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.