Budget crunch and performance reviews

As a child, my brother and I had talent for trouble. Thanks to my uncle’s encouragement of childhood fun, we liked to throw handfuls of magnesium shavings into the fire or let off nautical distress flares in our suburban backyard. Nowadays, I like sticky issues. I like to throw proverbial magnesium at a fire by writing about the fallibility of peer review or the murkiness of for profit journal publishing. However, there is one issue that’s been too flammable for me to tackle so far. The few times I’ve considered writing about performance management in the past, I’ve tried to sneak around and catch it unawares from behind, but have always run away at the last minute.

It’s a curious aspect of higher education that in some institutions, academic staff are not subject to any basic performance requirements. In some universities, a senior professor employed at the highest pay level can produce no research and no contribution to teaching for years on end, without any repercussions.

Meanwhile, staff on the professional pay scales – administrators, research managers, and HR representatives – are typically required to undergo far more rigorous employment hurdles. In my opinion, these usually include a more rigorous selection process, more robust probation periods and more frequent and formalised performance reviews.

During a previous role at a university, I was in one faculty meeting that turned nasty during discussions of performance reviews for academic staff. The head of HR popped in to discuss this agenda item and the mood turned briefly tense before someone threw a wheelbarrow load of magnesium on the fire…. But academics are too busy and important for performance reviews… We know what we are doing and an outsider couldn’t possibly appreciate our busy importantness…. This kind of surveillance means that we simply aren’t trusted…. Anyway, why is this fat, badly dressed woman talking to us in the first place??!!??!

I wish that I were exaggerating, but sadly the conversation devolved rapidly into inappropriate name-calling and that was the end of that.  Meanwhile, academia is in a bind. Much of departmental budgets are locked into wages for high-level tenured academics. In some cases, these are well-spent dollars, returning high quality research outputs, lucrative grants, timely PhD submissions and happy undergraduate students. In other cases, years fly by without any research outputs while particular academics instead invest in long coffee breaks complaining of Herculean busyness.

Arguably, there is little distinction in reward or recognition for academics after landing an ongoing position. Hard working is rarely incentivised and rather relies on an individual’s sense of industriousness. In Australia, we have the added problem around retirements. Without a mandatory retirement age, some (and to be clear, I mean a minority) of lax academics steadily decline in productivity and energy into a mossy rock-like state while drawing salary from a department’s unhealthy budget.

It’s a tricky situation. Such low performing academics may once have been rockstar researchers. How does a supervisor intervene and tell a well-regarded colleague to pull their socks up or move along? Meanwhile, intergenerational resentment tends to fester. Young academics are usually on short-term contracts and must work hard to cling to the hope of competing for another position arising in the future. Short-term contract are usually also more closely policed in terms of probationary periods and performance requirements.

Younger folks are acutely aware that positions in a department are a tight balance of supply and demand. They can be resentful when perceiving that they work harder for meagre salaries than older low performing academics do for 2 or 3 times higher wages. Early career researchers can also be resentful when hearing time and time again that we don’t have enough money.  Such refrains of inflexible or overstretched budgets can be hard to swallow – not enough money or more accurately antiquated priorities?

In many cases, a department or discipline may be best served by low energy academics retiring onto their superannuation. But can this be facilitated in a fair and respectful way? The distress flare, magnesium burning side of me thinks that we simply need some “firm” leadership to knock heads together, but the less provocative side of me recognises a more judicious approach is required. Scrutiny of performance must be balanced with an appreciation of the rhythms of academic work, individualities and differing contributions. Just as people aren’t facilitated to achieve by being allowed to persist in an underproductive state for 10 years, we clearly aren’t going to get everyone achieving their best if they are permanently crippled with anxieties about underperforming.

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