by MERLIN CROSSLEY
My teachers at school encouraged us to understand the world by reading books, Austen, Orwell, Golding etc. But we also learned from TV. One show that stayed with me was M*A*S*H.
M*A*S*H was about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war. The show was funny but also deadly serious. The army hospital was an oasis of humanity within a dangerous and uncertain world.
The apparent stars of the show were the surgeons – Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper. But they were supported by a team whose expertise was not medical. In a university we’d call them professional staff. One key person was Corporal “Radar”O’Reilly. Fundamentally he was a fixer. Due to his networks and corporate knowledge, he had a unique ability to navigate and cut through military bureaucracy and make things happen.
Radar O’Reilly did his job on the front line. He didn’t look like a typical hero. He wasn’t a surgeon. He wasn’t a showman. He hadn’t been trained in human anatomy, but he understood people and he quietly empowered the hospital community. He didn’t carry out surgery and save the lives of patients on the operating table, but he contributed by negotiating solutions behind the scenes. We viewers soon realised that while the surgeons looked like they were the ones saving lives, actually Radar and indeed the whole support team were often the unsung heroes.
In my first job as a lecturer I soon became aware that my department had people like Radar. These professional officers were cherished locally because they could fix problems and help advance the success of the whole department. They knew things and people. They were part of my team and were there to help.
But I also became aware that the professional staff further away in central HQ – like the central army bureaucrats in M*A*S*H – weren’t always seen in the same way. Academics in my first department often felt that the remote administrators were far too numerous, and that they generated problems rather than solved them. Perhaps it’s harder to think of people you don’t know as being part of your community.
Gradually, over time, as I connected with these previously faceless people, I found them to be helpful too. I remember as a junior academic needing a grant printed on US letter paper and signed urgently. I could hardly believe it when the head of the research office kindly helped me out on the spot. As my world expanded others were kind too and helped me with my first budgets and HR matters. As I became more senior, I met professional staff who negotiated with governments, some who maintained field stations, others built research facilities, others helped me by providing data, some saved my time by helping me navigate through documentation and reporting requirements.
I quickly realised that my successes weren’t mine alone, that I was part of a team. But I also realised that just as there was a distinction in M*A*S*H between medics and regular army personnel, in the university professional and academic staff inhabited different worlds.
Neither world was paradise. In the academic sphere life can be precarious, especially for junior staff trying to move from casual positions to short term positions to eventual ‘tenure’ and uncertain progression through the ranks. Even senior academics worry that if they don’t keep delivering they may be voted off the island by early retirement (as highlighted in Netflix’s The Chair).
Many professional staff are also on short term contracts and even those in continuing positions are often worried about restructures that tend to occur fairly regularly, sometimes as part of business cycles but also in response to emergencies, like COVID. Furthermore for professional staff there are typically no formal promotion systems. Those who wish to advance in their careers can only do so by applying for and securing different, more senior, roles – sometimes by applying for opportunities that arise during those restructures.
Just as the characters in M*A*S*H were buffeted by the vagaries of an external war that they could not control or even see clearly, universities suffer shocks when their operating environments change. COVID aside, some of the main changes during my life at universities have involved the increasing scale of operations, coinciding with the introduction of enterprise-wide technologies.
These two forces have tended to increase academics’ reliance on central systems supported by remote professional staff. This is true whether it comes to learning management systems or electron microscopes. The days where each professor had a “secretary” and a “technical officer” or even when each department had its own cadre of administrative and technical staff are mostly gone or fading. These days it is the centralised professional staff that predominate.
Scale in education and research seems to be with us to stay. Central systems will remain important. So we have to take care of the human side and make sure that the staff in central bureaucracies don’t lose touch or be viewed as having lost touch with the staff on the front line. That each view the other as being part of their community.
This is no small challenge. But it is an urgent challenge and I’m watching carefully to see which ‘shared service’ models, which job exchanges, which strategic planning events and meetings provide the most value. Some are little more than management fads but others seem to work. Especially those that involve people connecting face to face. COVID has taught us that much can be done remotely, but it has just as powerfully demonstrated the importance of face-to-face human connection.
I think my teachers would have been pleased that I was able to learn about life from TV in addition to from books. I learned that communities, and the kindness they foster, together achieve things that individual stars never could alone and that, at their best, universities have much in common with Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life