Scientist or manager? Divisions of academic middle management

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July 24, 2023 | Academics with administrative duties must have a flexible identity; It must hold its own in the midst of all kinds of tensions, as Meta Gorup (Ghent University) thesis demonstrates. I followed three heads of department at a British university and identified eight sources of identity tension that academic middle management must deal with.

Photo: Jason Goodman

Are they scientists or not? Are they colleagues or managers? Should organizational goals be given more weight than scientific ideals? “Academic middle management” is an interesting phenomenon – especially now that the university’s culture has shifted from academic collegiality and professionalism to a more efficient and efficiency-oriented environment, writes researcher Meta Group.

in Her PhD research at Ghent University I followed three heads of departments from a British university. The data was collected in 2014. Gorup attempted to discover which discourses department heads use to shape their identity as managers and which tensions play a role.

The university in question used to be one College of Applied Arts, an institution of higher professional education in the STEM sectors. This is an important feature of the context in which Group conducted its research. Also, the introduction in the UK of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), an assessment of the impact of research that evaluated performance in previous years in 2014 (and something to be repeated in 2020), was a key feature of the mode.

Scientist and manager

The three department heads face identity tension within eight contradictions that they constantly have to deal with, according to Grubb’s research. They are managers and scientists at the same time, roles between which the three experience tension. Management tasks are given priority, which they all accept. However, this means that they do not spend as much time researching as they would like and make less claim to their identity as scientists than they would like.

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At the same time, the role of department head still gives one the opportunity to achieve the goals they pursue as a scientist, which is to make a difference in society. In such respects, the roles of the principal and the scientist can overlap.

Management tasks are given priority

One of the heads of the monitored departments was able to spend a relatively large amount of time on research-related matters, although it was difficult to do so. However, it is also part of the college’s research department, which is why it wants to maintain its academic credibility in its leadership. It prioritizes those administrative tasks; As a researcher, she was mainly concerned with the social benefit of her research, but as head of the department she put little emphasis on this. There is more importance to improving the quality of research.

Another department head wondered aloud if he was still a scientist. This is hard on him: he misses out on academic activities and sometimes feels like a fraud.

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Identity tension also arises between their role as department head and other roles within the university. For example, the head of the department who attaches great importance to the outside world is also the head of the external relations of the college, and the head of another department is also the head of the research department of the college. However, both of them have little time to perform those roles as required.

A difference in vision on research

Another area of ​​identity tension between department heads relates to the difference between them and the university in their research vision. As mentioned, the university in question was rather single College of Applied Arts, which always places a strong emphasis on education. Thus, the increased focus on research requires changes in the organization, which can cause stress. One of the department heads is also openly critical of the reference book. Although this constitutes a legitimate assessment of the state of research in universities, it is believed to strongly favor older universities with longer research traditions.

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The fact that the former vice-chancellor paid less attention to research also strained the identity of two of the three department heads. Their identity as managers is closely intertwined with a focus on research; So they intend to change the existing culture. In doing so, however, they encounter a culture and discourse within their departments that adopt a different scholarly view from their own: a fourth point of identity tension.

Middle management between the board of directors and the department

Although the three following department heads have all been positive about the increased focus on research from their university, this is causing tensions for their role as directors. For example, one of them was ahead of the group in implementing a new, more research-oriented employee classification, but at the same time he didn’t want any of his employees to get into trouble. These same efforts were logically at odds with the prevailing discourse within the department, where education had always been important.

Another department head follows the same strategy of stressing research on the one hand and nurturing those who suddenly find it hard to keep up on the other. For example, by preparing mentors for research and support, she tries to elevate all the scientists in her department to a higher level of research, which immediately gives the department a better REF score. At the same time, it gave promising researchers more research time and shifted a portion of the teaching time to employees who performed less well in the research area.

While the aforementioned two heads of department place the research letter from the university above the letter within their own department, the third department head does not: he refuses to classify his staff as the university desires. Within his department, most of them have already done a lot of research and being subject to the REF framework means some researchers fall outside of it.

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And also with regard to their own expectations and expectations from the university in relation to their role, their vision of their department and the actual conditions there, and the divergence of views on research, this has led to identity tension between the three department managers who follow.

Middle management can challenge all parties

Grubb writes in her conclusion that the “dual role” as manager and scientist should not only cause problems. They can take insights from their experience as a manager or scientist into another field. In addition, her research reveals how departments themselves can be divided more than they seem at first glance and how managers must deal with different desires—for example, a board wanting to focus more on research while staff within a department focus more on education.

At the same time, scholars in the academic management middle can implement these various desires in such a way that both layers of management above them and employees within their department face challenges, Sock concludes. For example, two of the three department heads were already working on their department’s research profile before this became explicit university policy. In doing so, they deviated from the prevailing culture within their department, pointed out to their board the organizational shortcomings that held them back, and did so in a way that remained true to their identity as directors.

Megan Vasquez

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