Apologies in advance if this comes across as overly ranty, and though I try to at least include some pointers or thoughts on where things go, this feels, to me, like trying to turn a supertanker going 120 knots while the crew get flung off so may lack my usual positive outlook.
And it goes without saying that though my comments may be broad & sweeping, but they are not meant to be universally applicable. There will be exceptions, of course. But they reflect the last 20 years attending & working with universities across 6 (English-speaking) countries.
I did my undergrad at a Canadian “liberal arts” undergrad institution, and thought of The University as this fantastic place where people pursued their interests, developed & grew as people, were mentored, and made discoveries (both personal and professional). It was very much the ethos of the school, and reflected what many of us think of as the ideal, as articulated by Liz Coleman in this TED Talk from 2010 that I still find inspirational on some level. It was a time where the journey was more important than the destination, and everyone worked, or seemed to, with the same purpose. But near the end of my biology degree, I found myself wondering “what DOES one do with a degree in Classics anyway?” – the first cracks had appeared.
As a graduate student (2 degrees, 2 universities, 6 years) the hard truths about universities as institutions came rapidly. The need for funding, the amount of (often contradictory) paperwork, and the notion of “competitiveness”. I learned about “overheads” or “on-costs”. I saw better evaluation rubrics in the theatre tournament I ran than for some graduate evaluations, and I saw first-hand how poor management can impact people and projects. The harsh realities of the “job market” and bizarre hiring practices (and let’s face it, they ARE bizarre compared to nearly every other employer) were first uncovered.
Shifting to a postdoc, and I had all these experiences validated when, in a workshop for “how to land an academic job”, I found out that universities are not for teaching. I was hung out to dry by my institution for the first time. My own department encouraged me to apply for one job for which I was then ranked “uncompetitive”, and another where I was told I had “insufficient knowledge of ornithology”.
And now as a researcher (either in government, NGO, or museum) I work with university partners and see perverse incentives to publish (incentives aren’t all bad, mind you), an increase in courses and associated required projects, the rampant proliferation of short-term contracts lasting, in many cases, DECADES, and little/no mentoring of new faculty (who mentors the mentors?). At a higher level, there’s chasing rankings (be they the meaningless third-party metrics, or national schemes like REF/REF2: Evaluate with a Vengeance), abysmally low pay and increased workload. Communication and process seems to be optional, shifting, and always on a whim. Unless you don’t follow it, in which case too bad.
I know the above looks like a gripe list, and “it’s not all that bad”. No, it’s not. But certainly my experience (and that of many others who don’t have the privilege of being a white cis male) has been far from positive. I know faculty who’ve been bullied by colleagues, superiors, undergrads and even their own grad students who, when they went through the “proper channels” were branded troublemakers, and asked “what is wrong with YOU?”. I know faculty that in a year made less than the students they supervise because part of their contract wasn’t renewed, but who were still expected to work 40 hours/week. I know faculty who do All The Things (supervise 4-6 students/year, publish often and in “good”/”high impact” journals, have strong teaching evaluations from 2-4 units/courses, bring in grant money, do heaps of well-recognized outreach and media, and otherwise work their butts off) who are on 9-12 month contracts despite looking across the hall at their permanently employed colleague who has 1 honours student, published 1 paper in the last 24 months, submitted no grant applications, and taught 1 course/unit. I know faculty who’ve been thrown under the bus by their institutions in various processes because their attempts to make their department, school, and discipline a more inclusive, welcoming place ruffled some feathers either from above, or from within.
And raising any of these concerns within The University is like asking for a thicker blanket and being given a moth-eaten linen sheet.
We have built research systems that rely on graduate students for research capacity (which itself is Not Good), universities that have had massive funding cuts from government in the last 30 years (in Australia, and the UK, for example) which means that nearly every discussion comes down to money (either from grants, or tuition) and anything that might threaten that is beaten back with a huge stick.
Universities have the management & communications skills of a soggy turnip, and are filled with survivorship bias. This has effectively turned many into business-model-driven factories where top-down comms may be frequent & positive, but local-level management & mentoring is non-existent or flat-out harmful.
In a system where for so many people they are told their best isn’t good enough while others fail upwards, it’s deeply demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting to try and exist. Trying to push back against these systems from the outside (as I’ve done with several over the last number of years) is doubly so.
Look, I know these are not the universal experience, but they’re at least sufficiently systemic that they should be worrying. But enacting change, especially by faculty themselves (many of whom do AMAZING things in spite of the above) feels like trying to turn around that supertanker, except you’re part of the crew being flung overboard. And yes there are advantages and good things about universities, but for me these are outweighed by the negative and the apprehension of the as-yet-unknown negative I might encounter.
And on a personal level, it’s sad that I now have to start out being highly skeptical, suspicious, and wary of the same institutions I idolized less than 20 years ago. But I’ve had to because they’ve so consistently let me, my friends, and my collaborators down.