Discussion: 'Manager-free zone' call for university

By Grant Jacobs 13/09/2011 10

To provide a space for open discussion I’m bringing you these two letters to the editor from today’s edition of the Otago Daily Times. (The letters they don’t seem to be on their website, and there is only so much space for the ODT to print letters to the editor.)

Mike Hamblyn writes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

THERE has been disquiet lately about Otago University having been taken over by the managers. This means academics cannot flourish any more because they’re hog-tied by the strictures of managers who want researchers to tick the right boxes instead of engaging in ’blue skies’ research. So, it would seem academics are an endangered breed. It seems to me then, we need to find some new means of protecting our university at Otago and our academics from the managers. In keeping with the spirit of the times, we should pass some legislation. The legislation would be, in keeping with Dunedin’s reputation as the wildlife capital of New Zealand, predicated on a currently fashionable wildlife or conservation theme. I propose the Protection of Endangered (Otago) Academics Act.

Our academics would be protected from the ravages of managers and their philosophy of managerialism. The university would become a ’manager-free zone’ and the academics could flourish in safety in their own intellectual eco-space because the managers with their clip-boards were being keep at bay behind a virtual fence. The only problem with the legislation is that the role of ’critic and conscience of society’ would have passed from the university, to us, the people–if it hasn’t already.

Vice Chancellor of University of Otago, Prof. Harlene Hayne replies:

I must say, I am a bit surprised by Mr. Hamblyn’s comments. The university is highly committed to ‘blue sky’ research; for six years in a row we have secured more funding from Marsden (the primary funder of this kind of research) than any other institution in New Zealand. Far from an environment of ‘managers’, the University of Otago is the only university in New Zealand in which the vice-chancellor, the deputy vice-chancellors and the pro vice-chancellors are all active academics who continue to be engaged in research, teaching and post-graduate supervision in addition to their administrative duties. Finally, the University of Otago continues to celebrate its role as critic and conscience of society; many members of the senior administration, in addition to members of the wider academic community, regularly contribute to lively debates of public concern.

Discussion/thoughts welcome.

Please note I’m not offering these as having a particular view on either letter, indeed I have no first-hand experience of the (current) administration in the manner these letters refer to.

I’m sure this is a common gripe, but it also needs to be balanced by that organisations–of any kind–need processes and structures.

On something of a related tangent:- I know I personally feel happier if a form briefly explains what role its contents have. If a form clearly communicates the objective and how it (ultimately) has a supportive role I feel happier obliging. (Writing such explanations may also help ‘test’ if the material does, in fact, in fact ultimately have a constructive role – good practice for those writing forms – !?)


Further to Prof. Haynes remarks about the academic role of the various vice-chancellors, as far as I am aware, the University of Otago is also the only university in New Zealand (currently) with a woman holding the position of vice-chancellor.

I’ve tried to transcribe these letters accurately; any errors in typing these are my own.

(Updated to correct minor typing error.)

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10 Responses to “Discussion: 'Manager-free zone' call for university”

  • Quote The university highly committed to ‘blue sky’ research; for six years in a row we have secured more funding from Marsden (the primary funder of this kind of research) than any other institution in New Zealand.

    Indeed It is very noble of the University to allow the academics the freedom to secure funding from external funding agencies, blue skies or not.

  • Academics never want to be ‘managed’ until they want the rubbish taken out, their salaries paid, a new bit of equipment installed, or an air ticket to the next conference.
    It’s all semantics, really.

  • Management isn’t a binary choice Mike :)

    It’s about the level of management I would have thought, and the kinds of management decisions that are being made. In an era of limited funding, where resources for running tutorials or doing research is shrinking, when we are being asked to do more with less, it is inevitable that the management of universities is coming under more scrutiny from academic staff.

  • “Management isn’t a binary choice Mike :)”
    I know that, and you know that, but there are many academics of my acquaintance who reject the idea that they should be managed in any meaningful way. They see themselves as independent contractors who happen to be spending long periods in one place.
    The world doesn’t work like that anymore…

  • Mike,

    They see themselves as independent contractors who happen to be spending long periods in one place.

    Those only on soft-money may have some justification for seeing things that way. In their case they win the money on their own efforts from the granting agencies. The universities have a hand in administering those funds, but the researchers don’t have ‘permanent’ support from the university – their own income is only as long as they get another grant or get a ‘permanent’ position. (Those who teach or are quite senior have salaries from the university. Less senior principal investigators can be entirely on ‘soft’ money, with their salaries sourced from their research grants.)

  • Grant
    No, I’m talking about tenured staff, including professorial, who have been around for years!

  • I’m not sure I appreciate the stereotype that seems to be attached to the term “manager”. Last year I took up a management position while still maintaining some of my academic duties, and one of the reasons I did so was to try and make life easier for my academic colleagues. As part of my job I have “tweaked” timetabling so that it better suits the needs of academic staff, I have helped researchers keep track of their funding when they lose track or have issues with our financial practices. I have helped make sure that internal processes that are required by TEC are followed when academic staff are too busy. I have been involved in marketing events preventing the need for academic staff to attend – allowing them to focus on their teaching and research.
    While i agree there a probably managers whose probably make life more challenging for some staff, there are also those who, often behind the scenes, are make life easier for academic staff.

  • Two small points. Firstly, NZ academics don’t have tenure. Secondly, based on my own university experience, without managers to assist, I suspect most academics would struggle to organise a social function in a brewery.

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