exploring the academic administrator divide1

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A report on a research project on how academics and administrators work together in universities.


  • Maree ConwayReport on ATEM Peter Karmel Travel GrantTEM Conference, September 2008Phoenix Rising or War of the Worlds?

    Exploring the Academic-Administrator Divide: Myth or Reality?

  • In the eyes of all Professors, all administrators are an evil. Say to yourself every morning I am an evil but I am a necessary one.

    Sir Eric Ashby, 1966

  • There is a great deal of talent in the academic staff of higher education institutions. How they manage the systems which surround them and still find time to make a contribution to academic programmes is a minor miracle...There is an old adage that administration is too important to be left to the administrators. It seems to me that this is certainly true of the sorts of reforms [in the Green and White papers] we now need to discuss.Cullen, 1988

  • 3. The data5. Myth or reality?4. Discussion1. Background or why did I bother?2. The literature

  • Universities are my reference point, so I use that terminology.

    Divides probably exist in any organisation where different professional groups interact, and where professional groups are managed.Caveat

  • A bit about meLong and good career in CAEs, TAFE, universities2007.integrating long term thinking into strategy development, using futures approachesManaged their planning units1999-20052005-2007

  • Why did I bother?Began to ponder in 1990s.Elected ATEM VP in mid-1990s.Started my PhD in late 1990s:Neighbouring Professions/Impact of Professionalisation on university workATEM President in 2001-2003.Campus Review Back Page articlesListening, pondering some more.One more go!

  • The future of tertiary education is uncertain

  • What is the role of managers in an uncertain environment?

  • In particular, how is that management role understood by staff, universities and government?Is it defined consciously or sub-consciously - as a divide?

  • In almost all higher education institutions there is a them and us aspect to the manager-academic relationship, which will vary from nothing more sinister than staff club banter to real conflict and tension when perhaps the one topic that academic departments can agree on is the need to prune the management or the administration. Holmes, 1989

  • Why this topic?

  • Talking about a divide assumes there is one.

    The Issue

  • Solutions are being identified

    Eg: partnership (Shattock, 2000); redefining long held assumptionsand work tasks (Seyd, 2000)

  • So, if there are solutions being offered, there must be a divide


  • Is there an academic-administrator divide?

    How do we know?

    How is it experienced by administrators and managers on the ground?

    My questions

  • If the divide does exist, should anything be done about it?

    My questions

  • Is the divide blurring?

  • Are we just experiencing the next evolution of the university as a workplace?

  • TerminologyManagerAdministratorAllied StaffAcademicProfessionalTeamworkPartnership


  • Contextincreasing complexity of university management:massification, diversification, managerialism/corporatisation, exteriorisation, accountability, andchanging expectations.The Literature

  • The same drivers of change affect academic and administrative work.

    Each group, however, has responded differently.Drivers of Change

  • From an administrator:

    university administration has been transformedby external pressures (Shattock, 2000)

    The Literature

  • From an academic:

    Organisationally speaking, we have AIDSa new diseasesweeping through higher educationtakes the form of corporate management, a particularly nasty virus which has the potential to cripple and destroy the social fabric of relationships (Smyth, 1989).

    The Literature

  • Hostile, conflictThem and usGeneral and non-general staffFracturedUneasy and ambivalent relationshipsCompetitive collaboratorsDiarchy: parallel hierarchiesClear fault linesDescriptors

  • The complementarity but also tension and rivalry between academics and administrators has been a long standing feature of the university landscape (Lindsay, 1995).Problems of staff communicationamong academic and general staffrepresent major barriers to the effective operation of our universities (Coaldrake, 1998).

    Some broad statements

  • Little understanding of administrative role:terminology (non-academic)invisible workers (Szerekes, 2004)occupation not recognised beyond administrators themselves (Dobson & Conway, 2003)unhappy about lack of appreciation for role and lack of acknowledgement for increasingly specialist skills (McInnis, 1998)

  • Increasingly specialised roles in response to context complexityBlurring of roles and boundaries (Pickersgill et al, 1998, Whyley & Callender, 1998)Competitive collaborators (Conway, 1998)New professionals (learning technologies) (Gornall, 1999)Understanding the difference between governance and management as sources of power (Dobson & Conway, 2003)Work and Roles

  • Little understanding about how academics and administrators work together, except at local level:McMaster (2002): how deans and faculty managers work togetherHaywood (2004): 70% of faculty managers satisfied with role

  • Separate culture (Clark, 1982) Separate values (Becher & Kogan, 1992)Administrators generally predisposed to appreciate importance of scholarly values, but important differences in values and motivations: considerable shared ground in outlooks and attitudes (McInnis, 1998)


  • Dearing Report (1997) subject specialists, niche finders, new professionals.

    Whitchurch (2008 forthcoming)Bounded, cross-boundary, unbounded professionals, blended professionalsthe emerging third spaceIdentity

  • the paper outlines four common complaints about professors with regard to governance: ignorance, inability to see the big picture, a self-serving approach and a lack of appreciation for the role of administrators.

    Us vs Them in Academe,Inside Higher Ed, 4 August 2008Us vs Them in Academe

  • Technician-academicClerical-academicMarketing professionals-academic

    Other Divides Emerging

  • And alternative models

    Androgynous professional (Moodie, 1994) scholarship, authority by relevant expertise, and closer links between power and accountability.

  • The Relationship ContinuumDivide?Partnership?How are these stages along the continuum defined and interpreted?And, where are we nowreally?Androgynous?

  • A lot of assumptions underpin talk of both divides and partnerships.

    I wanted to see if these assumptions were myth or reality.

  • The Method Exploratory Qualitative Self Selecting In the field Australia, UK and New Zealand Workshops, focus groups, questionnaires and interviews

  • Intended to collect data from only administrative staff because the role is usually defined in terms of academic work

    In all sessions, academic staff also attended

  • Divide deliberately chosen to trigger discussion.The Method

  • The Method

  • How would you describe the relationship between academics and administrators in your institutions, and in universities more generally?CLA Litany

  • What systemic factors (trends or drivers of change) do you believe are driving the relationship described by the litany?CLA Social Causes

  • What assumptions are driving the social causes?What creates meaning for your group around the relationship?Whose perspective is dominant?CLA Worldviews

  • What impact would the continuation of the relationship in its current form have on the management of universities?

    Create a quick snapshot of your discussion, using imagery/myth/metaphor.CLA Myth/Metaphor

  • Is the divide real or myth?If real, what action do we need to take to address the divide if any?If myth, how do we dispel it, or do we ignore it?Consider:what assumptions need to change?which group can help the most? how do we rebuild the issue (30 second elevator pitch)?


  • I wanted to dig down into how people experienced their role in terms of their relationship with academics, and to surface different perceptions.Why this method?

  • The Data

  • Participants

    Gender80% female20% maleLocation47% in faculties27% centrally (corporate)13% academic support units13% otherClassification49% Senior Managers44% Middle ManagersContact83% have direct contact with academics15% have indirect contactLength of time in Higher Education42% up to 10 years36% between 10 and 20 years22% 21 years +

  • More use negative words to describe their personal relationships with academics.More middle managers describe their relationships with negative words.More senior managers describe their relationships with positive words.All describe the relationship generally with more negative wordsDescriptors

  • If you dont do teaching or research, then you are just a parasite.A work in progress.Can be brutal.The enemy within.Admin-free Fridays.Academic ideal is alive and well even though we know it is dead.Litany

  • Administrators do not respect or appreciate the stresses faced by academics nor the effect of policies on students. Academics do not understand the thinking or methods employed by administrators.


  • Administrators are high cost and low value, whereas academics are high value and the cost doesnt matter.They dump work on me that they should do.When it all goes wrong, I have to bail them out.We never question their expert

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