by Harry on March 14, 2009

Somewhere back in the mists of time, I seem to remember our own Daniel criticized academics for not taking seriously the fact that management is a job, something that can be done badly or well (the only cite I can find is here, but I’ll link to the long version if someone finds it for me, if, that is, it isn’t something I just dreamed). I suspect that there are two (respectable) reasons for this. One is that academic managers are drawn from the ranks of academics and given little if any training. This narrow pool has already selected out a lot of people who might actually be good at it, and as a result academics rarely get to experience good management directly. Second, management is something that is much easier to recognise as a real and important skill if you have seen some good examples of it than if you have only seen bad or indifferent examples. (I think of it as a bit like my experience with dental work; the first time I had work done with a good anaesthetic it was something I couldn’t possibly have imagined before).

Here’s a long post from aaron swartz which I recommend to all who doubt that management is an important skill, and recommend, even more, to anyone who is being thrown into management tasks without much training or help, especially in an environment with unclear lines of authority and/or an anti-authority culture. If you’re planning to become principal of a school its all useful, but you might especially want to look at Point 2a and Point 9.



Kevin Donoghue 03.14.09 at 7:05 pm

My guess is you were looking for this.


John Quiggin 03.14.09 at 7:54 pm

To restate the opposing position, what I said in response to Daniel’s post was that there is a skill of management, but:
(1) It’s not much related to what’s taught in MBA courses and similar
(2) It’s not much selected for as people rise in organizational hierarchies
(3) It’s not necessarily transferrable from one environment to another

In this context, the fact that advice from a bright (but, I’d venture, untrained in management) guy like Aaron Swartz is useful only reinforces the point.


Eszter Hargittai 03.14.09 at 8:18 pm

I certainly agree that there is nothing trivial about good management skills and I wish there were opportunities to discuss related issues in a Ph.D. program. It’s especially tricky if the type of program in which you work (e.g., where you might have a lab or research group) is not the type in which you got training (although I suspect this may be rather rare).

Regarding Aaron’s piece, do people find the following likely to be the case (quoting Aaron)?

One of the weird facts of life is that for just about everything you hate doing, there is someone out there who loves doing it. (There are even people who get a real kick out of cleaning toilets.)

I suspect in the least it would depend on context. I realize people are very different, but doing it 40 hrs/week many years in a row in an environment where people don’t clean up after themselves, it’s a bit hard to imagine.

(My own personal experience with this is some months of bathroom cleaning in college, but it only concerned a few hours one day a week and no more than maybe two dozen stalls in buildings that hosted very few parties and where residents were mostly respectful of the use of shared toilets. This experience was fine, but it’s hardly comparable to what I describe above.)


Eszter Hargittai 03.14.09 at 8:29 pm

Regarding the piece in general, there are some good pointers in it, but I would say that it assumes a certain ideal type scenario that is not going to be realistic in many situations no matter how hard you try. Some of it is especially hard to imagine applied to certain academic situations where resources are always tight and so it is not at all obvious that you can hire people smarter than you and people who will be equally dedicated to the tasks at hand. I found quite a few comments not at all generalizable and some of them rather naive depending on the context (but perhaps I’m trying to apply them to a context for which they were not intended).


Tom T. 03.14.09 at 9:48 pm

Law firms suffer from the same lack of management skills, as the people in charge have been trained as lawyers and not as managers.


harry b 03.14.09 at 10:11 pm

I think that, as with all advice of this kind, what you have to do is read it while discounting those parts that clearly don’t apply in your circumstances (I might have said, for example, that for the most part public school principals can’t hire people smarter than them because they don’t have much hiring power). I was thinking, as reading it, of a particular context in which about 3/4ths of what he says has considerable application, but in which much of the other 1/4 is worth thinking about even though it doesn’t apply.


rdb 03.14.09 at 11:53 pm

This Ockham’s Razor on management may be of interest (link has podcast & transcript).


Delicious Pundit 03.15.09 at 12:14 am

Showrunning is like this — you start out as a writer, and then everyone is coming to you for decisions, including the network, who can fire you. Actors and writers, particularly, require constant care and feeding. (Running a writers’ room, where ideas and lines are constantly being pitched, is basically saying “no” a hundred times a day. I think it is important to be delighted when you can say “yes”.) There’s no reason to think that writing talent would correlate with the talent needed to do all the other jobs; and, as I have found, it doesn’t.


David Weman 03.15.09 at 1:35 am

He’s very big on firing people, which isn’t a simple process in most industries in most developed countries, and I don’t know if it should be.


Another Damned Medievalist 03.15.09 at 4:57 am

It happens a lot. I posted something the preparations academics get for management a while back. I think swartz is generally on the right track, but I think one of the things that academics often don’t recognise is that managers are even necessary, let alone doing an actual *job*. (I’m not talking about actual upper-level administrators — they are a mixed bag)


Noumenon 03.15.09 at 7:58 am

Sometimes people clean the toilets because then they can think about themselves, “If it weren’t for people like me who are really dedicated, a lot of stuff would go undone!” Full-time toilet cleaners probably stress how they get to work alone without much stress.


Chris Bertram 03.15.09 at 8:18 am

As an academic with, by now, quite a lot of management experience (5 years as a departmental head and three as a kind of sub-dean) , I have to say that Swartz’s list is no use to me whatsoever. It includes a bunch of truisms and platitudes such as “don’t procrastinate”. Yes, thanks, I realised already that procrastination was bad and so did everyone else – getting yourself not to do it is the trick, stating it like that is about as useful as “be good!” as an injunction. The stuff about hiring and firing people is close to inapplicable in academic contexts (opportunities to do one or the other do come along, but mostly you have to deal with what you have). And most academics, at least if they get on with their colleagues, will find themselves in the (temporary) position of managing people they like so “don’t become close friends with the people you work with” is useless advice when you already are friends and want to stay friends.

Meanwhile, Swartz’s text has absolutely nothing to say about the real skills you need: how to persuade people to accept and co-operate with necessary decisions that make life less comfortable for them; how to negotiate over resources with people who have more technical know-how about what’s actually needed than you do; how to steer a course between the people above you and the people below, given that each expects you to do their bidding with the other, and each holds _you_ responsible when things don’t work out, etc etc.


Hidari 03.15.09 at 11:33 am

The problem isn’t with managers per se. The problem is with the process of appointing them. How many times have we all ended up working for a boss (or ‘boss’) who had no interest in what ‘we’ were doing but was merely going through the motions because they viewed this as just being another step on the corporate/managerial ladder?

The other problem is with diffuse/opaque hierarchies. I’ve had at least two jobs with two (sometimes three) bosses,none of whom had an obvious veto over the others, leading to a situation where I just didn’t know what the hell I was meant to do. This has a lot to do with the de facto ‘privatisation’ of Universities that has gone on well away from the public view over the last few decades.

Ultimately only some form of rationalisation and then democratisation of large organisations will solve the managerial problem.


Henry 03.15.09 at 11:40 am

Chris – I think this is because (a) management in academia as a department head is quite unusual – professors and lecturers have much more autonomy than the average employee, and (b) because Aaron is writing from the perspective of the entrepreneur who doesn’t have to answer to higher-ups. The department chair or similar is in a quite unusual position in that her responsibility is delegated in two directions, I think – she is responsible both to her colleagues (who may very likely have elected her), and to the university as a whole. This is what creates the cross-pressures you describe – while they work in many management situations, they are much more marked in the university than elsewhere, given the way that university governance works. So the management skills there accentuate, I think a set of skills which is relatively unusual although by no means entirely unique. Aaron’s suggestions seemed rather more than ‘truisms and platitudes’ to me.


Tim 03.15.09 at 1:52 pm

Chiming in on the “truisms and platitudes” note, in my experience managing change (rather than established departments with all the abovementioned cross-pressures) the difficulty with management is that it is often doing the bloody-obvious-thing that otherwise does not happen. One “atom of management” that is needed almost every day is the process of getting a number of highly capable individuals that each hold part of a problem to speak productively with each other and solve it together: “go into that meeting and do not come out without result X”. There are many other such tasks with are self-evident and seemingly trivial when described but, in the absence of a manager of some kind, do not get done.


Another Damned Medievalist 03.15.09 at 2:01 pm

Henry — I see where Chris is coming from. I’m department chair at the moment. My department is made up of really nice people — 75% almost never get along with each other, 50% of which only speak to each other when they must. And I teach at a very small institution (under 4k students in all schools) in a very small town. There are none of us whose social circles don’t include the people with whom we work. We’re on committees with these people, and most of us feel that we need to get along with all of our colleagues.

And in a lot of institutions like mine, ‘management’ positions like department chair have no teeth. The extent of my actual power is that I can refuse to sign a budget request and I have to do classroom observations of my colleagues. I do not do their annual evals (and in a place as small as mine , that’s good).

And, of course, even in huge departments where there are 20-40 faculty, I’ve never met a Head of School or Department Chair who had no teaching and publishing responsibilities, so swartz’s advice really doesn’t help a lot there, either. The problem for academic managers is that we ARE doing a job, and it’s an important job, but it’s never our only job.


bianca steele 03.15.09 at 3:55 pm

Advice for how to behave in office or management situations presupposes the corporate environment described in The Organization Man, with everything that goes along with that environment. General advice books assume you have a secretary and staff to whom you can delegate all your noncreative tasks. The one or two advice books I’ve seen that are written for people at the bottom of the pecking order assume the main goal is to climb the corporate ladder. There are one or two books written for professionals who are promoted into supervisory positions over their peers, but they’re the exception.

I’m inclined to agree with Chris but I think I do see Henry’s point. The firstline manager is basically the bottom of the pecking order so far as “corporate” is concerned. I’ve seen situations where these managers were so consumed with tasks for their own manager that they had less than no time to talk to and facilitate things for the people they supervised.


chris y 03.15.09 at 7:39 pm


Stigand 03.15.09 at 7:52 pm

Several of the comments seem to suggest that Swartz’s advice is of limited relevance to academia because the nature of management is different: managers have less power, and enjoy more of a primus inter pares status with those they manage.

This looks like something of a vicious circle. Those put into management positions have little power, therefore they have no scope to manage effectively. But because it’s not in anyone’s interests to develop the skills of effective management, organisations are designed so that managers lack any real authority.

I have no idea whether this is the case in academia, but it’s certainly the case in a number of hospitals I’ve worked in/with. The model works fine if there’s no actual managing to be done, but very often there is, and both staff and management regret it.


marek 03.15.09 at 8:51 pm

One of the weird facts of life is that for just about everything you hate doing, there is someone out there who loves doing it. (There are even people who get a real kick out of cleaning toilets.)

I have no experience of finding people enthused about cleaning toilets. But over a slightly narrower range of values of fun, this is an important management lesson. It took me a long time to realise that doing things myself because I didn’t want to inflict them on others was a really bad idea: I did them late and badly because I had no real enthusiasm for them, while all the time I had people in my team who would have done them quickly and well because they would actually have enjoyed them. That’s also a big reason why it’s so important not to recruit (or at least not just to recruit) people like you. If everyone in the team is too similar to everybody else, there’s a whole lot of important stuff which won’t get done.


Zamfir 03.15.09 at 9:14 pm

I just strarted to read the article, then found this brillinat text in it:

I have never found the traditional methods of hiring — resumés, interviews, quizzes — to be helpful at all. Instead, I look at two things: what someone has done and whether I enjoy spending time with them.

So instead of resumes and interviews, Aaron Schwartz looks at the things people have done, and spends time with them. I guess that instead of paying his employees, he gives them money every month.


Gene O'Grady 03.15.09 at 9:47 pm

When I left academia for the business world ca. 1980, I was amazed to find the level of skills many (not all) managers had, and reflected that maybe one guy I remembered from academia had had that kind of skill. Unfortunately, in the thirty years since that time, partly from the rise of finance as opposed to business, partly from the influence of academic MBA programs, and partly from the rise of guys committed to meeting the expectations of the “investment community” above all else, that kind of manager has largely been purged from American business.

Since this is the kind of place where such things get noticed, “guys” above is neither carelessness nor reflexive sexism; I worked for a number of remarkable women managers but all of them tended to be among the purged.


salient 03.15.09 at 11:01 pm

So instead of resumes and interviews, Aaron Schwartz looks at the things people have done, and spends time with them. I guess that instead of paying his employees, he gives them money every month.

I think Aaron spends the next two paragraphs or so explaining how he distinguishes resumes and interviews from concrete accomplishments and conversational interactions…

Anyhow. My hat into the ring:

Aaron, from 3a: “You need to figure out how your team members work and how you can get them to work together.”

But how to begin? I think 3a should include, “Build a community around explicitly stated and specific goals and themes, each of which has a ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ component: the letter should be clearly defined in terms of concrete accomplishments, and the spirit should illustrate the reason why those concrete accomplishments are intuitively meaningful, desirable to achieve, and relevant to the institution’s raison d’être.” Or let’s call the themes-and-goals-codification part 3b. Also, part 3c: these goals need to be reviewed, challenged, changed periodically, and not just through formal procedure: there should be some continuous informal-yet-consequential dialogue between employees and manager about these themes and goals and whether they can be improved or should be modified.

But especially, apply point 4 to point 3b/3c. It’s important to observe that it’s the manager’s job to recognize and codify the goals of the organization or at least the sub-organization under their direct management, and that this specific job can be done well or poorly. It’s important, in particular, to avoid buzzwords and idealism beyond what’s warranted and welcomed within the community of employees.

Principle underlying 3b. This collection of themes and goals is for the benefit of employees: it orients them and guides specific actions. Since it’s for them, it should be appealing to them!

In particular, the list from 3b should not be targeted toward higher-level managers, but to the employees whose actions are supposed to contribute toward the accomplishment of the goals. E.g.: I know of at least two school districts where the principal writes specific mission statements for the board; these principles both solicit recommendations from teachers and delegate responsibility for drafting themes-and-goals type documents. Which is all well and good, I guess, but all for naught. For naught, because all the paperwork is designed, ultimately, to appeal to the school board and upper-echelon administration rather than provide the teachers with anything remotely useful or sincerely inspiring or helpfully orienting. The process just alienates the employees/teachers: the themes & goals they’re supposed to deeply care about are reduced to x many TPM reports, and the themes are cheapened because the write-ups are designed to appeal to administrators. An example of 3b/3c done poorly!

A more general sign of poorly-done 3b/3c is employees who, while being good employees otherwise under whatever general definition of “good” that you’d prefer, scoff at or ignore the mission statement or the list of goals or whatever you call the organization’s goals and themes. If your employees make fun of the mission statement, or roll their eyes at it, it’s probably a bad mission statement. If your themes and goals sound entirely bureaucratic, and your employees don’t “relate” to them, chances are your themes and goals are poorly constructed. The employees should be able to read the list and say, without sarcasm, “Yep. That’s why I’m here.”


e julius drivingstorm 03.15.09 at 11:08 pm

As a manager, one of my favorite ploys is to feign incompetence where I cannot demonstrate actual ineptitude. This keeps me freed up to concentrate on what I know to be of greater importance. I may be old-school, but it seems to me that Madison Ave. and the Computer Age have effectively transposed a familiar axiom: a pound of prevention is worth an ounce of cure.


garymar 03.16.09 at 1:12 am

I don’t know, everybody assumes that “firing” here absolutely has to mean “termination of employment” at the organization. In many situations, firing can simply mean the person is off that particular project, but still coming in mornings and working at something else.

I’ve seen this during my own graduate work in the lab of a biochemistry researcher. The PI has to juggle multiple projects and assign different people to them, and s/he is perfectly able to reassign grad students and technicians as needed. Also, as the leader and originator of a project involving multiple tenured PIs, s/he may occasionally decide the hassle of working with a particularly obstreperous PI is not worth the benefit, and cut the offender out of the project altogether.

I find his comments useful as a guideline. As everybody says, the devil is in the details, but that’s the whole point of guidelines. You earn your keep by appropriately applying the guideline to the concrete details of your own situation. If the guideline c0uld do your job for you, you wouldn’t have been tasked with it in the first place.


Cryptic ned 03.16.09 at 6:19 am

This is sort of a management-related question, because I am wondering who can do it and what they can do, but…is there any effort being made to fix the Crooked Timber website? No new posts since “Mutation”, and no new comments since this one, are accessible from the frontpage. This has been true with both Firefox and Internet Explorer, on every computer I’ve used in the last week. So presumably a lot of other people are aware of it.


Zamfir 03.16.09 at 7:56 am

Agree with Cryptic Nerd, I found that shows the effect, while without www works fine.


Phill Hallam-Baker 03.16.09 at 1:08 pm

Biggest management mistake I have seen made is the people who think that because they are higher on the org chart it means that they must be cleverer than the people reporting to them.

While I was at the World Wide Web Consortium there was this loser who was trying to get his graduate thesis plugged into the core of the Web protocols. It was clueless, it was stupid but somehow everything that happened had to end up implementing his big idea.

It never occurred to him that the fact that we had helped make the Web a success long before he came on the scene might mean that we had some ideas that were worthwhile.

If folk have BBC America they might have seen a program Dragon’s Den where a bunch of ignorant Venture Capitalists play being Simon Cowell for the cameras. Its a pretty nonsense setup because the amount of capital the VC are bringing to the table is inconsequential. GBP50,000 should not buy you a 20% stake in anything.

Recently some folk set up an ‘innovation’ program at a company I know where employees were invited to submit proposals and such, the final round being a bunch of managers who seemed to be playing Dragon’s Den. So the net effect of the program was that most folk involved are not going to bother again.

Oh and don’t get me started on management consultants. The game there is stroking egos, not getting the job done. Six Sigma is bollocks. The kids from Bane came round to our company and got it believing that it only did software as service and dump everything else. So we ended up with a bunch of products that have a casual similarity in the delivery mechanism but no commonality in the sales channel which is where it counts. And then after a few years divested the businesses at a huge loss.


Henry 03.16.09 at 2:12 pm

We are aware of the technical difficulties and trying to figure out how to fix them. Our best guess is something weird in the server-side caching. There is a work around which involves clicking on the top post, and then clicking through to the home page again, but obviously it is unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, the technical problem precludes us actually announcing the problem or potential workarounds on the home page.


harry b 03.16.09 at 2:34 pm

Chris and others — I don’t know the management system in UK academia well enough to comment exactly, but certainly my experience of it was that it was not very like the context for which aaron is directing is remarks (much more top down, but with the features Henry mentions). Also, Chris, you have had quite a bit of experience, and I’m not so sure that all of aaron’s comments would seem so irrelevant if you were just thrown into the role without any experience or preparation. A good number of aaron’s comments, it seemed to me, were intended to be bleeding obvious because, as you, he, and I all know a lot of what is bleeding obvious is big news to some people. (The points I recommended for principals seem obvious to me, but they are not emphasized in lots of principal courses, and many principals and aspiring principals are magnificently unaware of them — I’d guess entrepreneurs too).

rdb’s link was pretty good I thought — the comment about the stupidity of the idea that you can become a good manager by reading a book that takes 10 minutes is pertinent here. I took aaron’s comments to be material for reflection for someone starting out, and I not only think they’re pretty good for that, but that anything more would have to get very context-specific.

I say all that, having had very little experience as a manager, and not having liked what I’ve had — but as someone who has watched several managers closely and with a lot of interest.


Cryptic ned 03.16.09 at 3:27 pm

Aha! I never even thought of just removing the www from the URL. That does appear to work.


engels 03.16.09 at 6:40 pm

If managers are the ‘servants’ of workers, as Schwartz suggests in his article, then it seems to follow that workers should have the power to appoint and dismiss them, direct them and set their remuneration.


engels 03.16.09 at 6:53 pm

Also, the closing rhetorical flourish about how managing is such a tough, thankless job that hardly anybody will want to do it seems reminiscent of Plato’s remarks about the onerousness and unattractiveness of philosopher-kinging. I didn’t find Plato’s version of it much more convincing.


harry b 03.16.09 at 8:11 pm

engels (#32): one might think that this is an advantage of the account rather than a reductio.

engels (#33): I, too, thought that was an unnecessary flourish. The grain of truth might be that if you do it well people don’t especially notice that you do it well (but doing something difficult well is a major source of satisfaction for human beings, which is one reason that distributing education and opportunities for doing difficult things well much more equally is important).


Tim 03.16.09 at 8:55 pm

Forgive me, I am new here but I feel a rant coming on.

I thought there were useful things in Schwartz’s article, but I hate the “turn the org chart upside down” nonsense. Neither employees nor managers ever believe it. If you are telling other people what to do you have power over them. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous at best. I also find org charts to be inaccurate pictures of how power and control is distributed throughout the organisation. People spend time playing with them in lieu of actually tackling real problems.

That said, I think it is crucial for any manager to retain a painful sense of her own ignorance and incompentance: everything that counts is being done by the competent people that work for you. You should however beat them at overview of the work, knowledge of the larger goals of the organisation and knowledge of everyone’s skills.

I do not believe that managing academics can be very different from managing any other group of skilled professionals. Managing is not about firing people, that is not the lever you use to get people to perform and in most European companies it is a long an costly process. Managing people involves cheering them on, telling them frankly that behaviour must change, steadfastly defending their interests and having more attention on their growth and development than they have themselves. You can do it without any form of hierarchical power if you can convince those you are managing that what you do is useful.

If you cannot convince them perhaps you should be otherwise engaged.

The heart of the problem for many academic, health and nonprofit organisations is that people work there mainly because they care about the content. They get promoted from the ranks but would be much, much happier doing X rather than managing the doing of X: it is a different skill set which rarely crops up in the same person.


Sebastian 03.16.09 at 9:54 pm

“I thought there were useful things in Schwartz’s article, but I hate the “turn the org chart upside down” nonsense. Neither employees nor managers ever believe it. If you are telling other people what to do you have power over them. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous at best. ”

Isn’t he really describing what he thinks of as the ethos of a good manager. I don’t think he is denying that managers have power over their employees. I think he is saying that if you want to be a good manager you have to focus more on the responsibilities than the power.

Which is probably a good lesson in a lot of areas.


jimbo 03.17.09 at 1:43 am

One of the weird facts of life is that for just about everything you hate doing, there is someone out there who loves doing it. (There are even people who get a real kick out of cleaning toilets.)

This is one of the things I love about the show “Dirty Jobs” – the guys (and it is virtually all guys, sorry) who do the filthiest work always seem to have the biggest smiles on their faces…


joel turnipseed 03.17.09 at 3:35 am

Chris @ 12 is well within the bulls-eye.

If I may expand on three of his points:

1) Communicating up and down the org chart. This is easily the most important function, where “communicating” is taken to mean: “your job is to facilitate the transfer of the maximum amount of data with least noise and fastest cycle-times, while providing the least amount of interruption in ongoing work.” Or something like that.

2) Understanding and negotiating with those who know more than you about how to get things done (while dealing with related asymmetry of your greater knowledge regarding why they need to get done: Repeat three times after me: “3rd Quarter Earnings Call…”). The more I reflect on this one, the more I’m sure the U.S. is screwed long-term from our ridiculous management of risk- and reward-sharing in both our employment and social contracts (especially given increased visibility into both: “So, you wrote the entire MMIX plug-in for Eclipse this weekend–that’s great: I happen to love Donald Knuth! Now when are you going to finish that Drupal form-checking module you’ve been working on all month?” meets “Hey, saw the 10-K we released last week: $220K in revenue per employee, up 23%… Explain to me again why I only got a 4% raise with a 6% bonus this year: Did PwC not have the numbers ready or something?”).

3) Keeping teams motivated and working in same direction/at the same pace (no critical path weirdness; no team pathologies: I once had a senior developer who checked the code of a peer developer of whom he was jealous–but who reported to him on the project–into a CVS directory called “piss bucket”).


JoB 03.17.09 at 4:11 pm

I’m not very informed about the academic environment but I am a manager – not because it is what I like to do most but because it is what I do best given the environment I work in isn’t the environment in which I want to be a subject-matter expert.

The root issue is not, I think, whether managers should be gurus, be more parental or have to enjoy bringing the bad messages … the root issue is as Harry hinted above: manager selection has a basic flaw. Typically the best subject-matter experts survive the pre-selection and after that the final selection stage is limited to a group not necessarily including the best managers (this is a common problem in our complex society; politicians on the ballot are rarely part of the set of people best suited for office).

The only way to solve the problem is to force the selection process to be different. Mind you: the solution is not to select ‘managers’ right away. The worst managers are those that have no expertise whatsoever or have no interest in the field or domain in which they manage. A whole industry of absolutely ridiculous management litterature is predicated on the nonsense that to be a manager is to have some specific stand-alone skill.

PS: I lied, I have some experience in the academic field. In a sabbatical I got a master degree in cognitive sciences and was offered a job as researcher. I would have to settle for half of the pay (which could have been OK) but on my question “given my background, maybe I could help by also helping to manage the department” I got total stupefaction on the other side. Apparently – at least in that University – ‘helping to manage’ was interpreted as a threat to the status quo and they largely preferred to stay oblivious of modern people management experience ;-)

PPS: It would be unfair to single out as per tha above academics – the same reaction would be a natural one for an engineering, a finance, a HR or most every other functional area ;-(


harry b 03.17.09 at 4:18 pm

Well, I don’t find the anecdote in JoB’s PS at all surprising. But I do find it incredibly odd that only academics manage academics. The idea that no-one else could do it well is bizarre. The idea that academic institutions couldn’t recognise non-academics who could do it well is less bizarre, but still implausible.


MarkUp 03.17.09 at 5:45 pm

”The idea that no-one else could do it well is bizarre.”

Perhaps it’s more would [and would stay on ‘happily’] than “could.”


Jeff B 03.17.09 at 8:14 pm

I’ve enjoyed Crooked Timber from afar, because as a union side lawyer for college professors and K-12 teachers in California, I’ve had my hands full. But this is too much up my alley to pass up. Management is a hugely important skill in academia and K-12, but it is virtually non-existent. It’s worse when supposed “leaders of men” are brought in to do the business (Gang of Four and gender marginalia intended), usually former military who can shape the system up.
The scenarios of malfeasance are almost unending (I’m aware of the criticism that from my vantage point, all I see is the bad. Not true, actually. I have great working relationships with people who know what they are doing, also) — and it isn’t just the former military folk.
My day is made up of dealing with principals that use children and parents to undermine classroom teachers who oppose them, misuse of grant funds, rampant bullying, illegal administrator interference in union elections, and bizarre attempts to privatize college courses in public institutions. That was all by lunch.
Believe me, I understand the difference between the merely bad managers and the illegal ones.
At the college level, there are multiple impediments to good management from academics, including that those left of center often have a hard incorporating good management practices (i.e., responsible use of power) into the idea they may have about themselves. It is often not enough for those managers to have compliance, they need the profs under them to agree that the directive is the best possible way the directive could be issued. Since my working definition of power is the ability to change the behavior or conduct of someone (or something) without their direct consent, I don’t think the agreement factor matters much over time. But it is really important to managers who want to believe that their exercise of power is something more than, well, them exercising power.
I also meet many, many managers who don’t know what they wish to accomplish, and seem to have lost sight of why they sought the managerial position to begin with. Once there ambition was satisfied with getting the position, they lose interest.
Thank you, Harry, for raising the subject.


JoB 03.17.09 at 8:47 pm


Well – in another entirely non-joking mood – I don’t think it is bizarre. Not bizarre at all in fact, to manage anything well you have to have at least an understanding, preferably a passion, for the field in which you are managing. If that field happens to be academic in nature I firmly believe that not only do you have to find academic pursuits helpful & crucial but also you have to feel that specific academic pursuit helpful & crucial. So – at least in some shape or form – you have to be some kind of academic. The notion that it is possible to fly in a ‘manager’ to better perform in a ‘position’ is the worst of all.

That being said, insofar as my PS interests you, I was some kind of academic. Not only did I forego a lot of income that year but, more importantly, I graduated cum laude (it is admittedly not the most significant distinction but still: they asked me for a research position so I guess there was something).

I don’t hold a grudge by the way. I find the preselection mechanism for managers (and politicians) is counterproductive but this is how things are. The persons related to the PS were not in the field of sociology or group psychology so they’re not the ones to be making breakthroughs in this.

PS: what is the academic field studying ‘managerialness’? It certainly isn’t economics & MBA’s are about anything but managerial skills.

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