Archive for the ‘Universities’ Category

Take a deep breath

January 29, 2011

In which Dr Aust hails a vintage piece of Corporate-balls.

One of the occasional pleasures of blogging is the unexpected emails you get offering tip-offs or material, relating to something you have blogged about. For instance, my friend David Colquhoun, having written extensively about bogus B.Sc. degrees in Unreality, often gets plain-brown-envelope anonymous deliveries of material relating to such – usually, one assumes, from academics with an actual sense of responsibility who are ashamed of what their own institutions are doing.

Dr Aust, not being in the same celebrity skeptic bracket, does not get the same level of mole-mail, but nonetheless, things do appear from time to time. They sometimes come via people I know, but just as often from people I don’t.

Now, Dr Aust is a long time collector of vintage manager-bollocks, so it is a special pleasure to post the following photos, which arrived a few days ago, relayed on by a friend of a friend from an anonymous source somewhere deep in the bowels of Big Pharma.

Take a close look at these two pictures.

You might think this is a picture of a simple packet of sunflower seeds.

But you would be wrong.

Look closer.

The corporate PR-speak is unmistakeable.

“Igniting Passion”

“Unleashing potential”

“delivering benefit to our patients”

[Funny – I never knew that drug companies had “patients”. I thought that was doctors. Silly me]

And in case you can’t read it,  the smaller lettering in the top left hand corner reads:

“Inspire to Innovate”

Hmmmm.

I don’t know about “Inspire”, but it certainly caused me to take a large breath in. After I’d spent half a minute speechless with laughter.

Anyway, the answer is that it IS a packet of sunflower seeds, but it is also much, much more.

According to the accompanying email, this is a key part of a campaign to reinvigorate the innovative-ness of a Large PharmaCo’s Worker Bees.

The idea, I gather, is that the Worker Bee should plant these seeds in their garden, or window box, and then, as the sunflowers gradually emerge and grow, they will remind the Worker Bee to ignite their passion to “grow” new ideas from small seeds of innovation.

Or not.

Now, sunflowers are nice things to have in your garden, no question. But when you see stuff like this you do have to wonder if the company management think all their workers are completely brain-dead.

And as for the slogans….

“Inspire to Innovate”, in particular, is one of those  meaningless exhortatory mantras, dreamt up presumably by a PR consultant, that cause such eye-rolling in the sort of broadly cynical milieu that Dr Aust works in. Not that that means Universities are immune from the enthusiasm for such slogans, of course. One of Dr Aust’s former Faculty Deans, a genuinely nice and usually impeccably down-to-earth bloke, once had a rush of blood and told a Faculty meeting in apparent seriousness that he thought our new Faculty watchword should be:

“To Infinity – AND BEYOND!”

[This was many years ago now, when the movie Toy Story was just out].

A spate of alternatives soon emerged in the corridors and tearooms, as such things will:

“To Inanity – AND BEYOND!”

“To Insanity – AND BEYOND!”

And finally, one which comes back to mind especially in these latter days of uncertain University finances:

“To Insolvency – AND BEYOND!”

Now, it is one thing when the Boss dreams up one of these little bon mots half-way through a dreary meeting. It is another when a company has a PR department doing it, or pays a PR consultancy good money to “strategize” or “vision” or “futurize” and then come up with this sort of platitudinous nonsense. Do they really not have anything better to spend their money on?

Personally I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone’s reaction is REALLY some variant on:

“Great. Super. I feel SOOOO STOKED to innovate!”.

I would be predicting something more like eye-rolling, followed by complete indifference.

Though perhaps the PR folk will be doing an impact assessment for their campaign? I can see the MCQ now:

When you received your “Innovation Pack” did you feel
A despairing
B embarrassed
C underwhelmed
D queasy
E all of the above

Because most people can see through vapid slogans.

Finally, whenever I see a slogan which has the form:

“[Imperative] [Verb]” (like “Inspire to innovate”)

I am reminded of this wonderful movie scene from my all-time favourite Clint Eastwood western, The Outlaw Josey Wales:

So perhaps there IS a message there, after all.

For if your employer is treating you to this kind of stuff, I sincerely hope that you, too, will endeavour to persevere.

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PS  Getting serious for a moment, perhaps you may think that I am being a bit too negative. There is, dare I say it, little doubt Dr Aust is a grumpy old so-and-so, and he usually feels even grumpier in the Winter.  Anyway, the question of whether there actually IS a way to encourage people to be more “innovative” is sort of interesting.  There is a bit of discussion here, and some ideas in a video that Dr Grumble posted over here.

The not terribly startling message seems mainly to be to leave your more innovatively-inclined employees alone to get on with it. This is, of course, rather what Universities traditionally did until the Govt and University managers had the idea that it would be a good thing to start micro-managing everything. And having lots of “campaigns” and “initiatives”, of course. Anyway, watch the video if you are interested.

Suffice it to say, though, that sunflowers are not involved.

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Ant-acid

January 23, 2011

In which Dr Aust finds some black humour on the Internet.

As redundancies loom in various parts of the University sector, I have to remind myself that we here in UK Universities PLC are still, despite an expanding cadre of managerial droids, comparatively “under-managed” compared to many sectors of the economy.

No, really.

Well, all of us except the folk at Imperial College, perhaps.

The NHS, it hardly needs saying, is awash with Trust Deputy Directors of Patient Experience, their PAs, Assistants to PAs, Secretaries to PAs and their Assistants, and so on. Local Government in the UK also has a long-standing reputation for managerial “layering”.

Now, some people would tell you that the private sector has less of this kind of thing – though I don’t believe it, based on what I have heard from my friends who work there . More of that later – but for now I will just say that you should read the Dilbert cartoons – originally based, of course, on its creator’s experiences in the US private sector – if you think that the private sector is immune from managerial “creep”.

This brief bit of musing was triggered by a couple of things in particular.

One was the emails on this comments thread from a fellow academic, “Bobber1”.

The second was the arrival, in an email from my father, of the following presentation (click link below to view). It has obviously been doing the rounds of the internet in various forms.

The Ant’s Story

(PS: rather annoyingly it wouldn’t embed properly using the automatically generated embed code, and life is too short to learn HTML coding).

Now, the version I originally saw had one of the final captions changed to:

“Any similarity to the Ministry of Defence, NHS, Local Government, Education or any major company big enough to have an HR department, is NOT purely coincidental.”

To which I – like, I dare say, many another who has encountered the shiny suits from HR – would say a hearty “Hear hear”.

Anyway: going back to the private sector, one of the people who laughed the loudest at this slideshow was a friend of mine who is a refugee from a large international Pharmaceutical Company. PharmaCos are often held up as the apotheosis of Sith Private Sector Evulnez, so they are arguably as far from the TopplingGlittering Spires of Academia as you can get, ethos-wise. But there too, the Hegemony of the Bean Counter is all-pervasive.

For instance, once you have perused the Ant’s Story, compare the following history related by my ex-Pharma pal, and originally recounted by me in a comment in the blog a year or two back:

“Another of my ex-sidekicks who went the Pharma route took redundancy two or three years back from a large Pharma that was “re-sizing”, or whatever the current euphemism is, its UK operation. There, what the company did to “restructure” was to convene a panel of ten mid-managerial suits and get every single member in the research teams to go in individually and present their “personal vision of their own future in OurPharmaCo, with a five-year horizon” (for an hour)… followed by a further hour’s grilling from the suits. Very Dragons’ Den.

The upshot of this process, according to my mate, was to cull, with an amazing reproducibility, the two best practical lab scientists from each eight-to-ten-person research team. It turned out that these folk tended to be the least equipped to sit and bullshit the managers in fluent Manager-ese, which ability was the characteristic that was being positively selected for retention.”

Once more, I dare say this has parallels outside science.

Oh, and before I go:

Will the last person out please turn out the lights?

I have little doubt that HR will previously have arranged an afternoon course, given by a pricey outside consultant, training you in how to do it in accordance with all standard operating procedures.

Concentration – it’s not what you think

December 9, 2010

In which we get a glimpse of the future. And it isn’t very comforting.

Those who have been reading here recently will remember that the last post began:

“In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.”

And I also said:

“…most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.”

As the last post discussed, the axe has been seen as likeliest to fall in the arts, where the Govt proposes to cut away all tax-derived funding for teaching. But sciences will not be immune, either.

Universities Minister David Willetts (especially) and Business Secretary Vince Cable have been making a lot of noises about how the increase in direct fees (i.e. paid by the students) will make Universities take teaching more seriously, and “improve teaching’s status”.

I have to say that I have yet to meet a single person who actually works in a University who believes this.

I said as much, just the other day, in a comment on Dr Phil Yerboot’s blog:

“I know the ConDems have been saying that teaching in Univs will be “up-status-ed” by these moves, but it would be fair to say that no-one I know in a Univ who does a primarily teaching-focussed job (like me) thinks their status is actually going to rise, at least as measured by things like promotion and salary increments.

I suspect that it may develop that such things come to matter more for some courses in some institutions, but I can’t see medical schools being among them, for the simple reason that demand for places nationally is likely to always exceed supply. Thus even the medical schools that finish near the bottom in [the National Student Survey results] have no trouble filling the courses. So I wouldn’t see research losing its grip on academic career progression any time soon. Indeed, as the amount of research cash that there is to be given out decreases, the Univs will be getting more, not less, obsessed with grant-getting.”

The last sentence there is the key. One hears a lot of talk in research-intensive Universities these days about the need to “disinvest” in “less than excellent research”. Another word one hears a lot is “concentration” – which is a euphemism for what you do by “disinvesting”.

Now, over the 25 years I have worked in UK Universities it has always been true that the individuals most likely to be shed in University voluntary redundancy campaigns – and I’ve lived through at least a half dozen – are academics in the 50+ age range with primarily teaching “portfolios”. These people do not boost the research profile, goes the argument, and you can always get someone cheaper to teach the class – or you can not replace them at all, and simply make everyone who is left take on a bit more teaching.

What is new in the ConDem world is that relatively less profitable areas of research are set for the same treatment. That is, people with active labs, and probably PhD students, and possibly even grants, are going to be in the cross-hairs too.

The last time this was true was when I first came into academia; the Thatcher years of the 80s, much invoked lately by pundits seeking parallels with the current cuts.

When this kind of thing comes along, the individual character of institutions and their bosses comes to the fore. Some are more aggressive about “getting ahead of the game”, others less. Some simply opt for a voluntary redundancy scheme and hope enough people sign up to cut the wage bill by an acceptable degree. Others, especially now, will see it as a chance for “radical restructuring” – or,  in the new vocabulary, “concentration”.

Among all UK Universities, I would have said that Imperial College London  is the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a business. Early import of management practises borrowed from business, takeovers, attempts at major mergers (like the aborted one with UCL) etc etc. You can also see it in their choice of VCs/Principals and where they come from – ex-business honchos (like Richard Sykes, ex Glaxo) rather than ex-academics.

When I offered the above opinion of Imperial on a medical blog recently, I was chided by blogger Sam, who I suspect has had children attending Imperial. You can read the full exchange there if you are interested. Sam stressed Imperial’s commitment to “enterprise and entrpreneurialism”, which I think is true. I pointed to its reputation among academics for being a pretty hard-nosed employer, and fonder than most UK Universities of restructings and redundancies.

And now today I understand that a whole subsection of plant scientists are Imperial are set for the chop. There is an article about this from the Imperial College students’ paper here, and a letter from an Emeritus Professor – I’m guessing the former head of the threatened grouping – can be found here.

You will perhaps note with interest what he says about teaching, and things other than research in general.

I wonder if Messrs Willetts and Cable are following?

And finally, I am feeling a bit like Cassandra. In one of my responses to Sam I wrote that:

“The answer may well be that Imperial is a very good place to be a high-flying academic, but not a very good one to be an average academic. But all Universities actually need (perhaps slightly better than) average academics too.”

And I also said something else:

“Of course, I suspect the Conservative Govt would likely regard [Imperial] as a model”

So perhaps David and Vince will be paying attention after all.

For I  fear that what is happening at Imperial is the shape of things to come elsewhere.

Universities need arts as well as science

December 6, 2010

In which Dr Aust notes that scientists, on the whole, do not think that Universities should only have science in them.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

All right all right… I KNOW we haven’t had the Parliamentary vote on raising tuition fees yet (coming this Thursday). And I also know that, in Dr Aust’s University and in many other comparable ones, the senior brains trust is perhaps hoping that they will get to charge the students a much-increased fee which will replace the lost direct funding. I know that.

But, as many people have already noted, the cuts in the direct funding are already written into the Treasury’s spreadsheets.

And most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.

Anyway… where was I?

Oh yes.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

In particular, the near-total cut of direct teaching funding for arts and many languages has people predicting that Universities will cut whole departments. The Arts Faculties are definitely nervous –and who can blame them.

Let me give you an example: I heard of one University where the science faculty declined to even circulate an announcement about the “Science is Vital “ campaign – the reason widely believed to be that the bosses didn’t want to send the University’s Arts Faculty a signal that scientists thought only science was important. Not that scientists DO think that – they don’t, on the whole – but the arts and humanities people are generally thought to be so twitchy that a “wrong signal” might spread mass panic. The “goodbye arts” idea is certainly widely prevalent among academics gossiping in places like the Times Higher Education comments threads.

Interestingly, the same pressures seem to be abroad in that bastion of the free market in University education, the USA. Conservative governments in the UK have never made any secret of their admiration for the US free market model in all things, and that definitely includes higher education. The fact that some US Universities are shutting arts programmes is thus hardly likely to bolster the confidence of arts academics in the UK.

However, there is at least one eloquent defence of arts programmes doing the rounds, spread from email inbox to twitter to email these last few weeks.

What is interesting about this one is that it comes from a scientist – the eminent enzymologist Greg Petsko, who works at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Petsko’s article is entitled “A Faustian Bargain”. In it he eviscerates, in a piece of sustained and forensic mockery, the President of the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), who announced the closure of several art programmes and departments. Petsko makes many telling points, among them that a broad education, including the arts, is actually useful to scientists. He also manages to skewer the tendency of all too many University leaderships to manage by fait accompli. Here is a sample:

“You did call a [University] “town meeting”, but it was to discuss your plan [for Department closures], not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend…

It seems to me that the way you went about [this] couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

Petsko repeatedly uses the final motif –

“- if only you had an XYZ department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

– to skewer the Albany President mercilessly. He then goes on, near the end of the piece, to say the following – which should ring a loud bell with anyone who has been following the proposed changes to teaching funding in the UK Universities:

“As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future.”

Petsko then gives two examples, one from science and one from arts and humanities. They are virology, which was in decline in the 1970s until HIV suddenly threw the shortage of virologists into sharp relief and gave the subject a new urgency; and middle eastern languages and culture, which were sparsely taught until the events of September 11th 2001 and their aftermath.

He continues:

“I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.”

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Are liberal arts degrees a solution to the UK funding problem?

Petsko makes various references to the liberal arts educational model – common in US undergraduate degrees – where students take a broad spectrum of courses. This is something my friend Prof David Colquhoun has been writing about recently as a possible part solution here in the UK.

In Petsko’s view, these set-ups provide a way that more “profit-making” subjects (or, in the UK context, ones the Govt is still going to provide some teaching funding for) could subsidise subjects which make less money. For instance, if students taking science as their “major” subject were also required to take courses like composition, and/or rhetoric, then you could have people in, for instance, Classics departments whose teaching duties might primarily be teaching rhetoric to non-classics students. There is even a sort of parallel here with “service” teaching in science departments. This is a system, common historically in UK Universities with medical schools, where some people in the science departments mainly teach subjects like physiology or pharmacology to medical and other health science students.

As the cuts have loomed larger, there have been many eloquent defences of both the intrinsic value of the arts, and also of the economic usefulness of subjects other than hard sciences. For instance, Kieron Flanagan recently pointed me to this defence of humanities and social sciences. And there is Stefan Collini’s truly magisterial deconstruction of the Browne Review, on which the Govt’s proposed changes are based, in the London Review of Books here.

However, let’s stick to science and University science teaching – on the basis that one should concentrate on talking about things one knows something about. The central point that I would make, along with Petsko, is that studying science – or, at least, studying for a modern science BSc degree – does not teach you everything that scientists need to know. You might, indeed, get some of the other stuff from things like the arts. Or from literature. Or from reading newspapers. Or from writing, and communicating, about science to non-scientists

And again; as a scientist, I find the argument that a scientific training and education is useful entirely, or even primarily, because it is “vocational” quite flawed. It is a commonplace among me and my scientific colleagues that the primary value of our degree is NOT entirely, or even particularly “vocational”, i.e. in training more scientists. The value lies in training critical thinkers who also happen to be scientists. But training critical thinkers is something that all academic disciplines hopefully do – indeed, I would see it as a key purpose of all Higher Education. I am quite certain the arts and humanities pride themselves on instilling critical thinking, as well as producing “lifelong learners”, and all the other buzzwords.

Finally, there is the question on how the culture of Universities will change, if the arts are hit hard. This was, of course, where we started with Prof Petsko’s satirical tour-de-force. But I will leave the last word to an eminent British scientist and Professor I know, writing in the pages of the Times Higher Education a few months back. His short letter does not have Petsko’s rhetoric, or sustained scorn and humour, but it serves equally to make the point that scientists do not generally think that Universities should only do science:

“…..As with every time new [higher education] “world rankings” are published, I find myself scratching my head.

Am I missing something? Card-carrying professional scientist that I am, it still completely eludes me how institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology (or even our own Imperial College London [1]), which, as far as I know, have absolutely no arts faculties of any size, shape or form, can possibly be considered superior “universities” to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, Berkeley or Yale.

Did someone change what a “university” is while I wasn’t looking?”

To which the answer seems to be:

“No, but the UK coalition government seem to be inclined to give it a try.”

I do hope, myself, that they don’t succeed.

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[1] Before Alice Bell tells me off, we should say that Imperial Colege haz humannities..it duz: see here.

Note: You can find a list of all Petsko’s columns, written for the journal Genome Biology, here – and a link to download a kind of eBook compendium of them (if you are an iPhone/iPod type) is here.