The Head Hunters of academia

This is a reposting of something on my Education blog.

We had a number of e-mails doing the rounds at work indicating that a number of senior staff in the university were leaving (I was tempted to e-mail the whole faculty back to enquire if anyone wanted to go out for drinks to celebrate 😀 but decided they mightn’t see the funny side!).

Always worrying when many senior management leave at once (the rats abandoning the sinking ship? :-/) but my attention was drawn to another wee statement in both e-mails. That being the manner of the recruitment of said senior staff’s (Dean level and up) replacement.

Apparently the university was hiring a group of head hunters to try and find replacements. One has to ask the question, what the hell for? We’ve plenty of others in the university in senior posts who, while not exactly my favourite people, are more than suitably qualified to take over these roles. They also have the advantage of knowing the university, have been here for decades and thus are clearly committed to the place. They also know (as it were) where the bodies are buried and thus won’t have to take and BS from the more whiny members of staff.

However instead it seems we’ll have some Jonty De Wolfeesqueseagull manager” parachuted in on us. Who, much like the last guy, will fly in, make a lot of noise, crap on everything before flying back out to sea and be forgotten.

Indeed it is also strange that somewhere else in the university several lackies of the Dean were promoted sometime ago. The funny thing is that if junior members of staff like me want a promotion (e.g. from lecturer to senior lecturer) we have to wait for a staff opening to appear and apply for that job, do an interview, etc. But it would seem in the lofty air of the upper floor such mere mortal concerns do not apply. You can simply be prompted salary doubled (a salary the taxpayer pays for I would note, lecturing staff salaries are usually met via student fees these days) with not so much as an ounce of due process.

More corporate that the corporations themselves

Of course this is all too reminiscent of the increasingly corporate style approach of UK universities. They seem to assume that as they are running universities like companies that they should behave more like a corporation, notably paying people like senior VP’s an expensive pay packet and increasingly using head hunters to recruit senior staff. Of course in truth they are behaving more like a cartoon version of how corporations generally behave.

While it is true corporations will head hunt a new senior manager and parachute him in on an unsuspecting division of the firm (in lieu of simply promoting someone else to the job), often companies will do this for very specific reasons. e.g. That unit is under performing (our department is on the up and up, students satisfaction is rising, academic standards are up, etc.) or head office wants to make some major changes such as starting a new product line and have brought someone in who is an expert at that (my impression, students haven’t changed much since I was the other side of the room).

In all other situations, a company will obey the normal rules of promoting the most senior staff member available and triggering a wave of promotions across the division which serves to remind staff of the benefits of remaining loyal to the firm. And again, often companies are more likely to show restrain as regards promoting people to senior positions without some justification, as they know that while shareholders will rarely object to the hiring of a couple of dozen engineers, they will ask questions as to why we suddenly need more senior VP’s to manage a company that’s in the process of downsizing? (surely they’ll ask we should be sacking a few managers?).

However of course, there-in lies the problem for UK universities. A company doesn’t have the department of education paying the salaries of senior staff, it doesn’t have the safety net of the public purse. Instead it has a lot of angry shareholders who’ll kick up a right old stink if they see such carry on.

In short there is a reason why universities are supposed to be in the public sector and a way the public sector bodies are supposed to behave. Not least because a lot of what corporations do tends to be financially risky (and sometimes unethical) and we don’t want universities risking bankruptcy.

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5 thoughts on “The Head Hunters of academia

  1. It all sounds horribly familiar to me. Even the church is not exempt. I have learned to be wary of people who advertise jobs and give you an interview, and when you arrive you’re told that somebody else was interviewed previously, at a time special to them, not on the day when everyone else has to be there. This usually indicates that they have already made up their mind and chosen that person, and are just going through the motions with the rest of you!

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    • Actually, I’d argue many UK uni’s are already functioning according to the American model, indeed they’ve transcended this “lean & mean” approach and are not “skinny & pissed” ;D

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