The problem with managing professors

Professors are difficult to manage; and not just because they have tenure. The root cause is that any of the proven management techniques we’ve derived over then last 100 years are not applied to academic institutions.

Let’s review a select few basic management principles and how they are violated in academe:

1. Reward people for the behaviour you want to encourage.

Professors are hired to do three things: Research, teaching, and institutional service. Yet they are only rewarded for research. More precisely, tenure and promotions are based upon research activity. Furthermore, engaging effortfully in teaching and service reduces research output. In effect, professors are punished for doing the aspects of their job that fall outside of research. So rather than being eccentric weirdos, professors are actually behaving rationally when they “don’t do their job.”

2. Establish concrete metrics and goals for performance.

Let’s take for granted the questionable assumption that research is the be-all-and-all of a professor’s job. What does that mean? The tonnage of articles produced every year? Articles published in high-impact-factor journals? Readership within a chosen field? Grant size from the Tri-Council (that’s a Canadian thing)? Depending on the institution, the criteria for a good publication record are fuzzy at best, and with most things academic, they are open to debate (The default position usually ends up being the use of the most simplistic metric possible: rate and number of peer-reviewed publications). In such a situation, how is a Department Head/Chair supposed to conduct a performance review and encourage quality teaching and service activities? Short answer is, they can’t–or at least they can’t without being hypocrites or appealing to reasons divorced from rational argument.

3. Everyone should have a common understanding of what makes for good performance

The violation of this principle is an extension of the previous one. No one has a common understanding of what “doing their job” means. And at the same time, they all judge each other for what they think is bad performance. Professors are no different than anyone else: Their self-worth is tied to how they compare to other people; comparisons are stronger with peers in domains that are personally important; and the skills and achievements that are valued are skewed toward things that they are good at. Simply put, high output publishers look down upon low output publishers; good teachers look down upon bad teachers; self-sacrificing, service-oriented professors look down upon self-involved individualists. Without a common understanding of performance–and attendant reward system–everyone feels entitled to judge one another and mutual disrespect is fostered.

4. The meaning of “academic freedom” has become warped over time

Academic freedom means that you are entitled to express ideas within your field of expertise without fear of institutional repercussions. “Tenure” is built upon that idea. But it does NOT mean you are free to commit any malfeasance you feel like, it does not mean you can express any idea without consequence regardless of whether it’s in your field of study, and it does not mean that you can pursue your own goals regardless of the impact it has on the institution and those around you.

Unfortunately, academic freedom and tenure have become confused with never losing your job. In many respects, tenure is an antiquated notion in modern Western society, where there are far more protections for workers than there used to be. When you’re talking about white-collar jobs at the level of the professoriate, it’s already pretty hard to get fired. There must be a documented record of underperformance over time, opportunities and guidance need to be provided for the employee to improve, and the reasons must be in reference to clear performance indicators, employment law, and human rights.

Most workers know that their jobs are contingent on their on-the-job behaviour and job performance, they know how those things are evaluated, and they behave accordingly. The link between employment and behaviour is not quite as clear-cut for professors. The reasons are because of everything I said above, and because that’s what happens when you become a professor right out of grad school, never having held a low-paying, disempowering job where real injustice is common.

I paint a bleak picture. Mostly for dramatic effect. The fact is, most professors actually do their jobs–all aspects of their jobs–and do them well. Frankly, it’s amazing the institutions function as well as they do given all the violations of good management practice that occur. But you’ll find that as a Department Head/Chair, an inordinately large portion of your time will be spent dealing with the 10% of problematic professors that unfortunately belong to your department. Don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s them.

I’m going to end here as this post is longer than I wanted it to be, but it did allow me to get a few things off my chest. Although I present no solutions, there’s still value in highlighting the problem.

I’m just funning with you. I’ll get to suggestions for dealing with these issues in the next post.

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