The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’

This post has been inspired by an apparent declaration of hostilities towards professors in a number of universities. The weapon of choice has been performance management, and some aspects of audit culture have been liberated from their usual role of absorbing academics’ time to becoming instruments of punishment.

In universities we have seen a deprofessionalization of academic staff which has manifest itself in a number of ways. In, many areas, disciplinary groups have been broken up and atomized across the university, in response to management‘s fear of ‘silos’. In others, productive interdisciplinary groups have been disrupted by reorganizations which have obstructed innovation. In at least one famous case, an entire centre was vandalized (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in 2002) because its members refused to surrender to the neoliberal commandment that research must be a competitive and self-important process.

The one thing that academics were permitted to retain was a system of academic esteem bestowed by promotion to professor. This was trusted to reward talent, reputation and diligence, but in recent years, even those who attain professorial rank are subject to this regime of never quite ‘becoming’. In several UK universities, the intrusive gaze of Human Resources has recently fallen on alleged ‘under-performing professors’. I have managed to obtain performance criteria documents from a number of universities where professorial targets have been revised.

In any sane university, to talk of ‘under-performing professors’ as a generic description, would be recognized as pure incongruity; since Human Resources decide the ever-ascending criteria for promotion to this level, they might be trusted to not betray their own judgment. There seems to be some degree of ‘moral panic’ among senior management teams as in many universities, crude targets for grant income are now being set for individual researchers. Increasingly in universities, as well as undergoing six-monthly performance reviews (as frequently as newly appointed probationers), professors must now meet exacting criteria for ‘quality’ of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain ‘drivers’, which include securing a research grant as PI every two years, producing REF 3* and 4* ‘outputs’, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations, and of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet these expectations will result in the public humiliation ofi improving performance procedures, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy. Ben Knights (2013) cites Sennett (1998), who recognizes that “a regime which instills insecurity, in which you are… ‘always starting over’ is inimical to the longer term processes of memory and imagination.

This is the society of control outlined by Deleuze (1990).  Foucauldian (sequential) disciplinary regimes (Morrish, 2011)  give way to ones in which, just as one hurdle is surmounted, another, higher one presents itself, with the end point always at the far horizon. We find this reflected in management documents on performance review with a lexicon of journeys, milestones and checkpoints, but the individual is never allowed to arrive at the promised reward. Gatekeeping measures such as the imposition of perpetual training, perpetual review of publications or multiple-staged applications for promotion, must be endured, even to participate.

Performance management has recently been under scrutiny by the press, academics and their trade union, University and College Union. The death of Stefan Grimm in September 2014 shocked the academic community. A very moving appeal to the academic community appeared on this blog: https://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/tag/professor-stefan-grimm/

Professor Grimm held the Chair in Toxicology at Imperial College, London, and he took his own life after being threatened with performance management procedures when he was deemed not to have brought in ‘prestigious’ grant money. http://www.dcscience.net/2014/12/01/publish-and-perish-at-imperial-college-london-the-death-of-stefan-grimm/

His obituary on the Imperial College website reads:

Over the past 20 years, his work to this scientific field includes 50 publications in top-ranked journals, two books, more than 3000 citations and 5 patents on innovative strategies for screening novel genes involved in cell death pathways and new anti-cancer genes. Professor Stefan Grimm chaired and co-organized international conferences and served as reviewer for research-funding organizations and many international scientific journals. Recently, Stefan was elected as fellow of the Society of Biology. (http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_14-1-2015-17-40-44)

This hardly looks like the profile of an ‘underperforming’ professor. His crime, though, was that he prioritized science rather than the accumulation of capital. It took seven months for Professor Alice Gast, the President of Imperial College, to make a public statement on Stefan Grimm’s death. In an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, on 17th April 2015, when asked directly about the case, she offered this oblique comment:

Professors are under pressures. They have a lot on their plates. Professors are really like small business owners. They have their own teaching to perform. They have their own research and they have their research funding to look after. They work with teams of post-docs and post graduate students. Then some of them work on translational work and develop entrepreneurial and new companies and spin outs. It’s a very highly competitive world out there. The collaborative nature and the way in which we’re moving towards highly collaborative work I think helps because one starts to recognise that you can’t do it all alone. You need a team. You build a team with the very best colleagues. You have not only that interplay between the different backgrounds and disciplines but you get the new ideas that are generated by bringing diverse people together. (http://markcarrigan.net/2015/04/17/president-of-imperial-college-london-professors-are-really-like-small-business-owners/)

There has been a shockingly rapid move from entrepreneurship as metaphor, to a state in which it is both literal and mandatory. It features as a ‘key competency’ in academic job descriptions, and there is now an expectation that professors will earn their own salaries and research expenses. In addition, professors are seen as a kind of Praetorian Guard who will build a university’s brand with ‘outreach’ activities such as media interviews. As we know, institutional branding is about the manipulation of appearances, but when that is made a priority in a professor’s workload, you know that academic values have been forsaken. It is a world which creates posts like an Associate Dean of Eureka Moments (Bristol University 2015) and a Pro Vice Chancellor of Ambition Innovation and Student Satisfaction (Anglia Ruskin 2015).

It is common in the performance management documents I have collected, for reference to be made to ‘stretching objectives’ which are purported to sit in between an individual’s ‘comfort zone’ and the  ‘panic zone’. ‘Stretching objectives’ are presented as desirable, but objectives which place individuals in their comfort or panic zones are not. There is a disturbing presupposition in this discourse of comfort zones. To be asked to go beyond it makes the patronizing assumption that one’s life is normally comfortable. It certainly reveals that those charged with auditing and defining these comfort zones are fortunate in this way. It is a discourse which permits no acknowledgment that the employee may find teaching or research extremely stressful, at least some of the time. Their domestic circumstances may add additional stress – illness of a child, the loss of a partner’s job, death of a parent – these may all lower the threshold of discomfort at work. The managerial class, who can at least assuage some of their discomfort with a larger salary, should check their privilege and ‘think outside the box’ they have just casually ticked.

It is not clear what results university managers expect to emerge from a system of unattainable targets, constant surveillance and audit, and the knowledge that any dip in ‘performance’ may see their contracts terminated, but the death of Stefan Grimm should have brought this kind of disciplinary regime to a swift halt in any ethical institution. In some universities, professors are subject to an inversion of operant conditioning whose ‘incentives’ would be recognized by Milgram, not Skinner. In all this talk of drivers, stretching, and comfort zones, did anyone stop to think of the psychological risk of treating professors as though they were computer processors with a limited life and inevitable disposability? I am not a professor, but many of my friends are. They are all passionate, creative, rewarding colleagues and professionals. They are remapping their fields for others to follow. The fact that they may not be one of the 15 in 100 who wins a research grant is really no reflection on the significance of their work.  They are people whose primary identity is defined by their scholarship. Did nobody in HR raise an objection that treating a professor like this is inhumane, because it certainly makes me weep? The last word on this belongs to Stefan Grimm. “They treat us like shit”, he said at the end of his last email to colleagues. And then he ended his life.

Postscript

On September 7th-8th 2015 a seminar on Language of Money and Debt was held at Roehampton University. The organizers were Dr Annabelle Mooney and Dr Evi Sifaki and I was a keynote speaker. This event fell close to the anniversary of Stefan Grimm’s death. We felt it should never be forgotten. In response to the Music for Deckchairs blog piece https://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/tag/professor-stefan-grimm/, which asked us all to do the academic equivalent of ‘putting our bats out’ for Stefan, we decided to build a cairn of books. Each participant was asked to bring a book to share with our students, our colleagues and ourselves, which might help us to deal with these pressures. It is the most fitting memorial we could think of.

Stefan Grimm cairn

References

Deleuze, G. 1990. Postscript on the Societies of Control. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 3-7.

Ben Knight    Knights, B. 2013. ‘Politics and enhancement: the English Subject Centre’ in (eds.) Deborah Philips and Katy Shaw. Literary Politics: The Politics of Literature and the Literature of Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp181 – 193

Moriarty, Philip. 2015.  The use of raw grant income as a performance target has got to go – now. Times Higher. June 18th. https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/the-use-of-raw-grant-income-performance-as-a-target-has-got-go-now

Morrish, L. 2011. Con-Dem-Nation and the attack on academic cultures. Campaign for the Public University. November 2nd 2011. http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2011/11/02/con-dem-nation-and-the-attack-on-academic-cultures/

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34 thoughts on “The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’”

  1. What would happen, I wonder, if the entire, or at least the major part of the academic staff of an institution were to say “No, go away” to HR on one of these steps of creeping “metrics”. How do university senates (comprising, for the most part, the professoriate) let HR departments get away with this? Have we been so divided and atomised that we are incapable of acting together against what we all know is a dire problem? As a junior university staff member, I don’t feel that the professoriate “have my back” beyond sympathetic tut-tutting, and it appears from below as if they have been so reduced to scrambling among themselves for scraps of prestige that they can no longer have solidarity with one another.
    These issues can be solved — but the solutions will not come from outside. We need to transcend the cultivation of academic egos and actually cooperate to win back our institutions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Never underestimate the cowardice of the majority of academics. This will have to change in the next generation of casualized, de-professionalized academics. Sadly, my generation has given way far too much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Academe Blog and commented:
    From the article:

    “In all this talk of drivers, stretching, and comfort zones, did anyone stop to think of the psychological risk of treating professors as though they were computer processors with a limited life and inevitable disposability? I am not a professor, but many of my friends are. They are all passionate, creative, rewarding colleagues and professionals. They are remapping their fields for others to follow. The fact that they may not be one of the 15 in 100 who wins a research grant is really no reflection on the significance of their work. They are people whose primary identity is defined by their scholarship. Did nobody in HR raise an objection that treating a professor like this is inhumane, because it certainly makes me weep? The last word on this belongs to Stefan Grimm. ‘They treat us like shit’, he said at the end of his last email to colleagues. And then he ended his life.”

    Like

  3. As a hard working mature undergraduate, hoping to make it into academia, this is extremely depressing. I left a council department which very much had taken on what is described here as the “Foucauldian (sequential) disciplinary regimes” – if a target was met by our department, it was just simply raised another 20% after a cursory ‘thank you for your outstanding work’ email. There was always a sensation that management believed we had ‘hidden’ what targets we could *really* do, and this was a clever way to tease it out of us. I don’t think they ever thought they’d hit a performance roof… and why indeed should they: the more they could make us increase work, the better they looked and ergo, promotion + bonus. There was simply no ‘stop’ button created or born in mind.

    Last time I visited my old work place, the atmosphere was that of a grave yard. This was two weeks before Christmas.

    I am all for looking at how to improve speed & efficiency, but that should involve processes and equipment – not by whipping people. This was a heart plummeting read… I don’t function well under stress. I certainly could not bring to academia my greatest skills which are to see connections between findings and merge them for new possibilities. You need space to think in this way. How could I find that space, if I was busy panicking over grants/funds and another refused publication?

    Professors will be pushed into a corner where creating fraudulent positive data will be the only way to receive that grant and survive. Science will become a joke….

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great blog, but I’m afraid UCU is doing virtually nothing to challenge this, beyond some good work supporting local branches when managers seek to introduce such regimes for the first time.

    Like

    1. I agree. UCU need to stop being brought out by management who like to rationalise working together by giving perks to reps for keeping the piece for them when they bring out that devicive phrase ‘and any other thing that might be required of you’…

      Like

      1. Speaking as a UCU branch committee member, I haven’t noticed any perks coming my way as a result.

        More to the point, if you’re not happy with the way your UCU branch operates, what are *you* doing to get involved?

        Like

  5. This is ersatz market economics imposed by managers of public institutions who think this kind of meanness is what a market for ideas looks like.

    I see two non-exclusive options for displacing this kind of manager.

    1. Democratise the university – restore the self-government of the university by its faculty (Oxbridge style), and this time include a stronger role for students. The problem is that the centralisation of the British political system means that Whitehall would still have control over funding and targets, just as for local councils. So this must also be a struggle for the sovereignty of the university as a public institution independent of government.

    2. Privatise the university – take control of this cult of entrepreneurship rather than being merely its subject. This has most chance of success for teaching institutions: British students have suffered greatly from the unsustainable demands on lecturers’ time, especially since the quality of teaching itself is one of the things that is least measured and tracked by the central government. There may be a real market for (non-profit) independent universities staffed by dedicated and qualified teachers to teach subjects that students are interested in and excited by rather than merely things that will look good on their CV. (Martha Nussbaum’s defence of the liberal arts college model is pertinent here.)

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  6. There are deeper outcomes involved – in the past, researchers were willing to take risks and do experiments that may not work out, but might also lead to fundamental advancements of the field. With all the box ticking now-days, this would be considered inefficient and most researchers instead spend time asking easy questions and doing fashionable, but less valuable research instead of taking risks.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yep. This is happening all over: people are being stretched. HR departments and managers are colluding to stretch people to the point where many of us break. There is a view that you can always get a new employee to take their place.

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on Foucault News and commented:
    This is the society of control outlined by Deleuze (1990). Foucauldian (sequential) disciplinary regimes (Morrish, 2011) give way to ones in which, just as one hurdle is surmounted, another, higher one presents itself, with the end point always at the far horizon. We find this reflected in management documents on performance review with a lexicon of journeys, milestones and checkpoints, but the individual is never allowed to arrive at the promised reward. Gatekeeping measures such as the imposition of perpetual training, perpetual review of publications or multiple-staged applications for promotion, must be endured, even to participate.

    Like

  9. Expecting management to change is a dead end. They are victims and subjects of the same paradigm – which I consider to be based on Taylorist notions about productivity and individuals, as much as it is Foucauldian. This approach will only change when students demand more face to face teaching and time from teaching staff for their money and when government and industry see overall economic productivity, innovation and research ‘outputs’ fall because the long term production of knowledge suffers from this regime. This may take considerable time. Get out now if you can, or be prepared for a long war!

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  10. I can only say that the tenure system has, for too long, sheltered inadequate professors that spend their early years publishing and their later years resting on their laurels. The fact is that if you are a teacher, teach well enough to do well on evaluations. If you are a researcher, produce research that ultimately pushes the fold. The standards should be set by department committees and perhaps not HR dotes who know nothing of the subject matter in a given context; nonetheless, there should be standards. With the vast majority of professors falling somewhere in between providing excellent teaching and excellent research, it seems fitting that performance measurement should be the device that “cleans house”.

    As a former academic, I find Professor Grimm’s death tragic. However, I believe it would be unfair to foist the blame solely on performance management. People that take their own lives are suffering from a much deeper and complicated set of problems than what’s happening at the moment and, if that momentary challenge leads to suicide, it suggests a shaky foundation in any case. I say this, not to sound insensitive but to suggest that the challenges Dr. Grimm faced were probably multi-faceted and, to learn from these, we should appropriately view his actions in that context.

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    1. To TBA
      I am not talking of professors languishing in oak-lined offices here. The whole point is that performance management has been ‘weaponized’ and all too often used as a way of victimizing academics disfiguring the careers of those who are not just competent but excellent. The parameters of what counts as ‘performance’ shift arbitrarily so that actual excellence may be defined out of performance altogether. In the UK currently, all that matters is the garnering of ££ for the university by successful grant capture or by bringing in overseas PhD students. Leading in your field no longer counts for much. We are all accountable for the public investment in our work – so why, then, are we being chided by universities for not spending enough of it. Colleagues in science report that there is little interest in the actual research done or published – only in the amount of grant capture (which features in league tables). “As a former academic” – things have moved very fast in the last 2 years. Universities are punitive and perverse places to work. There are few principles or procedures which structure our working conditions now. The punishments and what imagined transgressions might occasion them increase daily. Just ask your former colleagues who are still there.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. This is a person who, faced with the inadequacies of the system, chooses to blame his neighbour. You need to give more thought to what you’re saying, sir/madam, otherwise you pollute the discourse with what is nothing more than prejudice (which, no doubt, has something to do with envy – “look at those professors “resting on their laurels”, i.e. enjoying at my expense…)

      Like

  11. The problem is not confined to universities and for the sake of returning to management as properly understood it will have to be tackled. Doing so will not be easy and will involve job losses because there are now structures, departments and staff whose role is to redefine and maintain the purpose of their organisation to their own advantage. Put simply conventional management needs to regain control. Try this: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/on-taking-management-speak-seriously-firing-its-users-and-retaking-control/

    Like

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