‘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’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Lyn Yates is Red­mond Barry dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion and was pre­vi­ously pro vice-chan­cel­lor (re­search) at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne.

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.

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