A university is not a factory

Keir Martin and Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo

This article was translated into Norwegian and published online at morgenbladet.no on 17 January 2019. It concerns a particular situation at our faculty, but the general pattern should be easily recognisable elsewhere in the academic world as well.

A university is not a car factory.  And our students are not components to be assembled and processed on a production line in the most technocratically efficient manner without a thought for the culture or working environment in which they learn and develop. What we produce is unique, not standardisedThis is a point so obvious that one could imagine or hope that it wouldn’t need pointing out.  Unfortunately, on occasion it does, such as on those occasions when a tendency to view the world as a problem to be fixed with spreadsheets leads to the prioritisation of hitting the numbers over the nurturance and development of the human environments that those numbers were intended to measure. It is a tendency that if left unchecked can cause immense problems.  As the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett observes, this – often unquestioned – logic was one of the major factors behind the Great Financial Crisis that threatened to collapse the world economy ten years ago. Banks, which had become increasingly distant from their customers, trusted instead in numerical data and engaged in a race to repackage their customers’ in ever more profitable, yet ultimately unsustainable forms.

Despite such repeated disasters, the habit of pushing a bean counting managerial style too far at the expense of the original purpose of the institutions that it is supposed to curate is a hard one to break.  Our public services, including universities, are increasingly the victims of an obsessive managerial focus on hitting targets or numerically driven reorganisations that cause great disruption, often lead to increasingly tense and inharmonious work environments and ultimately threaten the very provision of the services that we are supposed to provide.  It might appear obvious that closing down or merging successful units in order to make marginal short-term savings is the very definition of a false economy, but once the reorganisation fever takes hold it is easily forgotten. History tells us that such reorganisations rarely work.  The balance sheet-savings that they provide are almost always more than offset by the damage to morale and productivity that ensue.

Take for instance, the current proposal to merge the Department of Social Anthropology (SAI) at the University of Oslo with the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK).  Both are highly regarded and internationally renowned research centres in their separate fields, but they are quite different: TIK has no undergraduate teaching, and is itself divided in its research between innovation studies and STS (social studies of technology and science). SAI sees its undergraduate programme as essential for several reasons, and has no research agenda related to the innovation research at TIK. The proposal to merge the two entities seems to be unanimously opposed by scientific research staff in both departments; and with good reason. Shortly before Christmas, a document describing the reasoning behind the merger was sent to SAI and TIK by the Dean. Unfortunately, it does not provide academic or scientific justifications for the proposal. Instead, the proposed reorganisation is only justified in terms of the modest administrative savings that it may make.  We are hoping that the benefits to knowledge expected to result from the merger will be made clearer in later discussions of the matter, which should involve as many scholars as possible from the two entities.  Otherwise, there is a real risk that our leadership will be perceived as seeing its purpose as organising research and teaching to help tilt the figures on the spreadsheet, rather than seeing sound financial management as a tool to facilitate world-leading research and essential teaching at all levels.

Our situation is not unique. A moment’s reflection will tell anyone not blinded by the numbers why such reorganisations are often so fatal to a good, creative and productive working environment.  Imagine that in your workplace you have two units with different remits, both of which are important to the organisation’s overall success; let’s say for example the sales department and the internal sanitation department.  Both units are highly successful at their tasks; sales are consistently high and the bathrooms are consistently sparkling clean.  Alas, one day, a new manager keen to make a name for himself comes in and decides that he can shave a couple of administrative positions from the payroll by merging the two units.  At the end of the year, he may even be so happy with the savings on the spreadsheet that he feels justified to award himself a small but deserved Christmas bonus. (We are not intimating that our Dean has offered himself a pecuniary bonus, we make a purely hypothetical point for illustrative purposes.) By the end of the following year, however, sales are down and the bathrooms are filthy as the members of staff in the newly merged unit spend their time struggling with new management structures, and are forced to devote their energies to internal struggles over whether to prioritise updating the sales software or investing in new cleaning supplies.  It’s a good way to game the numbers, and the manager responsible might well not be too concerned if he has been able to brandish his spreadsheet of savings to the interview panel at a rival company in order to jump ship before the long-term effects of his efficiencies take root. It’s not, however, a good way to build stable and secure workplaces that provide the ground from which innovation can occur.

We are convinced that the proposed reorganisation threatens a rather successful enterprise  that has had a major positive influence on Norwegian society.  Norwegian anthropological researchg is world-renowned, many of its leading figures have also been major contributors to public debate in Norway, and a substantial number of Norwegians in many professions, from journalism to the ministries, from the civil service to the international NGO world, have studied social anthropology.  Social Anthropology was described only last year as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of Norwegian social science by a major international review committee.  Last year also saw the Oslo Department receive special praise from the Rector of the University for once again climbing up the rankings of the Shanghai International table of university departments, to number 32, making itthe highest ranked department in the entire University of Oslo.  The Department has to negotiate challenges as all institutions do, but it has shown itself equal to those challenges.  The previous international review of Norwegian anthropology, conducted 6 years ago, was nowhere near as flattering, and as recently as two years ago, Oslo was ranked outside of the top 50 anthropology departments in the world.  This is an institution that has proved itself able to achieve excellent results in teaching and international research. It would be an act of educational vandalism to put this at risk for short-term savings when the long-term rewards, both financial and social, of leaving alone something that works so well were to be overlooked.

We will leave it to TIK to provide an assessment of their unique qualities and the necessity for them to retain their identity as a discrete unit, which they will doubtless do as the debate continues. Fantastic work is often done across disciplinary boundaries of course, but this is often built upon respect for distinct intellectual trajectories, methods, discourses and contributions to the common good, both within and outside science. The recent international evaluation made a point of praising the work that is being done in interdisciplinary institutes but also went on to conclude that much of, ‘the highest quality scientific and society impact’ comes from the kind of long-term specifically anthropological research that specialised anthropology institutes tend to encourage.  As such, their advice to institutions was crystal clear — that units be organised in such a manner that, ‘social anthropologists should be empowered to develop strategies and practices that are relevant to their needs as anthropologists.’  It is in this manner that we will be able to continue to produce research that, ‘stands comparison with the best research in the discipline internationally’, whilst also, having, ‘ a significant social impact within Norway’. Many of our colleagues, not least in Norway, carry out excellent teaching and research in interdisciplinary departments and institutes. However, for social anthropology to fulfil its obligations to society and the wider intellectual community, it also needs firm ground in the shape of strong university departments devoted only to social anthropology. We believe the Oslo department to be such a location, and thus it should remain.