HERDSA 2012: What is the New Academy?

I attended some (more) interesting talks today on building research capacity, how we build the connection between education and research (the dreaded research-teaching nexus) and how we identify ourselves as academics. If I were going to summarise all three of these talks, it would be as:

How are we defining the Academy of the 21st Century?

There is no doubt that research is a crucial component of what we do – you can’t even be registered as a University in Australia unless you pursue research – but it often seems to be the favoured child in any discussion of importance for promotion and allocation of serious resources. Now I realise that a lot of work is going into fixing this but research has, for many years, counted for more.

So it’s interesting that, as Winthrop Professor Shelda Debowski, UWA, observed after returning from her Churchill Fellowship, we don’t really bother to do as much training as we should for research. Research success doesn’t automatically flow from finishing a PhD, any more than a PhD is an indication of readiness or aptitude to teach – yet many early researchers don’t get a great deal of development assistance. This leads, in some cases, to what Debowski refers to as middlescence: a great PhD but after 5+ years it all dies.

Succesful research requires many capabilities and ongoing learning and, while our universities try to support this, we’re not often sure what the best way is to support this. Staff are seeking guidance – research leaders are keen to help. How can we connect them usefully and efficiently? For me, I rephrase the question as:

How are we defining the Research Academy of the 21st Century?

Research is a simple world with a complex set of concepts behind it. Are we looking at the basis of inputs, outputs, strategy and impact? Are we looking at industrial interaction with collaboration, engagement and support? Are we being productive and effective, innovative and creative? There is, for many people’s careers, not much room for failure.

The PhD used to be all that was needed, in theory, because we had the time to make some mistakes, to find our feet, and to iterate towards a better model. Not any more.

My take on this, to go on from what I was saying in the last post, is that we can define the New Research Academy in terms of its environment. Like any species, the New Research Academic must adapt to the environment that they are in or they will perish. Climate change is a threat to the world, similarly Academy Change is a threat to the old inhabitants. The New Academy is fast, hungry, competitive, resource starved, commoditised, industry linked and, above all, heavily dependent on the perception of our efforts. The speed of change makes a difference here because if you were raised in the gentler environment of the Old Academy, but have been around for 20 years, then you have probably achieved enough success to survive. If I may take another biological example, you have accumulated enough resources that you can survive the lean years or the harsher years. The New Academy has frosts and only so many places available for the tribe. You build your resources quickly or it’s over.

Unless, of course, you can find a group to support you. Returning to Debowski’s material, she points out why development of researchers is so critical:

  • Start with PhD – used to be the only thing that you needed to do.
  • Now you have to understand how it fits into strategic research areas and areas of strength (broader sphere of understanding)
  • Need to hook in with a research community (this is your resource sharing group)
  • ECRs need to have to develop: communication skills, team and collaborative skills, project management, track record/profile, time, priority, career management, and grant seeking behaviour
  • Research managers and leaders need to take a professional stance to support this: induction, culture setting, human resource management practices, strategic management, financial management, relationship building, mentoring and sponsorship, project management, risk management, media/promotion.

But, looking at that final list, do some of those look like the behaviours of a professional research academic? I’ll come back to this.

Debowski finished by emphasising the role of mentors and, in the Old/New Academy framework, this makes even more sense. A new PhD student has only a limited amount of time before poor performance effectively removes them from the appointment and job pool – they don’t have time to waste taking false paths. A mid-career researcher needs to work out which path to take and then has to optimise for it – do I continue teaching, do I focus on research, should I take that Associate Deans position? This is where a mentor is vital because the New Academy has a cold wind blowing through it. Huddled together, we’ll see Summer again – but, of course, you have to huddle with the right people.

This brings me to the next talk, on How Universities Connect Education and Research, presented by Professor Lawrence Cram. This was a very interesting talk, dealing with complexity theory to explain the small-scale chaotic relationships in trying to explain which actions get people promoted these days. This is a very mechanistic approach to life in the New Academy. Which X do I need to maximise to achieve Y? Cram, however, very nicely identifies that X is in fact a set of things, Y is a different set of things, and the connections between them operate at different levels at different times.

Cram identified the outputs of Universities as experience goods, where the product is hard to observe in advance, in terms of characteristics such as quality or price, but you’re quickly aware of how good they are once consumed. This generally requires you to sell your product on reputation but once this reputation is established, your pricing model (market position) tends to stay fairly stable. (Amusingly, dropping the price of experience goods, because we’re unsure of how the goods are created, may result in uncertainty because people will make up reasons for the price drop that generally include drop in quality, rather than efficiency of delivery or something positive.)

This makes mapping inputs to outputs difficult and explains why such measurable outputs as number of students, pass rates and research publications are far more likely to form the basis of any funding. Cram is looking across a very large area with a very large number of questions: does research success generate a corresponding success ‘buzz’ in the student body? Does research discovery parallel or assist the student with their own voyage of discovery through their courses?

Ultimately, directives from senior management drive a functional and idealistic approach that produces graduates and intellectual property, but most universities are struggling to unify this with directives and government funding, compared to what students want. Linking this back to the roles that we are expecting research managers to take, we start to see a managerial focus that is starting to dominate our professional academic staff. I rephrase this, and segue to the next talk, as:

How are we defining the Professional Academic in the 21st Century?

The final talk used identity theory to examine the different work ideologies that academics espouse. Wayne O’Donohue presented his and Richard Winter’s paper on “Understanding academic identity conflicts in the public university: Importance of work ideologies” and it was both an interesting presentation, as well as being a full paper that I hope to finish reading this evening.

Fundamentally, managerial and professional ideological beliefs differ on how academic work should be organised. As I have mention throughout this post, we are seeing more and more evidence of creeping requirement to become managers. Managerialism, according to Winter and O’Donohue, has moved us into market-driven entities that regard students as commodities. Consumers need to be swayed by branding and pandering to preferences – we risk basing the reputation of our experience good upon a good marketing campaign rather than a solid academic reputation.

The conceptual framework for this work is that the two identities are, effectively, at odds with each other. Academics who are forced to be managerial find themselves at odds with their idea of what it means to be an academic – they are not being who they want to be and are at odds with what their University wants them to be. If we are to be good managerial entities then we focus on competition and consumer preferences for allocating resources. If we are to be good academics, then we focus on economic and social welfare of all members, stressing normative goals and beliefs. It is hard to think of two more opposing points within this sphere and it is no wonder that the people surveyed by Winter and O’Donohue had to be censored to remove obscene language that reflected their frustration at their own perception of their role.

We know that the market is not all that good at managing public good items. We know the benefits of the educational system in breaking the poverty cycle, reducing crime and violence, improving families, but the market would have to change its short-term benefit model in order to factor this in. We are looking at the substantial differences of short term economic focus versus long term social welfare focus.

Ultimately, the dissonance generated by people doing things that they were asked to do, but didn’t want to do, causes dissatisfaction and cynicism. Dispirited academics leave. Leaving, of course, those who are willing to adapt to the more managerial focus to then rise through the ranks, take positions of power and then impose more managerial focuses.

So what is the New Academy? Is it really a world of bottoms on seats, feudalist in its enforced fealty to existing barons to see you through the lean years, unconnected to funding models and overly metricated in strange ways?

If you want my honest answer, I would say “Not yet.”

Yes, we are heavily measured, but we still have the freedom to challenge and correct those measurements. A great deal of work is being done to produce instruments that give us useful and applicable information, as well as ‘handy’ numbers.

Yes, it helps to be in a research group, but informal communities of practice, faculty and university initiatives, external funding sources such as OLT, ALTA and the ARC do not require you to sign your swords over to a baron or a King.

Yes, we are measured as to our student intakes but we are still, in many important ways, academically free. We can still maintain quality and be true to our academic heritage.

You don’t have to take me word for it. Read everything that I (and katrinafalkner) have been blogging about. You can see all of the work being done, that we have seen at this conference, to draw us all together, to make us remember that we are strong as group, to provide useful metrics, to collaborate, to mentor out of the desire to help rather than the desire to control and the work being down to find and advertise our identity and the way that we can achieve our goals.

Yes, the idea of the New Academy is intimidating, and I write as one who was lucky enough to ride the wave of the new expectations, but in the same way that we bring our students together to learn and explore the benefits of collaboration and social interaction, I am convinced that the best rebirthing of the Academy will occur as we continue to share our work, and meet to discuss it, and go back home and be active and build upon everything that we’ve discussed.

And, being honest, sometimes it just takes sticking to our point, when we’re right, and not doing something that we know is wrong. I know that these are times when people are scared for their jobs, and I’m certainly not immune to that either, but the question comes down to “how much will you put with?” Let me finish with two final questions, which are also, I’m afraid, a call-to-arms:

What have you done today to define the Academy of the 21st Century in a way that matches your ideals and intentions?

What will you do tomorrow?

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