by MERLIN CROSSLEY
One of the things that attracted me to working in a university was the egalitarian and collegiate nature of the community. Many academics frown on status and instead appreciate other people for their ideas, not their seniority. The most junior person may well have the freshest and the best idea.
Beyond that, when it comes to herding academic cats, line management, if it exists, is light. If you want people to be independently creative, you can’t insist that all the ideas come down the line from head office. There are structures, with heads of school and deans, with budget power, overseeing the rules that have accumulated over generations, with the hopeful aim of helping the teaching and research run smoothly. But these managers don’t know everything beyond their discipline, so it is seldom a command and control enterprise.
When it comes to taking orders, academics are more likely to respond to journal editors, grant review committees, or student feedback, than to high ranking officers.
So why do we have academic ranks?
In Australia the norm is to have 5 levels, A to E, that run from associate lecturer (staff who may not yet have completed a doctorate), through lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, and professor. There are even salary step grades within levels, though the increments are modest. Some institutions, including my own, also have “super” professors. Ours are called Scientia Professors, and many institutions have endowed or named chairs that come with extra prestige, salary or research funding.
When one adds pro-vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, and the vice-chancellor the hierarchy is immense. In addition to associate deans, some faculties have senior vice-deans and multiple deputy deans. Many of the titles are unspoken but some like professor or doctor are used on and off campus. Sitting above everything is the chancellor, who gets a title but no salary.
The titles are important in academia despite our seeming aversion to form over function.
I once asked staff at a forum why they felt we had a promotion system.
The answers were interesting – because other universities have them so we must too, because management wants to use promotions as a carrot to control staff behaviour, because the staff themselves want an academic ladder to climb or rather wish to grow their careers as one tends a garden.
You can guess that I liked the last answer best, but I like them all really. For once, there really were no wrong answers.
I do think part of the reason we have promotions is because everyone else does. There are many examples of institutional peer group pressure and of genies that go viral (and sometimes they are good genies, provided they don’t become too powerful or too complicated and burdensome) and can never be put back into the bottle.
Historically – and still in most American universities – promotion was simpler. It was as much about achieving “tenure” as it was about constant academic progression by increment. In the old days when granting tenure was like appointing a judge to the High Court for life, it was reasonable that institutions take time and run a sophisticated process to assess applicants. These steps from trainee/apprentice to fellow/master occur in many professions, and are, of course, related to our degree structures. But promotions like degrees, bachelors, diplomas, grad certs, masters, doctorates, etc, have become more complicated.
In terms of management using carrots and sticks and promotion being a carrot (that can be withheld) I think this is a fair point but not the primary motivation behind the system. Promotion can be withheld if staff fall short in terms of good citizenship and perhaps that is an advantage. These days there are many systems that reward people who are smart, but it is also worth celebrating the importance of being good, kind, community minded, and working professionally according to documented university values. One cannot be promoted just for being a goody two shoes but it is possible to miss out by being Dick Dastardly (for being an academic who, like the Radio Ham, has a friend in every university except their own) – though such situations are very rare and performance or achievements that are not quite there yet, is by far the commonest reason for non-promotion.
I do like the third answer best. I think we have promotions systems because they fulfil basic human needs surrounding purpose and community. Many people crave purpose, so striving to contribute more and more through academic and service work is a good plan to have. It is also reasonable to want to be recognised by peers for those contributions and achievements, and to build a secure identity within the community. There is also a financial aspect to promotion, that is particularly important for mid-career staff whose responsibilities to dependents may be increasing, but I haven’t dwelt on this because it is not usually the primary reason why people apply for promotion. I do like the idea of academics nurturing their careers as they would grow a garden, and prefer this to Sir Humphrey Appleby’s concept of climbing the Greasy Pole.
Overall, I am glad we have promotion systems. What’s that old line – someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to? I think it is good that people have something to work towards. And promotion is more achievable than winning a Nobel Prize, an Olympic Gold Medal, having a number one hit, or a best-selling book. It will sound trite but in its simplest form being promoted is like reaching the next level in a video game – some get there quickly, others take more time. Like most games it is a mixture of talent, performance, persistence, and luck and no two paths are the same, but academics get to play at this game if they wish, and there is always hope. And when one advances one is automatically recognised by peers and that helps build the academic community.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic