Herding cats? Leading academic reforms

The term ‘herding cats’ has been widely used to describe the challenge of leading academics.  The phrase reflects a number of assumptions about academics: that they are independent, determined to go their own way, and largely focused on individualistic (and sometimes hedonistic) desires. Is this the case?  In my experience, the issue is more about leadership than the nature of the academic.

Many universities are focusing on large-scale institutional change. Educational reforms, re-prioritisation of funding and resourcing and academic performance have been large foci for the last few years. The focus on increasing and mapping academic performance has been particularly notable. Academics may  be reluctant to embrace the proposed changes – particularly if they affect academic roles, disciplinary affiliations or performance standards.

Some institutions are adopting processes that assume academics must be controlled and forced to comply with planned reforms.  This strong and aggressive leadership approach is being widely used across the sector – with some significant consequences. Many academics feel that they are being herded and marshalled into pre-determined holding pens designed to regulate their practice, without respect, forewarning or support.   Senior academics are starting to question their future, seeing retirement as a desirable option while less secure junior academics are starting to wonder if they have the necessary tenacity to reach the rising goal-posts.

These consequences can be diminished markedly if we consider what drives academics and how leaders can provide a constructive interface to encourage synergy between institutional reforms  and academic needs.

Academics are high-end knowledge workers, with a keen desire to perform their disciplinary role with high success. Recognition and valuing are important to them: they are reared on peer review and external accolades.  If they are not feeling valued, they become more insecure and destabilised.  In harsh climates, they will hunker down, reverting to the tasks and activities that they know best and which they feel affirm their worth.  Unfortunately, these may not be the things that are valued by their institution. And in many cases, the opportunity to adapt and re-orientate is very short and hard to achieve. The sector is seeing high levels of anxiety related to academics who do not  possess the right skills to excel.  A key principle in effecting academic engagement is to recognise that they can be agile, responsive and incredibly creative – if they understand the goalposts.  The key is ensuring they are well informed about both priorities and measures for success.

In these performance settings academic leaders can also feel beleagured.  They feel isolated and disliked because they are the representatives of “The University”.  Their role in assessing an academic’s merit can be a major determinant of  that individual’s future employment prospects.  The increasing focus on financial viability of teaching and academic outputs may be regarded as high end perfomativity: where academics are viewed as binary inputs: productive – unproductive.  Contributions to service and innovation can be undervalued  – to the detriment of the institution and the individuals who contribute in these areas.

University leaders play a key role in acting as interpreter, consultant and facilitator to ensure institutional  and academic priorities are in synergy.

The leader as interpreter: Many academics remain ill-informed about the sector at large and the pressures that universities are experiencing. They may be largely insulated by their busy roles, focusing on maintaining their current trajectory and habits.  Institutional reforms threaten that security, and need to be explained and outlined.  Academics value the chance to hear about proposed changes and how they may impact on their own setting and role.  They need to feel that the reforms will make sense and to have some idea about likely consequences. They also value a vision as to what the future will look like. The leader plays a critical role in interpreting the various forces in evidence and articulating that future and the logic behind the change.  Some individuals will seek quite robust debate as to the reforms.  Academic leaders will need to be resilient and well-informed as they work through the discussion that needs to take place.

The leader as consultant: Academics value the opportunity to contribute their ideas and perspectives.  Leaders need to consult with their diverse constituents. While some of the suggestions may be unviable, many will offer considerable richness in building organisationally-fit options.  The very process of consultation will also provide an important transition between the old and the new. It is not so much what is suggested, but the process of thinking and testing the new context.

The leader as facilitator: Reforms often anticipate staff  will be agile and ready to segue into new roles and processes.  Assumptions about the skills and capabilities that will be found in the community can undermine many good plans.  The leader plays a key role in identifying the core capabilities that will be necessary to take the community forward, and to ensure the key players in the change are well prepared for their new tasks.  Collective learning can be particularly powerful, as it also encourages a culture shift across the community and encourages joint problem-solving.

They may be a little cat-like: intelligent, curious and adaptive.  However, academics do not need to be herded to force compliance.  They will show great willingness to contribute to reforms if they are offered clear justification, good leadership and an opportunity to contribute to the strategies.