higher education, reward and recognition

“Toxic” academia: A behaviourist solution?

There has been a lot of recent attention given to the “toxic” culture in the academic world, not least this article from the Times Higher Education (21/11/2019), suggesting ways that academics might get promoted and achieve success by propagating the toxicity. The recommendations include “do nothing for anyone unimportant”, “crush the confidence of students”, and “systematically badmouth your colleagues so you can improve your own standing”.

My initial response to the article was emotionally conflicted. Of course, I recognise a tongue-in-cheek article when I see it – but I was uncomfortable with the level of overstatement, and wondered how my PhD students and other people aspiring to work in academia might perceive it. I’ve mentioned before that my experience of academic life recognises a mixture of challenges and what I have termed #AcademicBlessings – among which I count some wonderfully supportive colleagues and some inspirational students.

Nevertheless, much of the article resonated, not least in the light of some frequent and well-intended advice over the past few weeks to “be more selfish” if I want to get promoted. As one of the co-founders of the #ProfsInPrep network, I’ve looked at a large number of promotion criteria over the past year, from across the UK higher education sector, and spoken to hundreds of people about their experiences of feeling like their hard work for their students and their institutions isn’t counted when they apply for promotion. Instead, there is a feeling that universities are interested in REF (Research Excellence Framework) outputs, large grants and esteemed research-focused publications.

As an education-focused academic myself, and one who is involved in networks of those who have impact through both education and professional practice, I can see massive development of thinking in the sector around promotions pathways and support for those on “differently shaped” (not maverick?!) career trajectories. The TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) has pushed universities to think about how it values these careers, and the importance of all that we can contribute to institutional success.

But despite the attention, the talk, and even the good intentions, it is true to say that many university promotions criteria still reward individual outputs. They may recognise education, professional practice, and knowledge exchange activities as alternatives to ‘pure’ research, but in many cases, the emphasis is still on publications, financial return through grants or consultancy, and individual reputation.

Let’s be clear – research, outputs, profile, are all important aspects of academic success, and I am not for a moment suggesting that we abandon them completely. We need to be generating new knowledge, and having an impact on the world around us through innovation and research, and we cannot keep our knowledge to ourselves. It is necessary to produce ‘outputs’ that engage others.

However, I can’t help wondering if this should really be at the expense of our departments, our colleagues, and our students. Well, honestly, I’m not wondering – I don’t believe for a second that it should be. First and foremost, on a standard academic contract, we are employed to do a combination of education, research and administration/management roles. I would argue that doing those well, competently, is the first step to being “good” at our jobs. Our reward and recognition processes need to reward and recognise that as an essential requirement for being considered for promotion. I’m sure I’m not the only one to witness individuals getting promoted for some outstanding achievement when at the same time, others around them are picking up their marking and teaching responsibilities, delivering outreach activities, and supporting their personal tutees. Those promotions often cause resentment, and reinforce the idea that collegiality is a luxury we can’t afford, and that selfishness is the route to academic success.

And the problem with this approach, of course, is that it is. So those who succeed can continue to espouse selfishness from their senior roles, and those who feel that being selfish is inconsistent with their values either stay in junior roles, or move to other institutions where they feel that collegiality is more appreciated. This can only lead to an intensification of toxicity among those who stay.

In contrast, I may be a little naïve, but I firmly believe in cultivating academic kindness. Strong leaders, in my opinion, support their junior colleagues and help them to develop. Strong leaders recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the wider academic team; they work to ensure that people have opportunities to play to their strengths, and are facilitated to grow in areas of weakness. Strong leaders keep the overall aims and strategies of the department or university in their mind, and co-ordinate the team to maximise the chances of success for everyone. And of course, sometimes, that might mean dealing with bad behaviour – precisely the sorts of bullying and unwillingness to co-operate that were discussed in the THE article mentioned previously.

The key for me here is that individual ambition, and departmental/institutional ambitions, need to be aligned. In a culture that values individual outputs above and beyond anything else, toxicity is a predictable outcome. What would happen if we rewarded and recognised kindness, collegiality, team-work, and contribution to the overall success of the organisation? Imagine an academic environment in which it is in the interests of the ambitious senior lecturer to mentor an early career colleague to help to improve their grant success. Or where there is benefit in volunteering for the time-consuming responsibilities and challenges of a programme leader role. Imagine our programme leaders being supported by a team of colleagues eager to demonstrate their commitment to providing a great student experience, as well as peer reviewing their colleagues’ papers and grant applications. I can’t help but think that this would lead to greater individual success, as we all share the work, and we all support each other to do our best work, but also to greater organisational success.

Utopian, naïve, idealistic, perhaps? But we have seen the consequences of an individualistic academic culture, and we know that it results in toxicity. An alternative, where we align individual and organisational ambition, can’t make things worse!

So how do we achieve it? Fundamental behaviourist principals seem to apply here. To date, we have rewarded individuals for their individual success; if we want to shift the culture, we need to reward them for collegiate behaviour. Some universities have already started this process; one that I have been working with recently has implemented a new criterion into its promotion processes. Here, all academics are required to show “good academic citizenship” before they can even be considered for promotion – whether on the grounds of research, teaching, or anything else. The first step in the process is to consider whether the individual has contributed to their department and their university, through volunteering for tasks that need to be done (did you pick up marking for your absent colleague?), contributing positively to meetings (rather than sending apologies so you can concentrate on writing your next paper), and through engaging in outreach and recruitment activities. Only if you’re engaging on this level will your paper in Nature or your multi-million pound grant be able to be taken into account. It’s a new scheme, and whether it has any impact on the academic culture at that institution remains to be seen – but psychology tells me that over time, rewarding these behaviours may well result in them being more frequently observed.

I conclude with a call to action – if you have any say over your institutional promotion, reward and recognition, or management practices – are you willing to at least try to show that you value kindness and collegiality? I’m in!

3 thoughts on ““Toxic” academia: A behaviourist solution?”

  1. Thanks, this is great. Especially for articulating so clearly the inverted academic reward system. I have seen so many brilliant lecturers and colleagues overlooked because of this sytem.

    Liked by 1 person

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