There has been a huge kerfuffle at Sydney University. The VC decided to get rid of under-performers – defined as those who hadn’t published four papers between 2009 and 2011. It seems the process was bungled but the principle is appropriate. Employees who don’t perform should be let go. It becomes a case of defining what is ‘performance’ and, to be fair, that does vary across academic discipline.
This is how Stephen Matchett described events at the very beginning of the kerfuffle.
Actually there were a couple of things that were, well un-academic. One was the bracing frankness of the vice-chancellor’s announcement. “We can no longer carry members of the University who are not pulling their weight: it is simply too expensive to do so,” he said. In case anybody missed it (unless it was to let supposed slackers know he is really on to them) he said it again, “we need to consider the position of that small minority of academics who do not contribute significantly either to our research or teaching.”
So what is important? Research and teaching.
Then we have Matchett writing yesterday.
Even worse, what the Common Room suspects was Dr Spence’s original objective is long lost in the fog of war. When the process started the Common Room suggested the cuts were more about encouraging the university’s research culture than actually making minor reductions to staff numbers. But now Dr Spence’s opponents are presenting themselves as defenders of scholarship.
Indeed. The opponents have managed to present themselves as defenders of scholarship. See this thread over at Core Economics – notice also our former friend hc fighting the good fight. It seems to me, however, that if all Sydney Uni management wanted to do was change the incentive structure, they might have succeeded (scroll down at the Core Economics thread – comment at May 23rd, 2012 6:29 pm).
I’ll tell you what I think will be the short-to-medium term outcome — well, two. Firstly, academics will cut back on any tasks that appear remotely discretionary. That is, they will aim to do the minimum teaching that they can get away with, and to do as little admin as possible. Deans who seek staff to sit on committees, chair working parties, do grunt work of one sort or another of a “public good” nature will find that “volunteerism” has dried up. I heard of one group that would take a day or two as a unit to do “mentoring” stuff with their grad students is now abandoning that practice. It’s not rewarded, and it takes time, so why do it?
Secondly, there will be an increase in quantity of publications, and a reduction in average quality. A representative academic will now be likely to look for lightly edited books to publish in compared to a demanding peer-reviewed journal. And some of those new journals that promise two week turnarounds in their reviewing proceses suddenly start to look less dodgy and more appealing.
The first consequence is good. The University has signalled that all the make-work activity that people engage in to get out of doing research and/or teaching is simply not valuable if you’re an academic staff member. Most Australian universities have more administrative staff than academic staff, so the administrators should administer, not the academics.
I am not convinced on the second point. Certainly it is true those individuals who take a leisurely approach to writing will have to lift their game. But many who publish nothing will have to publish something. Those senior academics who tell their staff that “nothing” is better than a B publication have had that view strongly repudiated by management. Good. People who play the ‘quality’ card like to think that all academics are going to be in the top five percent of academia (yes – their maths is that bad) but that is just silly.
All up, however, I suspect we’re going to see more of this sort of thing than less.