problem often is not so much the size of the deficit, as the fact that nobody apparently saw it coming. (A wise finance director I used to work with said that he wasn’t usually worried about whether we were in surplus or deficit, providing that he could predict which it would be.) Heads of department probably panic more about finance than anything, although their power to do much about it (given the typical university resource allocation model) is usually quite limited. This very limitation again seems to have an amplifying effect, leading to pointless minor economies (banning tea and biscuits at meetings is a trusted stand-by) which successfully depress morale while delivering invisibly small savings.

Which reminds me of another excellent management motto: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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