15th April 2012: Should Unproductive Academics Be Made Redundant?



The Age surveyed four people on the ‘publish or perish’ debate unfolding at the University of Sydney and Australian National University (ANU). You can read my December 2011 reaction to Sydney’s announcement here. In part, the Sydney debate has been about the use of retrospective and volume-based publication metrics; university management’s handling of cases judged borderline; and perceptions of a lack of administrative fairness and transparency.


University of Sydney’s Nick Riemer argued:


Like other workplaces, universities have performance management processes. These, not redundancy, are the answer to underperformance. But how to respond to a failure of management? . . . Universities, apparently, just don’t need academics. [emphasis added]


University of Exeter’s Andrew McRae countered:


Although the root cause of the cuts may be a sorry story of financial mismanagement, the university’s response looks right. For the first time in  memory, its managers are  systematically  tackling underperformance. [emphasis added]


Grattan Institute‘s Andrew Norton observed:


Most job changes are, as university leaders like to say, “strategic”. They are aimed at achieving a better return on the money and effort invested in research. [emphasis added]


Sydney’s administrators appear to be following a strategy similar to GE’s WorkOut process. GE’s former chief executive officer Jack Welch was dubbed ‘Neutron Jack’ for his willingness to divest businesses that he deemed uncompetitive and to fire underperformers (the bottom 10% each year). Welch’s managerial approach contrasts with Riemer’s suggestion and is closer to McRae’s position and Norton’s investment-driven analysis. University performance systems can reward academic superstars in a ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic that may also marginalise others. Already, some academics engage in self-policing and the strategic selection of journal articles and research programs, in order to meet this performance criteria and to convince promotions committees.


At the blog Core Economics, University of Queensland’s Rabee Tourky suggests the “culture of tenure” is under attack. The reaction to Sydney and ANU’s announcements usually calls for a return to a past Golden Age of protected academic scholarship. But Welch’s record at GE suggests why this strategy is unlikely to work: he would have definitely fired ‘unproductive’ academics. McRae and Norton note the higher education sector’s competitiveness and the role of international rankings and research performance. Welch believed that GE faced a similar commercial environment. The decision to grant tenure imposes a long-term, variable liability of wages and superannuation on the university: the cash flow that Welch and today’s consultants and financial engineers now target. It is one reason why many universities employ casual staff and set hiring barriers – such as PhD and teaching degree requirements – which act as screening mechanisms for entry-level academic positions. For managers, flexible asset use and cash flows are key.


Riemer blames university bureaucrats: “It is the managers who are unproductive. Systemic managerial failures are compromising quality.” However, many of these managers are professor-level academics who are promoted into university senior management. Riemer’s “systemic managerial failures” relate to university budget processes, and how different assets – buildings, matching competitive grants, people – are valued. “University technocrats are the equivalent of the regulators whose negligence caused the GFC,” Riemer argued. The problem is this analogy sounds convincing until you consider pre-GFC warnings and how the US Treasury and Federal Reserve had to improvise policy during the collapses of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The “executives hostile to the principles that should govern academic communities” are in fact following in the MBA tradition of GE’s Welch, and today’s asset management and private equity firms.


Riemer singled out senior managers but university administrators may also evaluate the current debate on different terms. Many university administrators are degree qualified and have professional expertise. They are treated like a different caste to academics: HEW salaries are lower than the academic equivalents; they work regular business hours instead of the academics’ flexible schedules with months off (the mid-year and late November-mid January periods are used at some universities for summer schools, offshore teaching, and writing time for competitive grants and research publications – but I have seen some academics also effectively take this time off); administrators may have to do the ‘grunt work’ that academics should do on competitive grant applications but often don’t; they have performance criteria and semi-annual reviews; and administrators don’t usually get discretionary funding like conference travel and research publications (even if they produce them and include them in university research audits). Short-term three-year contracts are the norm rather than the entitlement of academic tenure. ANU and University of Sydney’s decisions suggest that tenured academics now face a GE Welch-like performance culture. University administrators have had this for a decade already. (The outplacement services contract may be lucrative.)


Universities still need academics. Preferably, highly performing teacher-researchers.


Photo: Theo Williams Photography/Flickr.