Academic Citizenship? Or a Question of Survival?

Are academics being forced to give up altruism, driven instead by a narrow individualism and performance targets? And, if they are, are they abandoning a form of citizenship, an innate tendency to prioritize the public good? Or is it rather university managers who are at fault in prioritizing apparent short-term gains rather than appreciating the essential nature of academic work?

These questions arise from an excellent review of “academic citizenship” by John Morgan and Chris Havergal, just published in Times Higher Education. They talked to a wide range of academics across different kinds of universities, asking them about almost all the things outside the narrow scope of formal teaching and research: external examining; curricula and qualification design; student mentorship, support and reference writing; peer review of publications; editorial work; evaluations for funding bodies; working for scholarly societies; public engagement and outreach. Together, these tasks are seen as reciprocal, sometimes voluntary; contributions to a form of social capital that gives universities a collective and distinctive identity as a type of institution.

Responses to the THE survey were mixed, thoughtful. Everyone identified with the pressures of competing demands, more work. Given this, some wondered about the value of this “extra” work and others recognized its benefits, regretting that these could be lost. The overall direction of John Morgan and Chris Havergal’s take is that the combined demands of formal teaching and recognized research outputs are squeezing out “academic citizenship”, and impoverishing universities as a result.

This much is common cause. But there are further questions that follow on from this consensus and, I believe, bear thinking about a bit. For while there will be a number of “organizational altruists” in any workplace, the implication here is that academics are inherently altruistic as a class, and different. After all, it would be odd to make a case for, say, “retail citizenship”, which leads the staff of Walmart to volunteer for additional work to build the corporate brand. And in my experience the range of attitudes across an academic staffroom has much the same variation as any group of people working together in a common institution; some are mean and self-interested, some are professional and detached and a few have an inherent generosity and commitment that can make all the difference. Seen this way, “academic citizenship” is much the same as the social capital that gives any organization a distinctive identity.

From this angle, the question is a little different. Rather than asking whether academics have been a different kind of person, now being forced to be more ordinary and self-serving by a cold and calculating managerialism, the issue looks like this; does the social capital built and remade by these kinds of “extra” work have an inherent value for the university of the future, or is it rather a left-over from a disappearing past that can be safely trimmed away?

A fair number of John Morgan and Chris Havergal’s interviewees referred to the tyrannies of their universities’ workload management systems; the various ways of counting and allocating hours and proportions of effort against notional prototypes that, in Britain, feed into TRAC, the mandatory Transparent Approach to Costing.

I have no doubt that many universities’ workload management systems – or the ways in which they are applied – are a work of the devil. Teaching, research, publication and administrative tasks merge into one another as a rich and mutually reinforcing continuity. Requiring that this continuum is disaggregated into discrete categories, each allocated a number of hours a week, is to create a model of academic work that, often, bears little relationship to what a person actually does. And, because the outcomes of workload allocation can have a significant effect on a person’s professional life, these exercises can create a dangerous office politics, with the “reward” of more research time, and the “punishment” of a greater teaching load. So while aggregated workload information helps Finance Managers mitigate risk and balance the books, and HR Directors describe the characteristics of their workforce, it has little to do with quality; with inspiring students to realize their potential, or with making and applying new knowledge.

But if universities’ social capital – academic citizenship – is being decimated by the application of workload management systems that have little place for this “extra” work, will this damage the core mission of teaching and research? Yes, it will. This is because the kinds of tasks reviewed in John Morgan and Chris Havergal’s survey are neither the products of a quirky academic altruism nor now-redundant vestiges of what universities used to be. They are, rather, essential to the ways in which our knowledge systems work, whether in teaching or in research.

It’s long been established that academics’ primary loyalties are to their disciplines, fields of research or professional identity. Archaeologists are most comfortable at conferences with other archaeologists; Physicists for the most part make big research breakthroughs as part of large consortia that cut across the boundaries of many institutions. These disciplinary identities are underpinned by common sets of theories and methodologies that are built up through the teaching curriculum and kept alive through the knowledge shared in the external examination system. Interdisciplinary teaching and research isn’t a grey melding of these ways of working; its rather the innovation that comes from, for example, juxtaposing the coding of DNA with the binary logic of computer science, or by putting an economist in the same room as a historian. All the “extra” work identified in the THE’s overview is the effort that keeps these systems of intellectual reciprocity alive; none of it can be effectively reduced into a workload allocation system and managed as an inventory.

Taken together, these “invisible colleges” are a massive set of global networks and a huge asset. With the rise of the “knowledge economy” accountants and investors are finding increasingly significant ways to estimate the asset value of knowledge networks. Ironically – because they invented these systems of sharing – universities are way behind in valuing this aspect of their work; here, TRAC is about as opaque as its possible to get.

But most academics, in contrast, are driven by the voracious needs of their specific networks. Employment, tenure and promotion depend on recognition through citation and conferences, peer review and editorial work enable an understanding of how the system works. Today’s postgraduate students are tomorrow’s professors; taking the time to mentor and support now will prompt reciprocity down the line. This may be altruism, but its also sensible, shrewd and self-interested. Its how the vast machine of university teaching and research works.

Given this, universities that let their attention to short-term, narrow and mechanistic measurement get out of hand risk everything. If academics are engulfed by the kinds of workload systems that make it impossible for them to build the social capital of their networks – to be “citizens” – they will become more and more marginalized in their “invisible colleges”. In turn, or course, their universities will be marginalized.

“Invisible colleges” have been around since universities were invented. Arabic and Latin were common languages of communication for itinerant scholars moving between libraries with their collections of rare and irreplaceable manuscripts. Our digital world now connects academics everywhere at anytime, making the “extra” work of keeping these networks live and relevant central to the quality of teaching and to emerging research agendas.

This is not just a question of citizenship; it’s an issue of survival.

**John Morgan and Chris Havergal. “Is Academic Citizenship Under Strain?” Times Higher Education, 29 January 2015. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.aspx?storyCode=2018134

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