Many years ago, a friend of mine looked at the data from a genetic screen he had carried out in yeast, and gave a sigh of dismay. The list of new mutations included nothing of interest. He realised he’d designed the experiment poorly, and remorsefully proclaimed – “oh well, you get what you ask for, not what you want”. It’s become one of my favourite sayings.

Over the years I’ve noticed that quite a few policies monitoring minimal compliance end up delivering what is asked for. If you ask for minimal standards, then often that is what you get.

Sometimes that is all you need. This is the case in “weak link” situations. Every link in a chain needs to have the minimal strength, and it doesn’t really help if one link excels and is stronger than the others. Life is full of weak link situations. It’s important that your bike chain doesn’t have a weak link, or your bike tyre, or an aeroplane wing. Another saying is “one bad apple can spoil the bunch.”

Conversely, there are situations where one strong link can make all the difference and can inspire the whole community and engender a culture of excellence. I don’t know a good visual analogy here. Sometimes I say a knife is as sharp as its pointiest bit, or you can cut diamonds provided at least part of your saw is hard enough, but it’s probably better just to call these “strong link” rather than “weak link” situations.

Most problems have both weak link and strong link aspects. In a soccer game one strong link striker can make a big difference. But your backline may be only as good as your weakest defender. If it comes to penalty shootouts it may be that the team with the weaker goalkeeper will lose, or is it the team with the highest number of good strikers that wins?

When it comes to reputations, they can built on the back of successive strong link achievements, but can be ruined if there is one weak link – like Rome, reputations can’t be built in a day but they can be destroyed in a day. Overall, dissecting the ideal balance between weak link and strong link thinking can be challenging.

To me universities are environments where the strong link mindset should predominate. Einstein was a strong link. The contributions he made have had technological impacts that are enjoyed by humans across the planet. Even if you are a “one hit wonder” in research it may be enough to make a huge positive impact. Kary Mullis who first got the Polymerase Chain Reaction to work in 1985 is often considered that type of scientist. His flaws are often talked about, but PCR transformed DNA work and was, of course, the basis of COVID testing.

Setting high expectations for the highly talented staff at universities is vitally important. Sometimes one should “aim for the impossible, to achieve the maximum.” Intellectual opportunities are so vast that one may as well shoot for the stars. An arrow shot high may hit any number of targets, aiming low ensures it lands in the dust. Aiming high is a better idea than setting low bars, like insisting that all staff are research active and publish two papers per year. That is the road to mediocrity.

It’s also important to set high expectations for students. One must avoid the “soft bigotry of low expectations” where some students are patronised rather than challenged in their learning. Setting high standards and aiming for “infinity and beyond” may increase the pressure on young people but it can also have a positive impact.

Celebrating competition and excellence can help drive strong link thinking, although too much can be harmful to the culture. It’s hard to get the balance right.

But here’s the thing. The balance between weak link and strong link thinking isn’t just a consequence of what we choose, it is also related to the size and complexity of an organisation. Small operations naturally celebrate strong link thinking but as bureaucracies expand the pressure towards monitoring, regulation, and compliance, increases. Unless one takes active steps these tendencies limit individual creativity and generally suck up energy and time. Paraphrasing Parkinson’s law – busy work expands to fill the space available.

If you are one big balloon then you have to focus on weak link issues, but if you are a bunch of independent smaller bubbles, then strong link thinking may help you fly and explore the world.

That’s why it’s important to work to provide autonomy to individual academic units wherever appropriate. One has responsibilities to manage compliance in areas where weak links are a threat but in intellectual domains providing as much freedom and free time as possible may be the best way to make progress. And universities have always been engines of progress!

Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality, UNSW Sydney


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