The Tap on the Shoulder

His plenary address was full of the spiky political intellect we were familiar with from his writing. And so the conference organisers, of which I was one, were glad he’d made the journey from New York. I’d arranged to have lunch with him after his talk but a couple of the research mandarins intercepted him and took him off to eat somewhere fancy on their corporate cards.

Later in the afternoon he sought me out and told what had happened. They’d offered him a lucrative professorship and he was gobsmacked, but also flattered and interested, despite the fact that this would mean migrating to Australia with his partner and children. ‘But they gave me the hard sell. Now I want to hear from someone who’s not a manager. So tell me, what’s it’s like to work here?’

Now here was a dilemma. I would have been overjoyed to have him as a colleague: a breath of fresh air by comparison with the pretentious left-bank wannabe social theorists who kick around the conference circuit. But I had to level with him: this is a managerial university, top to bottom. You’d be working with good people but we don’t have any control. All the big decisions – about staffing and budget allocations – come from the top – including the decision to offer you a job. Most of us would be thrilled but no one has been told this is in prospect. Line management is absolute. While it’s an intellectually lively environment, it would make you angry. I would love to have you here but I have to let you know about the process.

I’m not sure whether our conversation had anything to do with it, but he declined my university’s offer and stayed in New York. Those of us who have worked in universities for a long time have seen this process at work quite often. It’s the ‘Tap on the Shoulder’ recruitment method and is primarily designed to bring highly published/ regarded/cited academics, with a track record of winning grants, to bolster the institution’s audited research performance. In the managerial university grey-suited mandarins play God with the staffing budget and head hunting is part of the game.

But as with all managerial empire building there is collateral damage. The money that ambitious universities throw at these people – generous salaries and research allowances – ensures that the less sexy labour – teaching and marking – is done by casual staff, or by increasingly beleaguered junior full-time staff whose research time allocation shrinks as more and more heavy-hitters are recruited to the staffing ranks.

So here’s some advice if you are ever headhunted in this way: ask the sort of questions that my New York colleague asked. Find out the lie of the land. Don’t be a petit-bourgeois gun-for-hire intellectual. Consider your future colleagues. Have they been involved in the decision to recruit you? Or will they resent your presence because it’s sucked revenue from the staffing budget that would otherwise be directed at entry-level jobs their doctoral graduates might compete for? And will your presence mean they’ll be teaching more and have less time for research.

There’s no doubt that research leadership is very important but do you want to be sitting in splendid luxury while others are driven in the academic sweatshop? As disparities of wealth and power grow wider and wider in the western societies, so universities are mirroring this trend. They are becoming more and more polarised and collegiality is undermined as a result. In these circumstances it is harder to generate the research collaboration and intellectual ferment that both managers and academic staff desire.

George Morgan

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author