by Marcia Devlin
Last year, I was sent a satirical article about how to sabotage the productivity of your organisation by using a CIA manual from 1944. It contained advice such as:
- When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five;
- Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions; and
- Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
There’s more and it’s worth a read.
Reflecting on my time in higher education over three decades, the article was both funny and depressing. Funny, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is peculiar and amusing and many of us would have it no other way. Depressing, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is highly bureaucratic and inefficient and often a profound waste of talent, goodwill and time.
The COVID-19 crisis has provided many opportunities to rethink what we have always done and to do things differently. I’m wondering whether universities might eventually benefit from this terrible crisis, including in ways that could be permanent.
Following the scrambling, adjustments and re-learning required for the global mass uptake of online and digital forms of education, our attention has begun to turn to the implications of this move.
Always of interest, academic integrity and the quality and standards of learning are now the subject of increased interest and scrutiny. As the ubiquitous, supervised, closed book exam en masse became impossible, along with other forms of assessment that require physical supervision of students, less frequently used assessment approaches have been considered and deployed.
Academic integrity is having a day or two in the sun as educators in universities consider how to ensure it, when they can’t always see what students are doing, including during electronic classes. Approaches that are being considered and used include: more gentle and/or educative interpretations of existing assessment and academic integrity policies; the use of technological proctoring tools, including homemade solutions using student phones; and so-called ‘alternative’ assessment.
In Australia, assessment policies have been changed, or waived in part, including through the granting of special power to a senior officer of the University in some places. All of these shifts have occurred with the aim of enabling to practical solutions to challenging and sudden changes.
New and streamlined governance arrangements have been created and enacted to ensure appropriate oversight of teaching, learning and assessment changes in the very short timeframes possible at the time. This one might confound any current CIA operatives in universities who are intent on slowing us down.
Considerations of academic matters that used to take one or two long Academic Board discussions and a fair amount of angst, not to mention tension and in some cases ongoing resentments between parties with different views, gave way, at least momentarily. They were replaced by shorter, more focused considerations, often in single, brief meetings of key people. As far as I observed at my own University and elsewhere, we have made sensible and defensible positions and enacted them, with broad acceptance and little or no negative ripple.
Of course, we were forced to move quickly by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which is the defining feature of most of the world’s experience in 2020. As we enter 2021, a ‘new normal’ is emerging in every aspect of human existence. It is understandable that we should hope things to return to the ‘old normal’, at least in some respects. But I’d argue that academic governance is one area in which we should try to retain the new normal, at least to some extent.
Imagine what might be possible if university staff were freed up, even just a little, from the at times tortuous dance of academic consideration that unnecessarily uses up precious talent, goodwill and time.
What if, post this terrible world crisis, we emerged with a commitment to do things differently in universities and in ways that maintained integrity, but did not steal our precious resources?
What if, instead of us doing as a CIA operative would recommend, such as: “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences”, we simply didn’t do that anymore?
What if we all became more conscious of the time of others that we use up in the pursuit of ancient but no longer purposeful traditions? And what if we all committed to stopping doing this and trying something more respectful instead?
That we have moved many millions of university students to profoundly different ways of learning, teaching and assessment, and created new and efficient ways to consider and govern effectively with academic integrity apparently intact, tells us that anything is possible in the university sector.
When we finally emerge from COVID-19, the world will be a different place and human contact will be more deeply appreciated in many ways. Why don’t we try to respect that contact in our universities by not wasting each other’s talent, goodwill and time any further?
Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, now Adjunct Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review.
February 4, 2021 at 6:11 pm
I’ve read that same manual and even occasionally been provoked into employing some of its tactics (I’ve been a university governor and sit on several Faculty committees, though never Academic Board). I’ve also felt the pain of rambling, unfocussed meetings. However, could we not also see the meeting as a site of democracy and debate in the finest traditions of the academy? I notice the relish with which my own university’s senior managers ascended to being Gold Command when the coronavirus took hold – the military jargon indicated a worrying degree of fantasising about the ideal institutional structure. In a corporatised HE landscape, instant decision-making by a small core of people – many not or no longer academics – looks decisive and fast-moving, but only if your model is the profit-making company. Perhaps long rambling meetings are inefficient, but is there any evidence that they produce worse outcomes? If efficiency is defined by speed and restricted opportunities to hear different perspectives, I’d rather be inefficient.
Certainly I can recall too many times when important decisions were tabled for discussion at the very end of governors’ meetings, presented with very little detail and rammed through with unfortunate results on the strength of senior managers’ personal charisma. If I recall my Weber correctly, bureaucracy is a levelling structure that produces more equitable outcomes than charismatic structures that privilege the Great Man. I remember being told in hushed tones that my VC was a ‘visionary’. ‘Lord save us from visionaries’, I replied. Thankfully, he wasn’t.