Crisis of Identity? The Mission and Management of Universities in New Zealand
Wilf Malcolm and Nicholas Tarling
Dunmore Press, $39.95,
Clark Kerr, a great president of the University of California at Berkeley, once defined the university as “a collection of independent academic entrepreneurs united only by their common grievance about parking”. The second part of that definition is no longer valid at my own campus, though it once was. At Auckland, a few hundred privileged souls used to get free or heavily subsidised on-site parking while the other 30,000 or so staff and students scrambled to find space on the streets. Now, a policy of steadily increasing parking charges towards market rates has encouraged many people – including me – to hand in their parking stickers and travel to work on foot or by bus, and the unfairness of the old system has been eroded, as well as the inherent inefficiency of subsidising the act of bringing motor vehicles into our congested city.
But what about the first part of President Kerr’s definition – of academics as a bunch of independent entrepreneurs? Of course this is a joke, but it does in fact capture an absolutely key characteristic of university life, and one which is often misunderstood by the public, by government, and even by academic administrators less wise than Clark Kerr.
The point is this: a very high proportion – maybe 80 per cent or more – of the important decisions made on campus are actually made by the very same individuals who will implement them. Each of us decides what we are going to do our research on, and each of us decides what we are going to say in our lectures. That is, the core decision-making process is not top-down, or bureaucratic, and it is not bottom-up, or democratic. It is autonomous, do-it-yourself decision-making; this being an unavoidable, inalienable characteristic of the process of discovering and disseminating knowledge.
Now, it wasn’t always quite like this. When tertiary education was not so widely available, most universities were “small”, in the following precise sense: each department was able to be run by a single professor, usually sitting in his (never her) “Chair”, once appointed, until death or retirement. Outside of the literally collegial universities (Oxford and Cambridge), this – the Lucky Jim model – was not particularly collegial, and certainly not democratic: the “Prof” was willing and able to exercise extensive powers over his staff and students.
Although often these professors were not themselves creative academics – research being left to the “Reader”, who was the brainy bloke (occasionally woman) who could write books etc, but couldn’t be trusted with running anything – the best of them were indeed innovators and leaders and were responsible for much of the English- and Scottish-based institution building that went on over the first 100 years or so of the University of New Zealand, as told by Malcolm and Tarling in this book.
However, massive demographic, economic and cultural shifts from the 1960s onward have fatally undermined the old autocratic, Brit-colonial model. As the baby boomers came onto the tertiary market, enrolments quickly doubled, and then doubled again, with even larger increases in the number of female students. Departments of course had to become bigger too, and most now had more than one professor. Research became professionalised and required of all academic staff, along with the PhD qualification which gives training for research. The sexual predation that was quite commonplace as late as the 1960s and 70s has been largely stamped out, along with other undesirable modes of behaviour, such as smoking in lectures and drinking at lunch time. The modern campus is a “safe” place, on the whole.
The new university model is most fully and elegantly developed in North America, where it has been distilled into just four principles or characteristics (apart from obeying the laws of the land on discrimination, sexism and so forth). First, everyone is a “professor”, which is now a generic (lower-case) term for someone with a PhD who teaches and researches at a higher degree-granting institution. Second, there are just three academic ranks and thus just two promotion steps: from assistant to associate professor (this also being the up-or-out tenure decision), and from associate to full professor, which some will never achieve.
Third, pay is separated from rank, this being the only way a university can have different departments of approximately equivalent academic stature: you can and often will pay a new assistant professor in the Business School as much or more as an established full professor in classics, but you must rigorously apply the same academic standards to the appointment and promotion of both. The fourth characteristic is that leadership of the core academic unit, the department, is rotated, with all senior members being expected to take a three or four year stint as head or chair, as I am doing now in my own department.
I’ve worked for 30-something years in universities, new and old, in New Zealand, Britain and Canada, and it is my view that the modern university system as it operates in Canada and the United States is one of the most successful and admirably organised institutions of the civilised world. It is a great pity we don’t have it in New Zealand (we just have rotation of headships), and I predict that the local campus that takes the lead in introducing the full modern model to this country will gain a significant, though probably short-lived, competitive advantage over its peers.
Why did the march of progress stall in New Zealand? It may partly be due to our anachronistic attachment to links to the “Old Country” as also manifested in our willingness to swear “allegiance” to a Queen who can’t even be bothered to disturb her children’s winter vacations to ask one of them to attend the funeral of our greatest hero.
But I suspect it is more to do with a force which side-swiped the course of moderate change in just about every walk of public, private and business life in this country in the 1980s and early 1990s. I refer, of course, to the vicious “reforms” instigated by Treasury and the New Zealand Big Business Roundtable. The climax of Malcolm’s and Tarling’s book is their account of the impact on the tertiary sector of the reforms, with their stale, half-baked, self-serving rhetoric of “market forces”, “accountability” and “agency theory”.
The cynicism of the reformers’ view of adult human nature as essentially selfish and unscrupulous was implemented in managerialist systems of monitoring and control which are fundamentally at odds with the collegial and professional spirit required for collections of “independent academic entrepreneurs” to work and work together effectively. If I were asked for the single precept that must guide leaders and administrators on campus, it would be the virtue ethics principle: hire good people and trust them to perform well. This is not ivory-towered romanticism; this is actually what works in an environment where people do in fact themselves make most of their own decisions, but where most of those decisions have spill-over impacts on other colleagues and students.
Instead, we have been pulled away from virtue ethics. More market has – as in government and the private sector – overwhelmingly meant more managers. In my own Faculty of Commerce, for example, the ratio of managers to front-line academics went from 1 to 20 in 1984, to 1 to 4 in 1997. This remarkable collapse in management productivity has not just been directly costly in diverting substantial funds from teaching and research. It has also led to unprecedented levels of muddled-headed interference and misguided decision-making.
Perhaps a specific example will help explain both how we work and how management systems which may (or may not) be serviceable in government and private sector do not do the job on campus. Obviously, recruiting well – “hiring good people” – is key to us. When we advertise vacancies, we get hundreds of applications from all over the world, most from people just finishing their doctoral studies and so with no track record of publication. So how do we screen them? We rely very heavily on the three (usually) reference letters from the applicant’s dissertation supervisor and advisors.
These letters are almost invariably written to a remarkably high standard of integrity and care. They are a fine example of professionalism and collegiality in the world-wide economics community. But they are written in a code, which only an expert can decipher. For example, you may read: “X should be seriously considered by any institution looking for excellence in teaching and research.” That is actually code for the person being not absolutely first rate. Why? Because the very best departments – the MITs and Princetons – while not actually opposed to good teaching, never recruit on the basis of someone’s teaching prowess. It is, and must be, only research excellence that they can consider if they wish to retain their pre-eminence.
Anyway, you can see how important the letters are. Now, there is a perfectly good ad hoc system which we can operate ourselves, whereby we just set up an email address and ask applicants to send their CVs to this, and to ask their department’s “job placement officer” (just one of their staff) to send the letters there, too. However, this recruiting season we foolishly allowed the human relations people to impose upon us a standard proprietary system called “ImpelHR”. Under this, the applicant gets a code number and password and is the only person able to submit materials. Too late we realised that this means there is nowhere for the reference letters to go, since crucially these must be unhandled and unseen by the applicant.
When we complained about this, we were instructed by the faculty’s HR manager – a nice man who has since left us – that “normally” referees’ reports are called for only after the hundreds of applicants have been winnowed down to a short list. “This is the proper method,” he primly informed us. Well, it ain’t normal and it ain’t proper, and belatedly trying to fix it caused us and others a lot of hassle and probably harmed our recruiting effort by making us look incompetent, which I guess we were to make the mistake in the first place.
I could come up with many other examples, and so could my colleagues. What we are sometimes told in response is that the modern university is now too big to rely on non-bureaucratic administrative systems. Well, I have an answer for that, too. The University of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest, boasts (and it does boast) 40,000 students. It is still a good university but it has become, arguably, bloated and unfocused.
So here is a thought experiment. Imagine our university without its unloved Tamaki satellite campus; without the newly acquired (why?) College of Education; without NICAI – the National [sic] Institute of Creative something-or-other; without our curiously unrewarding consulting company Uniservices; even divested of its hugely expensive and demanding medical school. You know, the resulting pared-down institution just might be a “lesser but better” place for the carrying out of our core functions of teaching, thesis supervision and research.
Wilf Malcolm and Nick Tarling were themselves distinguished contributors to university life and governance in what they may consider to have been a lesser but better era. They may not agree with everything I have written here. They may well feel that this review does not do full justice to their thorough and judicious narrative of the history of the New Zealand university system (it doesn’t). But I hope they will least appreciate that in this instance their goal of “stimulating ongoing debate” has been realised.
Tim Hazledine is Head of the Department of Economics at the University of Auckland.