Review of Reviewing Academic Performance

Brian Martin


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Script for ABC Science Bookshop, recorded, with slight variations, on 29 January 1987 and broadcast on 15 February 1987 with the passages in brackets omitted.

The Zoology Department at the University of Adelaide in the early 1970s was the scene of a bitter academic struggle. It began after Clyde Manwell, a professor in the department, publicly criticised aspects of fruit fly spraying by the South Australian government. Subsequently the senior professor of Zoology and head of department, H. G. Andrewartha, sent a letter to the Vice-Chancellor complaining about aspects of Manwell's performance. Andrewartha's allegations were fairly trivial, for example that Manwell 'lacked judgment and perspective' because he distributed to his students 12 pages with 49 references and that a book by Manwell and Ann Baker contained some errors in statistics. Yet, amazingly, this letter from Andrewartha led to an attempt to dismiss Manwell from the university, an attempt that only failed, after tribulations and trials, four years later. In the end, the charges against Manwell were accepted as false by the Vice-Chancellor when the matter went before the South Australian Supreme Court.

After the resolution of the case, Manwell's life never really quieted down. He and his wife Ann Baker were subject to petty harassment -- and repeated threats of violence. Andrewartha retired and a new professor, W. D. Williams, became head of department. There were no further threats of dismissal -- until 1985. After Manwell requested adjustment of his teaching to reduce hypertension, as assessed by both his doctor and a medical specialist, Williams wrote to the University Registrar alleging that Manwell had the lightest teaching load in the department. Manwell responded by pointing to dubious figures in this estimate. For instance, Williams had listed 28 postgraduates in the department, but official lists indicated only 14 or 15. Thus, the teaching loads of many members of staff were inflated through high figures for postgraduate supervision. Actually, according to the measure of teaching workload used in previous years, Manwell had the highest load.

In 1986 Manwell negotiated early retirement. He and Ann Baker, now fed up with what they see as blatant corruption in Australian academic institutions, are leaving to live in England.

I thought again of Manwell's struggles on reading a book called Reviewing Academic Performance: Approaches to the Evaluation of Departments and Individuals, by Ernest Roe, Rod McDonald and Ingrid Moses, published in 1986 by Queensland University Press. Manwell's tribulations have been intimately linked with claims and counterclaims about academic performance. So what can the book Reviewing Academic Performance tell us about this?

Unfortunately not very much. The book is a sound, careful, dry and often tedious exposition of why and how to go about examining the work of individual academics and academic departments. It assumes that this task will be carried out in a rational and sensible way. I think if I were involved in designing a review, I would check this book to get some ideas on how things ought to be done.

The trouble is, it is likely that the only reviews taking place in a rational and sensible way, with the aim of improving performance, are in those places where there aren't many problems anyway. Down at the lab and in the lecture room, science and academia are seething with interpersonal politics. To go about improving performance, this simply has to be taken into account.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a number of friends, and friends of friends, about their experiences and views of academic life. I picked out people, such as women and dissidents, who were likely to have thought critically about what they were doing. Most of these individuals thought there were great advantages to academic life, such as the opportunity to explore ideas and to make decisions about how to do one's work. But more striking was what they thought was the biggest drawback of academic life, namely internecine academic battles: continual politicking, bad-mouthing and backstabbing. I could only agree.

[Scientists and academics are professionals whose power and prestige depends on claiming a monopoly over a body of knowledge and how to evaluate it. Geologists for example insist that only they -- not outsiders -- are in a position to say whether someone is a good geologist. At a more detailed level, specialists in recombinant DNA or particle physics will insist on exclusive rights to judge work in that area.

The public rhetoric of science is that decisions about what is good knowledge and performance are based on objective measures, such as experimental techniques, replication, testability and so forth. The reality is that knowledge claims, and the prestige of individual scholars, are very much bound up in interpersonal politics.] Researchers build up their reputations, their grants, their student numbers and all the rest by convincing others of the value of their work. This can include publishing in the right journals, meeting the right people at conferences, chatting up the right people in the department or administration and sitting on the right committees. That this works for quite a few people is illustrated by the frequent complaints -- or admiration -- of the operators who create a whole career out of a Ph.D. thesis and minor variations of the work ever after.

Much of the conversation of academics is taken up with comments on the behaviour and performance of their colleagues, both local and international. This is a continual process which helps establish, or undermine, the status, power and prerogatives of all those involved. This continual dialogue is called 'political labour' by Randall Collins in his important book The Credential Society. Political labour by professionals is the counterpart of productive labour by the working class.

When it comes to reviewing the academic performance of an individual or a department, it is impossible to escape this ongoing political process. Evaluation cannot be a neutral operation. This was brought home to me when the Departments of Pure and Applied Mathematics at the Australian National University were jointly reviewed some years ago. There had been a running feud between members of the two departments for many years. The review provided an arena for claims about performance. For example, minor bits of wording in the draft report, which enhanced one contribution and denigrated another, were the subject of dispute. At stake was the future control of academic resources.

In addition, the review as a whole was a transparent political exercise. At that time every effort was being made by the university administration to cut costs, and the review seemed to everyone concerned to have the purpose of justifying the amalgamation of the two departments, which is what happened.

[Amalgamation was not the end of the process: it simply changed the distribution and type of resources available for internal politicking. For example, claims about what is really 'mathematics' and who is really a 'mathematician' are routinely used to bolster the stature of some and marginalise the contributions of others.]

The ANU is a leader in constantly reviewing departments. I was not the only person on campus to be sceptical. The proliferation of reviews is easily matched by the number of academics with withering comments about the political motivations and outcomes of these reviews. The incessant reviews of the Centre for Continuing Education have been widely seen as attempts to attack its radical activities. The latest review finally succeeded in this objective: the Centre's democratic decision-making system has been abolished.

This brings me back to the problems suffered by Clyde Manwell. What happened to him was a political attack masked by allegations about his scholarly performance. It was necessary, but not enough, simply to respond by detailing his above average academic performance. Political attacks require political defences.

I think it is a worthwhile aim to review performance in order to improve it. But this laudable aim must be tied to an appreciation of the politics of science and academia. Otherwise, once again, noble sentiments will merely be the public face of a more sordid reality.