Academic Administration and Freedom

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.

3 thoughts on “Academic Administration and Freedom

  1. Yes Teemu, I understand your concern as these things have, even before Aalto, been ‘nagging’ at us through early administrations from time to time. One reason for the problems is, IMHO, that Media Lab’s ‘success’ has not been achieved through conforming to ‘normal’ academic structures and practices – we’ve done things by being enthusiastic, self-confident, opportunistic and optimistic (and having the talent and expertise of course!) – and we were allowed a certain amount of freedom to do that too, especially in our earliest years. But having achieved success in R&D without big name Professors and their published monologues we are, nevertheless, overseen by individuals and committees who believe strongly in the traditional structures, hierarchy and academic values. We are, nevertheless, part of academia and subject to its traditional ways. (Aalto is, anyway, supposed to be proposing an improved model, n’est pas?) It is a sad thing but I’m sure they are also puzzled and threatened by our success to some extent. However, if we now we given extra resources then surely we could, keep a tight hold of the baby, and attempt to extend existing operations through the formation of traditional posts for Professors created somehow ‘within’ the existing research groups. That could be seen as natural development too. But let’s achieve that without having to demote or divorce all the individuals without doctoral degrees and official status that got us this far!

    Anyone who leads knows that it is necessary to separate ‘things’ and ‘people’. Both those need to be managed anyway but it’s necessary to see the wood from the trees. In small-scale operations that is a very hard task because often individuals are the key to success in any particular area of study and research. Within TaiK we could list hundreds of cases to prove this point and this has certainly been the case within the lab’s brief history. It seems to me that in bigger organisations and in operations that have a considerable history there is, typically, less appreciation of the individual and more emphasis on managing the whole (complex) system. There are norms and rules and regulations and there is little appreciation or acceptance of any bending of these ‘house rules’. This is a great dilemma in the case where one of the main aims is to achieve innovation and excellence. Because, as far as I’ve seen over the last 20 years, innovation and excellence doesn’t spring forth from large regimented units but from rather small-scale, avant garde and effervescent pockets of activity which are, typically, led by one or two individuals. The Aalto leaders should REALLY understand this too. Actually, it’s ironic but some of the world’s top universities are actually quite small in comparison with others in their respective countries. I personally agree with E.F. Shumacher, ‘small is beautiful’.

    Like

  2. Very good principles, Teemu! I agree 100%.

    I would not like to throw any systems away before we have learned more about them. Onni, for example, is interesting, but I have only seen somebody else use it. Having access to Onni would be nice (and for all within Aalto too, in principle).

    NIH-syndrome is a two-sided coin like you said. All three schools have different ways of working and I also would like to see autonomy, in the future too. I believe we could reach (intended) results (and hopefully more) _without_ harmonizing too much.

    The problem of putting fires out the wrong way is closely related to NIH. One principle or actually a choice between a do-it-all system or a compilation of dedicated smaller applications is something that we should discuss within Aalto. Having a master system of all systems is out of the question, but I do not agree either with milder ideas of having just a single system for example for “eLearning” or the community building intranet type services. Intranet as a one way communication is easy to build, but the community side faces lots of challenges, not only the choice of technology.

    We do need alternatives due to differences between schools, but also because people are different within schools. Even the system you suggested (Socialtext) in this opinion would include too much?

    Like

  3. Lauri,

    Thanks. I agree. Do-it-all systems are not wise. Still, I think: (1) entry points to different services are important, (2) we should not underestimate the power of social media in a community building and (3) we must be able to do smart technology / tool choices.

    I’ll ask you a user name to the Onni. ASAP. 🙂

    -Teemu

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s