Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education.  Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.

Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities.  In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation.  Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures.  As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed.  Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).

There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.

As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA).  It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now.  The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others.  By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’

So we’re back to complementarity.  In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity.  Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table.  Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles.  But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them.  ‘Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.

An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual.  An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project.  One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe.  But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements.  They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.

Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone.  But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future?  It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive.  Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.

The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem.  Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course.  But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks.  Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation.  Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning?  Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged?  We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.

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4 thoughts on “Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

  1. Absolutely agree with the need to blur the boundaries between executive/professional dimensions of a University and its academic functions. However there are inherent dangers that widespread adoption of such a new model could become the desirable norm for ambitious individuals.

    The optimum is truly one that is person-centric; one where its is the skills and ambitions of the individual that dominated the agenda and then the organisation wraps its functionality and structures around those skills. The days of organograms and concrete structures need to disappear; replaced by temporary structures that meet both the needs of the organisation at a particular point in time and, at the same time, can be delivered through the skills available either within the organisation or through external recruitment. Any organogram that exists more than two, maybe even one year, should be redundant …. after all when you appoint someone into a substantive supervisory or management job, you expect them to change it and improve the organisation – you do not expect them to become part of a Weber machine bureaucracy!

    • Absolutely agree there is an academic/professional divide in Universities and that there is a need for Universities to change. One of the difficulties appears to be how deeply entrenched old style University structures are and how slow they are to change – ‘Weber machine bureaucrats’ do not want to relinquish their (entrenched) positions of power and authority!

  2. Nothing is complete, nothing is perfect. From an early stage in life, the onus is on being correct and being as close to perfect as possible. Mistakes are frowned upon. No wonder there is always a trend toward completeness.

    While there are times to drill down and specialise, the (generally) artificial divides you speak of stop the necessary bigger-picture view.

    Individual people have individual strengths and weaknesses. They change over the years, as do the situations. Movement should be where it matters and where it should work well. That requires a view of the whole, not divided sections.

    These ‘parallel tracks’ separate at the very point in which they should be tied up. And, as you suggest, a flexible approach is necessary in order to focus on the current strengths and the future potential of others, rather than looking at a crude historical path of the type of roles they have undertaken in the past. The crude approach doesn’t reasonably tell the story of an individual and it doesn’t help anyone in determining a useful future for anyone involved.

  3. Pingback: Policy advisers: out of the top corridor and into the classroom? | thehistoricalimperative

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