‘I agreed to become PVCR because it was an unusual opportunity for a woman and a non-scientist to have a voice in what was otherwise a solely male and sciencebased research executive’
Icome from research traditions (sociology, history, critical policy studies) that are often critical of what leaders and managers do. And I continue to be a strong advocate for research developing new perspectives that are not oriented towards “what to do on Monday”. So it was something of a shock to my own norms to become first an associate dean for research at two different institutions, and then, for six years, a pro vice-chancellor for research at a major research university.
I agreed to become PVCR because it was an unusual opportunity for a woman and a nonscientist to have a voice in what was otherwise a solely male and science-based research executive. My immediate culture shock was the full and tightly managed calendar. Although I was expected to continue my research, management activities were fastpaced, driven by deadlines and frequently changing policy imperatives. I found it difficult to turn to the slower rhythm needed to properly read, think, digest and write my own research, even when I had time reserved for this. My daily interactions were now dominated by management colleagues and events, rather than by exchanges with disciplinary peers in seminars and at conferences.
However, I did remain an active researcher and supervisor, spending one day a week in my faculty. And that gave me a better understanding of researchers’ frustrations than I observed elsewhere in management. People at senior executive levels of universities work very hard, but they are also cushioned technically by support staff, and spend most of their time with others also engaged in management.
I aimed, therefore, to inculcate a better understanding among university management of researchers’ experiences – such as the time burden imposed on them by online systems devised for management data purposes – and of the inadequacy of short-term, sticks-and-carrots approaches. By the same token, I aimed to have research leaders at faculty level understand and develop effective responses to the genuine constraints of finance, government regulation and competitive context faced by the university.
I think I was more successful at the latter than the former, in part because I developed collegiality and good networks with the faculty leaders. Indeed, the best parts of the job were meeting and working productively with a wider range of people across the university, and discovering the shared understandings, goodwill and generosity of researchers from different disciplines. Top-down performance templates are a bête noire of most academics, but in the cases when these were accepted as government-driven or unavoidable, the faculty leaders I worked with would work together to find pragmatic responses.
My time as a PVCR gave me a new respect for university management and leadership roles, especially regarding the difficulty of balancing myriad, frequently conflicting regulations and pressures from outside. The worst parts of the job were the timeconsuming burdens of petty detail and conflicting reporting categories required by government policies and research assessments.
I also acquired new insights about the specific pressures faced by different research fields – even medical research, for all its comparatively lavish funding. However, it was a daily struggle to confront policies that took laboratory research as the norm and “why can’t humanities be more like science?” as their implicit mantra.
Gender bias was also a factor, even if it was largely indirect and unintentional. Academia works by networks, membership of which yields invitations to speak and nominations to positions and honours. My own networks, both in terms of discipline and gender, were strikingly different from those of my research executive colleagues. The opportunity to suggest a different range of people was a positive of my appointment, but this issue is a continuing source of discrimination that can remain invisible. It must be addressed if universities want more women to enter senior management.