Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


The Penury of Tenure

Before starting my present ’job’ as an institute director, my instinctive suspicion of all those in university leadership was that they filled their days devising useless bureaucratic tasks for the rest of us to fulfil. Now that I am in a leadership position myself, I have come to the unsettling conclusion that the higher one goes in the administrative hierarchy of our universities, the greater the number of useless bureaucratic tasks that need to be performed: including those somehow passed up from below as well as all those passed down from on high.

“Congratulations on your new position”, people told me. “Though I expect you’ll now have a lot more administration to handle”. My response to this was typically: “Thanks, but what I’ve really been hired for is to lead the institute, not to manage it.  To keep the show on the road I have a focused, dedicated management team by my side, to handle all those day-to-day tasks; freeing up my time to sharpen our impact and shape our future scientific directions”.

Although there is a strong element of wishful thinking about this reply, I have tried to maintain it as a guiding principle, even in the shadow of the university cuts. But looking around me, I see so many in senior positions in academia whose time is increasingly wasted on tasks that others could easily do just as effectively, or are perhaps even better trained for in the first place.  Many must be asking themselves ‘why did I strive so hard to achieve tenure, and then dutifully teach my courses for 20 years, only to end up pushing onscreen buttons to review, select, validate, comment, evaluate, activate, save, approve (or occasionally reject, remit, revise or undo) things I barely understand anyway”.

So, why are we wasting years of finely honed scientific expertise or scholarly wisdom on tasks that really need to be done (if at all) by other people with completely different skills and competences? And in the process demotivating all those scholars with potentially so much more to contribute to frontline research and education?

Explaining this state of affairs is probably beyond my capacity. But I do have a solution to propose, or perhaps this is more a prediction of how future academic careers will develop, so as to avoid this dead-end condition.

I foresee that we will simply abandon the system of academic tenure, and replace it with the concept of paid consultancies for specific tasks in science or in teaching. I always try to impress on my students that science is not a job – it’s a vocation.  But somewhere along the line it does seem to become a job. The way to avoid the deadening weight of ‘employment duties’ is simply not to be employees at all.  Instead, I look forward to the day when we are either running our own businesses, or combining together into small collectives, just like lawyers or dentists, to deliver our services at a price the universities can afford and for which we are prepared to deliver them. We will devise and implement research projects, deliver tutorials, implement lab classes, examine students, review manuscripts and create data repositories, all for an appropriate fee.

What, in this system, will happen to all those useless bureaucratic tasks that the universities nevertheless believe are necessary, in the name of health and safety, academic objectivity, ethical compliance and social equity? The answer is simple. Either the universities will hire others to do them. Or else our private businesses will provide them as back-office services delivered efficiently by experts we ourselves employ, with a suitable mark-up. I believe we will all be much better off.

Photo: Helsingin yliopisto/Linda Tammisto

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