Associate Dean of what?

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The School of Social and Clinical Medicine at the University of Bristol is hiring a new “associate dean of eureka moments.” The job advertisement went viral on academic social media last Friday.

This is a real job at a real British university, not a satire. Someone decided to advertise for a new associate dean, an important leadership position, by using the phrase “eureka moments.” What’s going on here?

Jonathan Sandy, incoming dean of the faculty of health sciences at Bristol, writes in an email that the phrase emerged after the school hired a marketing team to “raise interest in an unique position at the University of Bristol.” It worked. Interest has been raised.

What does this phrase mean, not just intrinsically, but when applied to an institution of higher education? The advertisement and the thought process that seems to have gone into it exemplify not only that academe is becoming more corporate, but that we’re doing it badly.

The key paragraphs from the advertisement read:

“The new Associate Dean (Head of School Designate) at the University of Bristol will be an inspirational educational leader, who can build on our established reputation as a pioneering powerhouse of global medical research and education. An ambitious individual, this is your opportunity to stretch existing leadership and management skills in a Top Ten, research-intensive University.

Responsible for setting the strategic direction and implementation of a major change programme within the University of Bristol, you will create and then lead a new, integrated, School of Social & Clinical Medicine. Supporting the delivery of the new medical undergraduate curriculum and medical research strategy, we will look to you to drive a clear vision for the School, communicating in a way that enthuses staff at all levels whilst championing research.”

Too often, academic administrators and “thought leaders” take outmoded or inappropriate ideas from the business world and casually apply them to our institutions. The bloat of midranking administrators at universities mirrors the middle-manager boom that corporations are now discarding. The idea of students as customers relies on models of customer service that are not what experts in the field actually teach (as explicated in this letter to The Chronicle by Clara Burke). We develop crude quantitative evaluative tools while businesses use more and more complex qualitative focus groups and sophisticated assessments. And we apply buzzwords. For example, we now “benchmark” our top administrative jobs in ways that feed salary bloat and which, as Michael Bérubé has noted, institutionalize “worst practices.”

It’s not that the corporate world has nothing to teach academe; surely, we can learn a lot from looking at “best practices” (another corporate buzzword) in business. My concern is that we seem to be learning the wrong lessons. We take empty corporatized language and apply it to our work, reinforcing hierarchies between management and labor, with the consequence of leading us away from our core scholarly and pedagogical missions.

That’s how we end up with phrases like those in the job ad: “inspirational leader,” “enthuses staff,” and “eureka moments.”

Furthermore, as Ian Petrie noted on Twitter, if you click through to the actual PDF of the posting, you’ll see a totally mundane job advertisement. There is nothing unusual or objectionable that I can see in this job description. To get to it, though, you have to go through a cheesy page showing Bristol’s spot on the globe, inviting you to “find everything you need to know about the role of Associate Dean … This is where your journey begins.”

Bristol isn’t alone. Lancaster University recently announced its 50th Anniversary Lectureships, looking for “the next generation of exceptional academics: those with big ideas, the ambition and desire to know more, and the determination to succeed.” I suggest that those three clauses are fundamentally meaningless. Their URL is aplacetoblossom.co.uk. While as a medievalist I appreciate the pun on the blossoming Lancastrian rose, the rhetoric feels empty. Instead of clearly defining a vision for the positions and institution, the whole thing comes off as vacuous sloganeering.

I don’t know if there’s a need for a job supervising “eureka moments” in any industry, although there’s a huge literature on how to have them in the business world. In the corporate world, at least, there’s a clear structure and context for such language. Within a corporate product-development system, “ideation” can lead to eureka, and from there into the troubled waters of prototype, testing, and marketing. We can borrow the words, but we don’t automatically carry over that whole structure when we apply it to an educational or academic research institution. Instead, we get empty buzzwords that threaten to distort our missions.

This is what I see as the core danger of the corporatization of the academy. It’s not the introduction of money into what should be some kind of noble endeavor. We all face costs. We need our institutions to be financially solvent and to try to generate additional revenue. Similarly, academics can negotiate for better salaries and benefits without betraying our identity as intellectuals. Money in higher education is not the issue. Instead, the problem is that we slide casually into transforming who we are and how we value what we do.

Language matters. Whether it’s customer service, benchmarking, or eureka moments, these terms cannot just be applied casually. If we borrow corporate slogans without really thinking about the structures that such terms imply, all we do is create distortion between our internal and external identities.

The idea of an associate dean of eureka moments seems funny. Certainly, I joined much of academic social media in laughing at it when the posting went viral. Then I realized that the joke is very much on us.

Author Bio: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.

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