Top talent

Maybe today a winner may simply be defined as someone who gets to experience authenticity and freedom, not just very profound anxiety, frankly, in the context of essentially extremely tough and extremely precarious labor markets.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, Nomadic Leaders Need Roots, Harvard Business Review

Higher education has a thing for lists around the turn to a new year. It’s as if we can’t stand the rattling disconnect between what we hoped and how things turned out, again. So we try to redirect the conversation towards future consensus with lists. In a world of abundant, discordant opinion, higher education lists are an ordering of priorities and attention: here’s the short version of what’s coming up, what’s hot, what to think about, who to watch.

This week, two lists are bothering me. The first is because I can’t find the answer to a question which I’m sure is straightforward. The Times Higher Ed has released its list of the world’s most international universities, and as one of its performance indicators is the proportion of international staff, I’ve been trying to find out what the criteria are for a university staff member to count as international.

I’m interested because this list comes with assumptions about the contribution of internationalism and workplace diversity to a university’s overall performance. Workplace diversity is about lots of things, but in the THE’s rankings, internationalism is the one. So universities are rewarded for hiring in from other countries, for attracting international students, and for research teams that have international participants. As Phil Baty, THE rankings editor, puts it:

An institution’s global outlook is one of the key markers of a prestigious university. The top institutions hire faculty from all over the world, attract students from a global market of top talent and collaborate with leading departments wherever they happen to be based

If this is the prize, who wouldn’t pay to play?

The problem in this measure is the contradiction between being indifferent to “wherever they happen to be based” for the purposes of collaboration, but being focused entirely on where they happen to come from for the purposes of staffing. The measure defines people who are nationals somewhere else as being more international than people who are nationals-at-home, and assumes that once they land, they bring this charismatic internationalism with them. This is why I’m curious about what defines someone as international. Is there a period after which we’ve stayed long enough to become merely national? For those of us with two passports, which one counts? (Please write in, I really want to know.)

Either way, awarding points for international staff sends a clear message about the kinds of workplace diversity higher education prefers.  It downgrades the diversity among people holding the same passport who come from a wide range of language, religious, racial and cultural backgrounds, especially those with recent migrant or refugee family histories, or those who who bring Indigenous practices of research and ways of knowing to dominant culture organisations. As far as I can tell, citizenship trumps diversity of any other kind. And this hitching of individual citizenship to institutional outlook is a curiously retro way to think about the digitally networked professional world.

But carrying on as though we all still get our news from local radio, this list proposes that a New Yorker moving from Harvard to Oxford transforms institutional outlook more than an Australian raised speaking Arabic in a refugee household in Darwin moving to the University of Tasmania. And because this is about actual plane-travel internationalism, it rewards the institutions with most money, who have the resources to grease the rails of global career mobility. In doing so it shunts along those shiny tracks those individuals who can take advantage of the opportunity to relocate—those with fewest local ties or family responsibilities, or with the earning capacity to move an entire dependent family on one income. It’s an opportunity that is easiest to access in mid to senior career, and as this 2015 report on gender bias in global mobility (from Melbourne University’s Centre for Ethical Leadership) suggests, there are many obstacles to women accessing this particular privilege multiplier.

This kind of “top talent” internationalism comes with important oncosts, both to individuals and to organisational culture. In his work on nomadic corporate leaders, Gianpiero Petriglieri examines the way we’ve elevated people-who-move to elite status without sufficient regard for what happens when they get there. In this thoughtful interview, he maps out how we arrived at a situation that people who don’t stick around came to be regarded as the top talent in a workforce increasingly defined by insecurity and loss:

For millennia, elites have been made of people deeply embedded within a stable social structure. Inbred in-groups, within often fairly homogeneous groups. People who moved around were considered rootless, dangerous to society and possibly morally corrupt. They certainly weren’t the people you would look up to for leadership. These days what we have is a reversal of their status. The status of nomadic professionals has become very high. At the same time, if you look carefully, we have a similar situation unfolding in front of our very eyes in the major crisis of trust in leaders. In the very profound disconnect between the people who occupy leadership positions, and whose reference points are often the global economy and their nomadic peers, and the people who are supposed to be their followers, whose reference points and peers are much more local.

Petriglieri’s work raises important questions about the culture that we’re building when we treat international recruitment, especially to leadership positions, as a prestige marker. The institutional effort directed towards this nomadic elite doesn’t just deplete the budget, but, as he argues, exercises “a profound normative and moral influence on how the larger workforce should evolve”, and reserves the experience of “authenticity and freedom” at work to a very narrow corporate class for whom the “tough and extremely precarious labour market” is an enabler of profit, a social experiment, a disruptive innovation opportunity.

These normative presumptions about the evolution of work in higher education brings me to the second list that’s got under my fingernails this week. The Australian published its “30 most influential” in Australian higher education: “who and what to watch”. There are five women on the list. Five. Julie Hare, who introduced the list, noted that women are in a small minority [see update below], and Professor Marnie Hughes Warrington (one of many female institutional leaders not on the list) suggested on Twitter that a women-only list might rebalance the situation, or it might be worth asking the influential men on the list to nominate the women they think should also be on it.

To me, this is a bit like having a separate ranking list for universities under 50. It doesn’t address the distribution of power in the system as a whole, or the persistence of traditional thinking about who counts and what it takes to win that chokes our capacity to imagine change. It doesn’t protest the problem that the list has called out: that whatever we think influence is, it’s hoarded by a political elite that have more in common than gender. (As one response on Twitter put it, “So many white men.”)

I’m all for raising the profile of Australia’s academic and professional university leaders and lobbyists who are women, and I’m continuously grateful for those in my workplace. But I don’t think we’ll get different lists in the future unless we start with the fact that Australian higher education has a carbuncle of a gender problem, and try to understand why this is. The fact that we’re being trained by global rankings systems to value global career mobility as a virtue, not a privilege, may be one significant part of this problem.

Update 16 Jan

In the print copy of The Australian‘s list, Julie Hare addresses the problem directly, and I want to include this here, as it’s not part of the online article. Thanks to Andrew Norton for pointing this out.

Sadly, there are only a handful of women on the list. While last year saw much rigorous debate over gender equality in the sciences, the sad truth is that women are still missing in action in senior positions. And it’s not their fault.

That said, there are names that come to mind who could be on the list but aren’t. Certainly they would have been in a top 50 if we hadn’t ruthlessly culled it to a 30.

But that still doesn’t change the overall dynamics of a system in which women in positions of power and influence are few and far between. We hope that changes soon.

So say we all.

8 thoughts on “Top talent

  1. The point you made early on in this post “So we try to redirect the conversation towards future consensus with lists.” made me think about a university’s carefully constructed identity and ‘wins’ that contrasts with what is experienced by those studying and employed in the institution. There is a parallel with the English Premier football league where (often foreign-born ) talent is bought in to help win leagues and trophies to keep the business that is the football club successful or at least afloat. The idea that football clubs might nurture local diverse potential talent gets lost along the way.
    Actually, I am giggling to myself now and wondering if l can draw a parallel between MOOCs and football merchandising. Of course punters aren’t currently paying for MOOCs but in future they might buy a season ticket/ enrol on paid-for course or at least buy a shirt with a name on/ buy a certificate/ badge. l wonder what the parallel is with auctioning broadcast rights:)
    Enough,I should get back to writing my non-list, non-predictive January blog post. Thanks for the inspiration as always Kate.

    1. Frances, I was thinking about sporting teams. For me, the analogy is one I’ve worried over before, with cycling teams. The relationship between the leadership and the domestiques is a painful one to think about. That cycling has codified the role of professional service in this way gives us an opportunity to watch it play out, especially with the care and promotion of sprinters. Who gets them to the line? But there are other sports in which international trading of talent is very much about the brand of the sporting franchise itself, and thus about expanding market reach. Australia is having some cultural difficulty with this in short-form cricket at the moment.

  2. I had a conversation with a senior university executive along these lines which worried me deeply. It became apparent that rather than valuing colleagues who stayed in post for a long time (15 years for me, 40 in several cases), we were seen as unambitious losers with low aspirations who were unattractive to other institutions. The executives move roughly every five years and consider this success in its own right: loyalty and commitment are now valued less than being ‘in demand’ in the market place.

    1. Hey PV, I think this is the issue that we all understand instinctively, but with no real evidence of how these assumptions work. I’ve heard senior executives talk about people with long careers at their own organisations in exactly this way. We don’t call it out because each individual conversation seems harmless, if depressing. But this is exactly how common sense gets made.

  3. This is a wonderful post, Kate, in how well you dissected the issues with so many dimensions. There was one that’s in there but not as explicitly and it’s this: international/nomadic academics are the privileged of their “kind” and even if they are as “different” as the Arabic-speaking Australian, they are likely to be elite and at the centers of where they’re coming from. In some ways not bringing that much diversity to the new institution. What would be interesting to really study is this: do institutions who bring in diverse others (students or faculty) change because of it, or are these diverse people enculturated into existing university culture? Assimilated?

    The reverse kind of case is interesting. My university is about 40% American and 40% Egyptian faculty (some ppl r dual nationals or married to one or the other) and the question I pose above would be an interesting one here, too.

    1. Maha, your recent posts on diversity and elite status in relation to your own local and international movements really have got me thinking. I’m so appreciative of your willingness to call out the assumptions about privilege and underprivilege that go with being in a minority in the room. But what I really want to jump on is your idea about studying the actual, grounded impact of international hiring, to move us on from these motherhood statements about what internationalisation does. My sense is that these assumptions come to us from an earlier era of professional experience, pre-internet, and don’t acknowledge the reality of our everyday internationalism in terms of community, networking and knowledge building online. You and I read each other’s writing even though we are not in each other’s workplace — in fact, I have read more of what you have written than I have of the people I work with in the same physical location. This is part of a thought I’m having about new (and often invisible) modes of collegial influence, that are naturally and persistently not-just-national.

  4. The last two lines bring to mind something my mother used to say: “Hope is not a method.” She often said this as criticism, but I think it is powerfully positive, as it begs the question: Ok, what is the method, what shall we do? (Rather than: What do we hope will be done?)

    My perspective is strongly skewed, since I’m peripheral, working in a professional university role, in a continuing job, with modest status and none of the anxiety of the academic ladder. However I think about this stuff a lot, because my job is to teach and support doctoral students, many of whom are already swinging from the rungs, and because most of my treasured colleagues and friends have academic splinters.

    You observe the bad outcomes of treating privilege, like global mobility, as a virtue. Do you think that it’s particular to universities to treat power and privilege as a virtue, or characteristic of all hierarchical institutions which work to maintain and replicate existing power differences? I think it is characteristic behaviour of people who experience their interests as reliant on these structures. (Which has probably included most of us at some time, or still does, if we are privileged enough to be having this conversation.) So then, if these systems are going to do that, and we see that it has bad outcomes, what do we each do to make different outcomes? (I really want to know)

    The quote from Petriglieri about authenticity and freedom was so resonant for me – but not in the way he intended. I experience lots of authenticity and freedom. In my case it’s because I can quietly connect sideways with fabulous thinkers and helpers all over the place, to get better outcomes for my students, and no-one interferes or stops us (much) because there’s no exchange of power or prestige and so it is invisible and poses no threat. So it is authenticity and freedom because I am *not* elite. I work in a regional university, earn less than a Level B academic, will never be a leader in a university, or have formal power in any kind of large organisation, because I frequently don’t cooperate with power systems that I can see have bad outcomes. Tant pis. Whatevs. My chosen method is to let the middleman fall through the middle; reject unsuitable measures of success; create spaces ‘outside the walls’ to connect, get things done & exchange great respect with peers who do great work; and be happy now. (I’m not proposing this method for others necessarily, and there are important outcomes it doesn’t achieve, but felt it might be relevant to share – I hope so.)

  5. So delighted to see you here, Cassily. I think the questions you raise about other avenues of freedom and authenticity are really critical. The issue for us is whether the overall climate shifts in higher education can continue to tolerate surviving/thriving through alternate networks and value systems, and through counter-narratives of care and collegiality. Mostly I think (and am drawn to Petriglieri’s quote) in the same way as you, and then I catch myself thinking: wait, wait, isn’t this accommodating approach exactly how distorted values survive?

    A small gardening story. For the past month I’ve been watching a vigorous large-leafed salvia grow and waiting for it to flower so I could see what colour it was. I have a few of these big salvias around, so it felt really familiar to me. Mostly I was gardening without my glasses on.

    It got to about knee high and flowered, and in that moment (yesterday) suddenly proved itself to be lantana. I’ve been berating myself ever since for not recognising it, which was really because I wasn’t paying more than glancing attention to it. Once I’d said “oh look, there’s a salvia I don’t remember planting”, everything else I saw confirmed that bias.

    So I want to advocate for practices of freedom, but I also now want to think about whole-of-culture problems in higher education that are causing us to accept such incredible inequities in the way work is shifting to the benefit of a few.

    This is such a great contribution, thank you so much for making the time to put it all so clearly.

Conversation welcome here