Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Necessary evil?

"We should look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and recite: 'I know I'm an evil, but am I a necessary evil?'"

This was quoted - originally said by Sir Edward Boyle in 1976 - in last week's Time Higher Education Supplement* in relation to university managers. As someone who runs a research institute I'm left wondering whether I am a necessary evil or just plain evil? I have a horrible feeling it is probably a mix of both and it would difficult to say the above to my reflection with convinction most mornings. Perhaps I'll aspire to becoming a necessary evil. That should raise some eyebrows when I put that down on my next staff appraisal form.

* Allen, D. (2009) Collegiate spirit drives us to help advance the academic enterprise. Times Higher Education Oct 22-28, pages 24-25.

12 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

That's an interesting question you've posed - about being a necessary evil. That's the thing about institutions: They need people to all kinds of jobs, even the unpleasant ones...

Dorte H said...

I may try that in one of my classes!

And surely, in crime fiction there is usually a criminal who is a most necessary evil.

Philip said...

Hmmm. I have not the slightest doubt that you are very necessary and not at all evil, Rob, but these managers in all spheres have been told -- everyone has been told -- they are necessary, and some of them might do well to look in that mirror and ask if indeed they are. Primary and secondary schools in Britain now have managers, there are private (public) schools with CEO's, orchestras and opera companies no longer have a general manager, but rather a 'president and CEO' and maybe a CFO, charities have CEOs, unions have CEOS, medical practices have managers, university presidents are really CEOs...in short, everything is a corporation or quasi-corporation, large or small, be it the RSPCA or Halliburton, and all this encouraged by the biggest corporation of all -- the Government. I write not only of the UK in saying so, of course. This is, I rather think, a modification of corporatism, and that should make people very, very nervous if they know aught of corporatism. And what I think they do know, perhaps from experience, is that those managers and CEOs do not necessarily -- in fact, probably don't -- give a damn about your health, helping animals, educating the young, or the difference between a great pianist and a best- seller at the box office. The three arenas in which all this has, I think, wreaked the greatest havoc are education, health, and charitable endeavours. I hope you don't mind my extending this beyond the educational, but I truly think this has been a disaster, though nothing compared with what I suspect is to come.

Rob Kitchin said...

When I started out in academia it was to do research. Now I spend all my time managing the research of others, trying to scavenge enough money to keep 22 people employed, and fill out a whole series of forms (we are all on daily time sheets, we are audited every 3 months, and our outputs assessed every six months). I'm not sure many corporations run like this - it's new managerialism squared. My job is to be the Dr Evil that gets everyone to comply with all of this. And we don't have a lot of choice - everyone except me is on a short term contract, so if we don't comply people lose their jobs. I'm probably the Necessary Evil that makes sure that Evil is done and is seen to be done!

Uriah Robinson said...

I am sure this does not apply in academia but the more layers of management you put in the bigger the salary difference between the CEO and the coal face workers.
I have been involved in the fields mentioned by Philip of health and charitable endeavours and one organization I am thinking of, which is really quite small, has two local managers, an area manager, then a regional manager and above them an executive with a CEO. Needless to say they have trouble recruiting staff at the bottom end of their pay scale.

Maxine said...

Well I could comment on all of this but I had better not. Just to say that I've been the victim of the THES "reporting" and also read their "versions" of events and issues that I know a great deal about. And to put it as mildly as I can, I am deeply unimpressed.

Rob Kitchin said...

Uriah, the wage differential does occur in academia but competition for entry posts is so fierce, given the overproduction of PhDs, we have no problem recruiting very good people at the bottom. One thing about the university I work in is we're very light on senior and middle management unlike many other institutions, and the ones we do have have not bought slavish into the new managerialism but try to mitigate its effects and maintain collegiality. We still suffer from it though as it's being forced on us from central government, and which is slowly turning us middle managers into 'evil' bureaucrats.

Philip said...

One wee corrective here, a significant one as it is the springboard, so to speak, of the topic. I just looked at the article, and the quotation as presented there is: "I know I'm an evil, but am I a necessary evil?" The indefinite article and the interrogative make it quite a touch different, and it apparently issued from Sir Edward Boyle in 1976 when he was vice-chancellor of Leeds and not, it seems, himself convinced the growing evil was a necessary one.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks for the corrective Philip; it does make a touch different, but doesn't shift the overall sentiment or point being made, I think. I've updated the post to put right to try and stop misquoting. I knew that Boyle wasn't convinced about the way things were headed but appreciated the movement he was caught up in and charged with delivering, and nor am I which is why I liked it and felt it was worth posting.

Philip said...

Most welcome, Rob, and I must say that I am quite with you in all of this. I took the liberty of expanding the issue so that it encompassed other arenas, so perhaps I should clarify a little. What you describe yourself as doing, what others in academia do, is what I suspected, and I do think it a necessary evil, for what you do is keep 22 other researchers and their assistants researching. Your auditors and assessors may be the real evil in the scenario in which you act, but you do your best to keep the enterprise going in pursuit of the fundamental goal for which it was intended. This is a crucial point.

Now I should compare that with, say, the symphony orchestra society, headed by a CEO/MBA, which no longer has an annual deficit, true, but plays far more Webber and Bacharach than it does Bach and Webern. It is still going, yes, and the CEO earns a nice quarter million a year (for this is only a middle-rank outfit, else that might be a million), but it is kept going purely for the purpose of employing some 130 people in total to furnish more and more pop and semi-pop concerts for some ten thousand people total each year.

The head of the local SPCA, a CEO/MBA, likewise is paid around a quarter of a million, plus bonuses (for???), and his outfit shows a profit. But it emerges that this is because costs have been kept to a minimum simply by killing all animals taken to the SPCA for care. (You will discern that I am not concocting these examples, though here I keep identities a little hazy.) Like the orchestral society, the purpose has been lost, and this society will, in fact, be irreparably damaged once this becomes public knowledge and nigh on all donations are redirected to animal care groups with a no-kill policy. Similar damage must be suffered by a national foundation in support of heart and lung research when it emerges that their symbol of approval to be found on various prepared foods is not there because the foods are healthier, but because the manufacturer pays the foundation for its endorsement. It is all about money. The ever-estimable Norman of Crime Scraps is better placed than I to speak of a charity intended to provide sheltered housing that saved considerable money by...shutting down the sheltered housing. And then there is the matter of the medical practice or health region with a manager who does not see the most difficult part of his/her job as ensuring that the 75 year-old with a dickey ticker gets a valve replacement, but rather explaining to that person why they never will.

I could go on for a long time on this, as may have occurred to you with some foreboding, but the point this really revolves around is that what these managers, including the ones at higher levels in most academic institutions, are chiefly concerned with is making or saving money, paying dividends, showing a surplus, making a profit, and doing so even if it nullifies the original purpose of the enterprise, for this is management for its own sake (what else do MBAs learn?) and for the sake of the managers.

I'll just add very briefly that what most disturbs me in the academic context is that the most attractive research to the managers, and to an awful lot of researchers in certain fields, must surely be that innocent-sounding 'outside' research -- the research sponsored and paid for by the pharmaceutical/defense/forestry/whatever company, especially if it may eventually involve a patent with royalties or profits to be shared by researcher and university, or by this or that government department, this union or that multi-national conglomerate...No costs and all profits makes an academic manager very happy indeed. At some universities in the US , independent research now counts for less than half that underway, and that less-than-half includes the work done in the English and philosophy departments, none of which is likely ever to be sponsored by Halliburton or the AFL-CIO or the Department of the Interior.

Philip said...

Rob, forgive me if I now seem picky, but you haven't corrected the crucial error in that quotation. Boyle said, "...but am I a necessary evil?" That he posed that question rather than made the declarative statement of the misquotation makes a huge difference I think.

Rob Kitchin said...

Philip, thanks. I'll get there in the end. A demonstration in how Chinese whispers start ...