What a title. Reading it makes me smile.
I am nowadays dealing almost daily with academic administration of the soon starting Aalto University. I am kindly asked to comment plans of having new ICT system, how to have ICT enhancing teaching and learning, tenure track, research assessment exercise etc. All these are important and event to some extent pretty interesting stuff.
When dealing with these things, there are three proverbs I keep on repeating in my little head. These are:
1) Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
2) Don’t fall into the Not Invented Here syndrome (NIH).
3) Don’t be the fire chief who keeps on telling for the volunteer firefighters that their did their job, but technically wrong. (I think this is very Finnish proverb / joke and does not make much sense in English)
With the Aalto University – merger between the Helsinki School of Economics, the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology – one of the key preparatory activities was an extensive, international research assessment of all the units of the three Schools.
The results from my unit – Media Lab Helsinki – were in a nutshell, as follows (straight quotations from the evaluation report):
“Scientific Quality of the Unit’s Research – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 4 Very Good International Level”
“Scientific Impact of the Unit’s Research – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 4 Very Good International Level”
“Societal Impact of the Unit’s Research – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 5 Outstanding International Level”
“Research Environment at the Unit of Assessment – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 4 Very Good International Level”
“Future Potential of the Unit of Assessment – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 5 Outstanding”
You may guess that we were pretty proud about the results. Regardless of the great results from the assessment, I am seriously worried whatever these results will ever translate to any constructive actions.
I am afraid that when things will be “reorganized” we may loose the flexibility and freedom causing the good results. We will throw out the baby with the bath water.
For instance, the new tenure track system may not recognize the existing expertise in the unit and those who (1) made the great results and (2) are holding the “outstanding future potential” will have hard time to find a place. In a worst-case scenario these people will reclaim the results of the research assessment and move to some other University or research institution. I have some friends in US with this experience.
With the new ICT systems – for internal communication and to enhance teaching and learning – I am afraid of the not invented here syndrome (NIH).
For instance, when selecting intranet/extranet solutions we should be well informed, educated and strategic. This means, that we a honest with the fact that the software engineers are not necessary the best people to design communication systems, such as intranet solutions. They of course know how the bits move in there, but are not – seriously – very good with people, those poor things who will end-up using the system.
In my unit, in last 15 years, we have designed and implemented hundreds of intra/extra/social media systems. The Onni intranet system, developed in-house in cooperation with some people from the School of Design, is definitely one of the best intra/extra/social media systems in the “market” (Socialtext is pretty good, too). Why wouldn’t we use the Onni in the whole Aalto University? Because it is not made by the software engineers of the Helsinki University of Technology but some weird art and design people? I am afraid. To demonstrate that I am not myself falling it to the NIH, I am open to accept Socialtext, as the intra/extra/social media system of the new Aalto University. Please no Confluence Wiki (it’s a wiki, not an intra/extra/social media!).
Finally. The fire chief. In our unit we have many flexible practices that help us to do our job very well: to do (high quality) research and to run our MA and doctoral programs. Sometime the procedures are not exactly according to the rules and guidelines of the University. We do things in a way that may look strange for someone who is not that deep in our operation. In most of the cases there is a practical reason to do things the way we do them. Often the reason is just “common sense”, to save time, effort and nerves or to be focused and not to do things that are not necessary. The results count, right?
Summa summarum: We need autonomy and freedom – not only in the University’s relation in its funders – but also internally in the University, in the unit’s relations to the academic administration.