PDR in the Disneyfied university

There was a story recently about George Washington University, Washington, DC, and its requirement for senior staff to attend sessions in corporate culture provided at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, by the Disney Institute, the specialist leadership consultancy arm of the Disney corporation. Apparently, the Disney consultants had told managers that there was an absence of culture at the university.

I doubt they found an absence of culture at GWU, rather, the management consultants were keen to promote a change of culture. Academics, of course, have plenty of culture, from a regard for aesthetics, ethics and a common respect for academic values like the pursuit of truth, knowledge and academic freedom. But what they don’t appreciate in large measure is corporate culture. This will need to be imposed. GWU should have forsaken Mickey Mouse in Florida and instead crossed the Atlantic to embrace the full Cruella de Vil experience in the management suites of British universities. Here they could have learned from 30 years of colonizing UK academics within the corporate enclosure.

At GWU, faculty were encouraged to attend the training event. In the UK, participation in corporate culture is inescapable. One prerequisite, of course, is to accept that the university is a corporation. Among managers and human resources, you rarely find the word ‘university’ uttered; for them, it is a ‘business’. The second stage of the project is to engineer the forcible citation of corporate discourse by academics in order to enforce compliance and banish autonomous academic identities. Just as in a Disney film, resemblance to reality is not a requirement.

I offer one example from around 2014. Along with other professors, readers and principal lecturers, I was asked to act as appraiser to more junior colleagues. It didn’t seem to matter that none of us had line management responsibilities nor any ability to affect the opportunities for advancement of those colleagues.

My investiture into the managerial tier took place via a day’s training event entitled ‘Personal Development Review (PDR) Training for Managers’, led by members of the staff development section. The obvious contradiction, that none of the trainees was actually a manager, was pointed out by a colleague. This apparent disqualification was ignored by the facilitators, but it was just the first of the fictions we were invited to inhabit as the internal coherence of the management’s imaginary world dissembled under the force of our critique.

Cascading of the Strategic Plan

It turned out I had a bit of a head start on my fellow learners as my research interest was in university managerial discourse and particularly strategic plans. I had collected and absorbed most of them for the book I was co-authoring, Academic Irregularities. According to the university’s policy, the rationale of PDR was to make sure that all employees’ objectives were in alignment with the university’s strategic plan, and that, consequently, those strategic priorities should cascade down into the objectives delivered by schools, teams and individuals. However, when I asked the other participants, the trainers themselves, the head of department and the dean who were observing the training, if any of them could outline the priorities of the current strategic plan, none could. It looked as if, even at the outset, the system was doomed to fail on fundamental principles.

Not a good start, you’d think. But even this slam dunk was waved away as inadmissible by the trainers and managers even as the participants questioned the scheme’s viability. At this point I read from the policy document which warned, ‘PDR which is ineffective will lack credibility and is damaging to the institution’. Then we were really off to the races.

Imaginary ‘teams’

Next to receive scrutiny were the assumptions around ‘teams,’ an organizing unit preferred by the university over traditional departments. As academics, we saw teams as administrative units but, in all other ways, they were considered superfluous to the ways we conducted our work. They were often comprised of people who were not actually working together in terms of teaching or research. So, to a large extent, the ostensive teams of the school were managerial fictions, and it was hard to see how these imaginary units could have objectives. There were other teams, however, which had formed organically in pursuit of teaching or research collaboration, often organised across disciplines, institutions and even international boundaries. How could our contribution to these endeavours be evaluated, we asked?

SMART objectives

When conducting a PDR, we were told, we should set objectives for our appraisees which were SMART. The first four occupied us for quite some time: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/ Realistic. All were problematic.

Specific – Imagine, I volunteered, your appraisee pledges to write a book which subsequently turns into a series of articles, or vice versa. Or, I may promise to work on diversifying assessment methods, and then the next curriculum review reverses that policy and instead requires a focus on fewer methods (this had happened). Will we be judged to have failed? The very nature of academic work accentuates the unplanned, the unanticipated, the unknown. Requiring specifics ensures that the process becomes an exercise in offering up the tokenistic, already-completed specific task, and is hardly a forcing ground for ‘stretching’.

Measurable – Quantitative or qualitative? If the latter, what methods of evaluation are used? How can we measure work which may extend outside of the university? Even if the measures are quantitative, we all know that the criteria for performance shift frequently: publications: quality, impact, citations; grant capture; external recognition. Trying to keep up with vacillating parameters of academic performance measurement is rather like trying to apprehend a desert mirage. The trainers brightened at the prospect of being able to offer a solution, and we were directed to the university’s Competency Framework. Competencies are described as “a set of behaviour patterns or characteristics which distinguish high performers from average or poor performers in a given role”. I pointed out that this offered little delicacy of scale for distinguishing between levels. The academic role requires a range of disparate competencies: teaching, research, social acumen, leadership, administrative efficiency, pastoral caring, knowledge of the university, careers guidance, fundraising, to name just a few ‘key skills.’ Who is to say my hard-won certificate in Gold Standard Customer Service should be eclipsed by the publication of a prize-winning monograph?

Achievable/Realistic ­– The university had been an early adopter of workload models and we were still being persuaded of their infallibility. It was already apparent that the model underestimated the hours for every single category of the academic workload, and so inevitably provided a poor basis for realistic objective setting or evaluation. When asked to give an example of a SMART objective for an L/SL under my line management, I offered the task of fitting in all your meetings, report writing, emails, exam boards, open days, curriculum development and PDR within the allocation for academic management and administration, for which a token 40 hours were allocated, up to a maximum of 175 hours. The rather flushed facilitator expressed concern that this was probably not an achievable objective. I responded that such a model was going to result in very exhausted, disenchanted, brittle and demotivated lecturers who are unlikely to convey a sense of purposeful aspiration to a PDR reviewee. When there is a dysfunctional workload model which has unattainable objectives sutured into its design, the only thing ‘stretched’ will be their goodwill and mental health.

Personal reflection

At the end of the session, I and several others had reached the conclusion that this PDR model would continue to fail. It was designed to addresses concerns held two decades ago about lack of accountability in universities which have been addressed by the proliferation of tools for monitoring the performance of academics: the National Student Survey, module evaluations, the Research Excellence Framework, internal and external quality audits, and even the hourly ‘tenko’ imposed by the estates office. It was both redundant and ridiculous. It did not meet academics’ realities nor their desires for development opportunities: time to research and develop teaching and opportunities for collaboration and networking.

The training protocol required that the trainee engage with a process of post-event reflection. This I dutifully did, sharing the account above with my manager, staff development and human resources in the hope of promoting dialogue, as requested. There were complaints from the staff development facilitators to my head of department. I had prepared for and fully engaged with the session, but my real crime was that I had exposed the pretence and corporate posturing of the neoliberal university-as-business. I had refused to assimilate to the managerial culture and this was seen as insubordination.

I’m not, generally, opposed to performance review. I have blogged previously about performance monitoring systems hereand here. But at a bare minimum it needs to be developmental, rather than judgmental, and it needs to reflect the experiences and values which obtain in academic workplaces. If it doesn’t, then we might as well all take off for our seminar in Disneyland….or maybe that should be Banksy’s Dismaland. http://dismaland.co.uk/


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