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Management, ‘leadership’, and academic work

In a powerful essay cheekily posted on the website of what may be the UK’s most obsessively corporate university (check menu on the right "Get Rid of Academic Leadership"), Suman Gupta bluntly asserts that ‘[t]here is no place for leaders in academia.’ (2015, parag. 1) As he observes, once academics-turned-administrators begin ‘imposing some Great Order… by managing and strategising and propaganda, seeking compliance and exercising opaque executive prerogatives, they start killing off academic work’ (2015, parag. 2). With its recent series of questionable management initiatives, from concentration of resources on bureaucratically-selected ‘strategic research areas’ to development of a (second) free MOOC platform on its paying students’ tab, Gupta’s employer must certainly have provided him with ample opportunity to judge the truth of this proposition. But the relevance of his critique is much wider than a single institution, as we see from the tragic case of Stefan Grimm: a highly successful medical researcher who committed suicide whilst being threatened over his failure to meet arbitrary funding targets (see Parr 2014). While the killing off of scholarly work does not invariably mean the killing off of scholarly workers, it is clear that, across the UK, the term ‘academic leadership’ is ‘now unequivocally taken [to mean] “management of academic workers and institutions from above”’, and those that practise it have come to be ‘regarded as being worth more than academics of any sort.’ (Gupta 2015, parag. 5) In his last words to his colleagues, the late Prof. Grimm put it more forcefully, describing his employing institution in terms that at least some readers of this article may find resonant: as he saw it, it had become ‘a business with very few up in the hierarchy… profiteering and the rest of us… milked for money’, wherein the ‘formidable leaders’ that do the milking ‘treat us like shit.’ (Grimm 2014, parags. 12, 10, 16, reproduced in Parr 2014) It hardly needs pointing out that there has never been an attempt to demonstrate that academic work benefits from ‘leadership’ in the sense described by Gupta and Grimm: top-down control by target-setting, HR-sanctioned procedural bullying, and ‘strategic vision’. The drive for ‘leadership’ is, rather, part of an ideologically motivated investment in management at the expense of labour, clearly seen in the ballooning of executive salaries, both inside and outside educational institutions, during an age of so-called ‘austerity’.

Two of the most telling examples of such investment within the British academic system can be observed in the Economic and Social Research Council’s launch of the ‘Future Research Leaders’ scheme as its sole targeted support for early career researchers and the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s rebranding of its Fellowships scheme as the ‘Leadership Fellows’ scheme. The implication of these investments is that researchers are now valued not for carrying out research, but for managing – or having the potential to manage – those lesser mortals that must dirty their hands with that demeaning function. The very names of the schemes suggest that researchers are no longer to be supported because of their direct contribution to knowledge. And close examination of the associated documents bears this out: for example, the ESRC’s call for proposals states that the aim of the Future Research Leaders scheme is instead ‘to enable outstanding early-career social scientists… to acquire the skills set to become the future world leaders in their field.’ (ESRC 2016, parag. 1) ‘Outstandingness’ in an early career researcher is here defined by status as a manager-in-waiting, with the purpose of funding being to furnish the formidable leaders of tomorrow with the ‘skills set’ they will need in order to take charge of the research followers that must presumably make up the bulk of an academic field assumed to be in need of a Huxleyan Alpha caste. Applying under such a scheme necessarily involves positioning oneself as one who manages – or seeks to manage – researchers. Quite obviously, this involves changes to the kinds of endeavour that can be supported under the schemes: for example, the AHRC Leadership Fellows scheme requires that ‘proposals must include collaborative activities to support the development of the Fellow’s capacity for research leadership’ (AHRC 2014, parag. 2), i.e. that the research itself must be designed in order to provide management experience. But more insidiously, the schemes promote a reconceptualisation of what constitutes valuable research: for instance, with regard to the AHRC scheme, it is stated that the applicant’s ‘ideas for exercising leadership in their field should form an integrated whole with their proposed research, rather than appearing to be merely a “bolt on” to the research’ (AHRC 2014b, parag. 3). The emergence of such an ideal, in which research is so intimately bound up with management that the two become indistinguishable, directly parallels the shaping of the creative industries by what Stefano Harney calls ‘the coming of management into the arts’ and ‘the coming of creativity into management’ (2010, 434). Indeed, Sarah Brouillette has already extended Harney’s analysis into the university itself, recognising ‘the apotheosis of neoliberal management ideology’ in the latter’s ‘attempts to source creativity in networks of temporary and flexible workers’ (2013, parag. 2), and observing that these attempts occur simultaneously in teaching and research:

Universities have… promoted project-based or ‘participatory’ enquiry in which the flexible individual moves through temporary networks. This means group research in fields accustomed to the solo scholar, and transformation of the classroom into an ostensibly collaborative space in which instructors and students devote themselves to co-creation.…

[T]hough the decentered classroom-cum-network may be premised upon a democratic desire to unsettle the presumption of the individual’s singular authority, this unsettling poses no real threat to the primacy of the individual’s property. The individual’s temporary existence within the network is rather compatible with the valorisation of her innovations. She needs unquestioned authority much less than she needs the appearance of identity – that is, of a portable set of traits that are adapted to each new network’s terms, and become more solid only for the purposes of personal branding or [intellectual property] capture. (Brouillette 2013, parags 2-3)

The trend Brouillette describes would appear to reach its computer-mediated extreme in MOOCs (where students watch videos of lectures by a ‘star’ professor and engage in online discussions moderated – if at all – by low-paid or unpaid facilitators) and crowdsourcing projects (where scholar-managers digitally co-ordinate the unremunerated labour of volunteer researchers). In each of these fundamentally neoliberal innovations, the monetary value of what used to be considered the essence of scholarly activity – direct interaction with students, direct engagement with source materials – is set at, or close to, zero, while an academic ‘leader’ attains heroic status through application of the skillset that qualifies him or her to take the far better-compensated place at the helm. Thus, it is not just that managers of academics and academic institutions have come to be valued above mere academics; rather, it is that, at the same time, management has become the model for academic excellence. It would be hard to imagine a more elegant means of eliminating academic critique of management, ensuring that the would-be critic is either disqualified from speaking or compromised by complicity: today, the ‘outstanding’ academic is the one standing over those that do what once would have been his or her work.

AHRC (2014a) ‘Funding opportunities: leadership fellows’. Arts and Humanities Research Council. Accessed 11 July 2015 at: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funding-Opportunities/Pages/Leadership-Fellows.aspx

AHRC (2014b) ‘AHRC Fellowships Scheme to be renamed the Leadership Fellows Scheme’. Arts and Humanities Research Council. Accessed on 11 July 2015 at http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/News/Pages/AHRC-Fellowships-Scheme-to-be-renamed-the-Leadership-Fellows-Scheme.aspx

Brouillette, S. (2013) ‘Academic labour, the aesthetics of management, and the promise of autonomous work’, Nonsite, 9. Accessed 11 July at: http://nonsite.org/article/academic-labor-the-aesthetics-of-management-and-the-promise-of-autonomous-work

ESRC (2015) ‘Future research leaders 2016: call for proposals’. Economic and Social Research Council. Accessed 11 July 2015 at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/funding-and-guidance/funding-opportunities/34596/future-research-leaders-2016-(29-sept).aspx

Gupta, S. (2015) ‘Get rid of academic leadership’. Open University. Accessed 11 July 2015 at: http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/finance-crisis-protest/comment-and-debate/get-rid-academic-leadership

Harney, S. (2010) ‘Creative industries debate: Unfinished business: labour, management, and the creative industries’, Cultural Studies, 24: 3, 431-444.

Parr, C. (2014). ‘Imperial College Professor Stefan Grimm “Was Given Grant Income Target”: Emails with Manager Reveal Details of Review Placed on Academic Found Dead in September’. Times Higher Education. Accessed 16 July 2015 at: https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/imperial-college-professor-stefan-grimm-was-given-grant-income-target/2017369.article

Daniel Allington, August 2015

This article can also be accessed at  http://www.danielallington.net/2015/08/management-leadership-academic-work/