From Cap and Gown yesterday, this question:
Can someone in universities please start thinking about cultures of trust and what creates them??
The urgency of the double question mark won’t seem out of place to anyone working in universities at the moment. Across the academic-professional staff divide, or in the ways that academics and students talk about each other, or in the tense and often bitter exchanges between management and unions, there’s a tone that’s ungenerous at best, and openly suspicious at worst. Rumours are hothoused, and the conditions for developing civility or kindness deteriorate further.
To this we can now add the growing culture of mistrust between educators and educational technology vendors. Is online learning the cunning plan to enable us to teach more students without more staff or buildings? Are we falling into the tarpit of big publishing’s and private equity’s business interests by doing this? Why are our administrators seemingly so sanguine about increasing staff-student ratios? Is our internationalisation strategy some kind of sunk money proposition? Etc.
These all seem straightforwardly to be signs of a sector in a state of shivering distress, and if you look at the external and budgetary pressures, the threat levels make sense. In terms of undergraduate enrolments, for example, we work in a market that’s not anywhere near as rational as we would like, selling the future value of qualifications for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. But we’re selling to people whose decision-making behaviour is often both impulsive and social, often amounting to a last-minute “between the stirrup and the ground” conversion experience.
Our capacity to predict fluctuations in student demand is very limited indeed, because they’re also guessing about their futures, but they’re reading very different tealeaves. We don’t respond to their creative planning with any kind of design agility, however, but with routines of accountability and risk management, the result of which is that it can take up to two years to haul a major curriculum review through committee, and another couple to make the content, delivery and approach actually work, by which time the review cycle has come round again and everyone goes back to the drawing board.
Miserably, the concession we make to flexibility is by casualising academic labour, so that we can manage fluctuations in demand with last minute hiring practices that pass on to the most precariously employed our own lack of ability to make plans in this churning market. The harm this is doing to the education profession is rightly the stuff of despair (see for example the excellent short documentary Degrees of Shame, being promoted by the feisty New Faculty Majority as part of Campus Equity Week this week.)
Three factors make all this even worse. First, in an era of contracting budgets there’s an acute lack of resourcing for teacher development, experimentation or change management, particularly in relation to emerging technologies. Secondly, the rise and rise of student evaluation as a proxy for professional peer review means that we’re constantly beta testing in front of hostile judges. It’s not so much MasterChef as Dancing with the Stars, blindfold and on stilts. In fact, it’s Wipeout, and about as much fun.
Thirdly, we’re being asked to do all this while increasing our research output and improving our research citation rates, not because of the benefit to our research fields that might come from doing so, but because research productivity is a key performance indicator in benchmarking universities against one another. The best we can say about this is that it’s a form of public accountability, but the marketisation of research really does introduce the spectre of market failure in relation to research that’s hard to commercialise, whose impact is diffuse—most community-facing localised research would fall into this category, for example. But, handily for some, the focus on publication as the only valued avenue for impact has created the vast swirling enterprise of paywalled academic publishing as a means of sustaining the production of countable research outputs, whose public impact is by this move effectively smothered.
Very few academics genuinely feel good about any of this, unless they’re really in this for reasons of professional vanity.
This is where the quality of our collegiality comes in to play. To operate in the spin cycle of innovation, accountability and do-more-with-less, we need to be able to trust that those closest to us appreciate that we’re doing our best. A generous, reflective and supportive culture is the safety net under the trapeze of our best work; it doesn’t mean that we’re shielded from negative feedback, but that we are supported to take the time to think about it and we’re not constantly catastrophising it.
This means taking time to think about why things didn’t turn out as planned the first time around, or why the ratings are a little down, or why the publication outputs from a promising area seem to have slowed, or why students are not showing up, and the ones that do are on Facebook, or why adjuncts care about their career futures, or why graduate students are starting to worry that they might not have any.
But the problem is that in the context of budgetary contraction in which change is constantly presented as threat, appreciative practices are increasingly being troped as failures of tough, principled leadership. Who has recently heard someone in higher education talk about the virtues of their leadership in terms of the need to be prepared to be unpopular, and to make hard decisions in the current climate? Who hasn’t?
The funny thing, though, is that in a culture of trust characterised by autonomous decision-making aligned to institutional vision, there is such clear potential for gains in efficiency, creativity and productivity. Improving the levels of trust across an organisation is one way to address the immense inefficiencies of micromanagement. It’s also a way to make the workplace healthier and happier.
So, a practical set of questions: what kinds of everyday gestures would genuinely increase the level of trust in universities?