Five principles for running a good academic department and keeping it that way


For me running a good department is all about nurturing a culture of academic tenure. A culture of tenure is a culture of academic freedom coupled with a cooperative attitude in which academics feel that they are partners in the department. Though we don’t have formal tenure contracts in Australia, we do generally have tenure in terms of job security and a tradition that it’s very hard to fire an academic on a continuing contract. But tenure is not just about  job security, it’s also about the stability of the conditions of employment. How many courses does one teach? Limitations on the downside of salary risk. Clarity in promotions criteria. Here are the five things that I think nurture a culture of tenure in a department.

I. Don’t do anything fancy with teaching loads

When I was at Melbourne every academic regardless of research performance had to teach two courses; though professors usually taught the large principles courses and junior faculty got the smaller honours or third year courses. This kind of equity in teaching loads for tenured academics is essential in any good department. It is also an essential part of the culture of tenure that makes for great departments. You simply don’t want to be in an environment where you are compelled to strategically compete for a lower teaching load with your colleagues. It’s a zero sum game that no competent head of department would want to oversee.

By far the best workloads rule that I’ve experienced is the

 Come rain or shine everyone teaches the same number of courses.

You published in Econometrica this year? Good on you buddy, here’s a beer, but you’re still going to teach your two courses. You’ve had six rejections and haven’t published a thing this year, well this is your lucky year: you’re teaching two courses just like the annoying superstar next-door. You’ve got ten PhD students? Two courses! You’re the head of department, that’s one course please.

II. Limit the powers and  tenure of the head of department

Heads of departments can be pretty powerful. The head can affect some of your working conditions almost arbitrarily. Importantly, the head is the first person that a dean-with-ideas calls.  In departments with no culture of tenure the headship can be very attractive to senior faculty who  bitterly compete for years to have a go at this coveted position. In fact, absent a culture of tenure the headship is so attractive that incumbents typically have to be pulled out of that office by their toes.

The best model that I’ve seen is one in which the term of headship is limited to three years. Here I’m talking about three year terms for the head of department that can be renewed twice or even three times. Limited tenure dramatically reduces the opportunity for arbitrary application of executive power. It’s not very attractive to many deans, but I think that most deans can be convinced by the idea that in a good department with a large number of active senior academics three year headships can work–with a supportive senior faculty willing to help out in the day to day running of the department.

I also think that it is absolutely essential that the head teaches. It makes the position less attractive (which is a good thing) and the head needs to be engaged in the core business of the department. Similarly, it is crucial that the head has time to do research, that will make the position more attractive–to the people that you want to be head.

There is nothing that engenders a culture of tenure more than devolving the executive powers of the head to senior faculty who see themselves as partners in the department.

III. Engage the whole department in hiring and hire well

You know that you have a vibrant culture of tenure in your department if you regularly hire people better than the incumbents in a collective process that engages and gives a voice to all academics.

Absent a culture of a tenure you simply do not want to broadly engage faculty in any hiring decision. This is because any academic worried that his or her working conditions may be adversely affected will want to hire people that are worse than themselves in every characteristic: research, teaching, and service. Why would they want to hire a person that is better than themselves if that has the potential of affecting their employment conditions in an adverse way?

Absent a culture of tenure the only reasonable way to hire people is for the head of department to make a short list of candidates for a small committee comprising the head, the dean, the head’s friend and a student representative.  The head calls up a mate who recommends one of his students for service in the colonies.

In a department lacking a culture of tenure collective decision making regarding hiring necessarily means that people hired through a collective process  based on departmental consensus  will be worse than the median incumbent in the department.

IIII. Criterion referenced upside and limited  downside  

We don’t grade on a curve anymore. We don’t determine which class of honours a student gets based on the student’s rank in the class. We now grade, and rightly so, based on clear criteria.

I don’t see any place in a department for competitions or norm referenced rewards; not in terms of  promotions or awards.

An excellent teacher should receive a teaching award regardless of whether his student evaluation scores are the highest or second highest in the department. For teaching awards, set benchmarks: if you get more than 4.4 in student evaluation, then you get a certificate and a red balloon, more than 4.6 a certificate a medal and $2k is research funds. You don’t want to be rewarding people based on the average student evaluation in the department or on the median or max or min.

The only thing worse than races and competitions in a department is using punishment as a policy instrument–If your student evaluations are below 3.5 we will punish you in various horrible ways. Punishment is just so destructive for any sort of academic scholarly culture.  Anything that can be achieved with a stick is better achieved with a carrot; especially given that in all likelihood most academics in your department will be with you for the rest of your career!

IIII It’s About the Teaching, Stupid!

Keep a fixed eye on the core business because only rich departments can in the long run be successful departments. And the core business in Australian departments is teaching; first and second year teaching. These must be taught well and protected. The best departments invest in continually improving the first and second year student experience. Ideally, your top researchers, the most senior members in the department, and your best teachers ought to be engaged at the first and second year levels.



32 Responses to "Five principles for running a good academic department and keeping it that way"
  1. No head of department was harmed while preparing this post. Despite the best of my efforts.

  2. Hi Rabee,
    I agree with all of these, except perhaps IV. Rewards and punishments are inevitably on the curve; your cut-off numbers of 4.4 and 3.5 do not come falling from the sky but in reality denote numbers that indicate a certain percentage above or below. Relative rewards are simply inevitable and even punishment is as inevitable part of the functioning of a department (or any organisation for that matter), though I agree that one should preferably punish by denying tenure or by open agreement on non-rewards.
    As to your point number I, this issue is in Australia not up to departments to decide. Its in the equilibrium of the whole country that good researchers can find no-teaching jobs or grants that buy them out of teaching. It is within that reality that departments must attract and maintain good people, so whilst your number I might be a desirable aspect of the country-wide equilibrium, individual departments cannot afford to be that pure. To maintain the flavour of it would involve researchers being involved in curriculum design and updating which is where their knowledge of where fields are going can be most useful.

  3. “And the core business in Australian departments is teaching; first and second year teaching. These must be taught well and protected.”

    That’s an interesting point. And why is it crossed out? Why are the first and second years so important? It seems like a `research university’ would be more interested in honours and postgraduate students. Interesting that nothing in this article mentions the importance of graduate students or cultivating a good environment for them.  This criticism relates to points Paul has previously made about the view Australian academics have toward graduate study: go overseas.

    The core business of any serious department should be more on teaching and training graduate students than first and second years. More to the point, you should have able graduate students assisting with curriculum design and running alot of the these first and second year courses under the supervision of senior academics as part of their academic training. My view: putting second and first years as the ‘core’ is telling of Australia’s low quality graduate education. 

  4. Kyle,
    it is true that focusing on the first two years means departments are putting less of their talents into providing for the continuity of economics in Australia, but I still agree with Rabee that it has to be the focal point. For one, even in the best of worlds, far more people will follow 1st and 2nd year courses than will become economists. Hence we are not just talking about the majority of money stream to the department (and hence the physical survival of that department!), but also about the majority of the actual effect of economists on intellectual life in Australia. I dont hesitate to say that the vast majority of the impact that individual economists have on their country is via what they manage to teach large groups of students. So both from personal material interest and from a benevolent point of view, 1st and 2nd year is more important than further education, though one can of course also say that if you start well, you will end better. This in no way means that I am happy with what is currently being taught in these early years, but as a statement of where the priority should lie, I agree with Rabee.

  5. Have you seen the movie, Field of Dreams? “If you build it, they will come”. If you build a strong department that has a vibrant intellectual atmosphere then they will come, both inside the university and in terms of first preferences for enrollment.

    If first and second year economics courses have a reputation for teaching a narrow ‘rational choice theory’ is dogma approach to social science you might have some issues with attracting students to take econ electives within the university (e.g. the walkout that happened to Mankiw). In terms of attracting those outside the Uni, I don’t think people have that much information about what goes on in a first and second year course. They are more likely interested in the reputation of the Department and who they have on the faculty. This demand is probably cultivated by public engagement and discourse, so here comes my second point: 

    “also about the majority of the actual effect of economists on intellectual life in Australia.”

    Isn’t it sad that the majority of the actual effect comes through this medium? Teaching 1st and 2nd years? Public engagement may be a better way to address this problem, and to reach a much *broader* audience than the individuals fortunate enough to make it to elite university X. Indeed, the audience that votes… on things like, say higher education funding, might be the one to reach if economists want to have a bigger effect on the intellectual climate of Australia. This, of course, means economists would have to communicate their ideas in a digestible form in mass. 

  6. Kyle,  
    yes, agreed on the issue of content and that 1st and 2nd years should be treated as means of attracting motivated and good students, but that is a fight for another day (and one in which I doubt Rabee would agree with you and me).
    As to the statement of influence, there is a simple reason why other forms of engagement have less effect: academics have the power to force students to listen to them (somewhat) when in their courses, whilst they do not have this power over anyone else. Other engagement is thus far less intrusive and will often leave only lingering thoughts, but not lead to real understanding or the adoption of a whole mental frame of mind. One hence usually does not really affect the way people think once they are outside of the education tract.
    I dont see any way that will change in the future since people are influenced more when they are weak, young, and gullible than afterwards.

  7. Right. Another interpretation is that weak, young, and gullible students are ripe for indoctrination. I’m worried about the fundamentalism of economics principles making students good parrots but bad critical thinkers. If one has to `force’ people to listen to ones thoughts then maybe those thoughts should be had elsewhere, like inside a Church or a military barracks. 

  8. of course teaching is indoctrination, very similar indeed to that you will find in the church or in the army. If there is a difference, then it is that there is the prior expectation that the mindset you are taught by an economist is more helpful in getting you a good job and might give you an improved understanding of society, leading students to be even more open to our indoctrination than they would be for a church sermon. 
    Making people into critical thinkers is damn hard, particularly since its a useless skill for the vast majority of us. You need exceptionally strong indoctrination to make critical thinkers out of the majority. Much better to indoctrinate the vast majority with more or less useful rules of thumbs and to leave the acquiring of critical thinking to the few who really want it.

  9. For a long time in the 1990s, faculty in the Melbourne Economics department would proclaim they were the best researchers in Australia. This attracted some chuckles from ANU and UNSW economists, who consistently rated higher at publishing in the top journals. However, when Melboune actually did hit the top some time in the 2000s, it was due in large part to the fact they had adopted the kind of departmental model you describe. It was a similar model to that of the Faculties at the ANU in the 70s and 80s, when economics there was far and away the best in the region.

  10. Teaching should *not* be about indoctrination at University. Making people critical thinkers and problem solvers–empowering them– is the chief job of a University. To call this “useless” is , frankly, scary. A society in which free thinking and critical thought is useless might be a good theme for a dyspotic novel but that’s the extent of it.

    Further, University isn’t about “getting a job”, it’s much more than that. It’s about development as a human being in terms of both intellectual and non-cognitive skills so that one can be a citizen. And yes, intellectual skills are more than simply the capacity to rote learn “rules of thumb”. There might be a convincing argument for teaching people basic skills at the school level. There indoctrination may play a role, we can argue about that. 
    Critical thinking , to lift one definition is “the capacity to work with complex ideas whereby a person can make effective provision of evidence to justify a reasonable argument,” as “the shift of learners from absolute conceptions of knowledge towards contextual knowing” and as “an understanding of knowledge as constructed and related to context”. Moon ( ).  

    Calling it damned hard is no excuse. Statistics or anything else is damned hard at the early stages of the learning curve. “Much better to indoctrinate the vast majority with more or less useful rules of thumbs and to leave the acquiring of critical thinking to the few who really want it.”

    Indeed, this sounds like a nice recipe for aristocracy. Empower a small elite (“who really want it”, e.g. those from elite families who have a cultivated desire for it?) to guide the sheep the way they see fit. 

    Critical thinking is incredibly useful. It’s fundamental that University trains critical thinkers to participate in a dynamic society. It allows for flexibility and adaptation and fosters innovation and the easy acquisition of new skills. It’s antithetical to indoctrination — learning only a few “rules of thumb” and hoping we can be guided by some benevolent faction. Indoctrination is for fraternities and other cults  — it’s groupthink. Of course, it’s easier to convince the masses to drink the kool-aid when they only know a few rules of thumb. 

  11. Kyle,
    really? You re-state the usual status quo arguments of the educational brochures but are they really true on reflection? For instance, ask yourself if universities should be involved in telling all the students that there is no such thing as a god. Is religion a realm of thought universities should really go into hard, forcing students to adopt critical thinking and leading them to abandon or at least continually question their lifelong held beliefs on the subject? What about our other core values and loyalties, such as those to our families, countries, and our methods of social interaction: do you really want to get universities to force students to reflect and re-examine all of that? Forget it. University is not really in the business of forcing critical thought down the throat of the mass student population, nor should it. The degree to which we promote critical thinking is no more than skin deep, and that is probably about right. Having said that, I of course personally do promote critical thinking in some of my own teaching and amongst my own students, but only if these students have a clear alternative choice, i.e. they have to consciously choose to want to think critically.

  12. Let me get this straight. No matter how much research I do, there will be no recognition apart from a beer? Ever heard of people specialising in their strengths? Yes – there may be cultural limits on how low.high teaching loads can go, but everyone teaching the same number of courses regardless of other contributions is an affront to logic.

    And no recognition of PhD supervision, which occurs in some kind of hyperspace where time stands still and outcomes require no effort. Really  Rabee. I am eternally grateful that I do not work in your department.

  13. Bringing in religion and ‘family values’ is a nice red herring but I don’t see how that’s relevant to any of my points. Building critical thinking skills is not something universities do for questioning the purposes of religion or family mores. But if questioning one’s beliefs is a by-product of learning then great. Yes I do believe in critical reflection — to god, family, country whatever. Since you’ve started setting up dichotomies , what’s the alternative to critical reflection, bigotry? 

    Sorry to bring in the armchair philosophy of positive v. normative but your normative view of the world seems to be one in which ‘critical thinking’ is only accessible to a select few who ‘really want it’. I don’t really know what this means? Are you suggesting it’s better to cram indoctrination and rules of thumb down the throats of students than critical thinking skills? Oh but wait, for those who really “want it” they can consciously choose to seek it out, provided they can find an audience amongst all the indoctrination going on around them.

  14. Kyle,
    you will find in the educational brochures that all your fears are true. All you need to do is realise what particular words really mean. The word ‘tolerance’ for instance signals ‘no upsetting of the status quo norms and loyalties’. The words ‘applicable and practical’ signals ‘no deep critical thought’. The words ‘further study’ means ‘for those who want it’. Etc.
    Universities are part of the societies they come from and have no alternative but to help solidify and embed those values that the rest of their society wants them to. Deviations from that mold are only acceptable within bounds. And, yes, if you are a critical thinker with all this conforming going on around you then you will find yourself somewhat lonely, which is precisely why we should not be in the business of forcing it down students’ throats.
    The fact that you didnt already know the above (which is not exactly rocket science or unknown to philosophers and social scientists) already tells you something about your own education being far less critical then you thought it was.

  15. “The fact that you didnt already know the above (which is not exactly rocket science or unknown to philosophers and social scientists) already tells you something about your own education being far less critical then you thought it was. ” Thanks Paul. Not addressing my points and instead making personal insults to a person you know nothing about only proves my point. 

  16. @Paul, @Kyle,
    How about a separate post on critical thought? Your conversation has nothing to do with the main post and is coming across as annoying self-indulgence!

  17. rohan,
    hmm, thats a bit unfair. Your own remarks on which department was proclaiming its own greatness, is its own brand of off-topic self-indulgence. Getting off-topic is really not all that bad, particularly since neither you nor Rabee have reacted to the first comments by me and kyle that were on the original post. Moreover, commenters are free to react to each other rather than to the post, though it would perhaps be a good idea to allow for a more sophisticated commenting line so that others can see whether a comment is to a previous comment or a new strand.

  18. Universities have evolved in ways that alter how academics relate to administrative staff, students and other academics.  Perhaps ‘evolved’ is not quite right as the process has been top-down and largely designed. 
    We live in a competitive environment.  Commercial criteria therefore tend to displace all others.  Marx knew this.  Competition strips away all kinds of buffers that come to be regarded as inefficiencies.  Tea rooms become offices; tenure becomes conditional.  Heads become all powerful and yet overburdened.  It’s part of the same process of an ever-expanding managerial prerogative.  But it may be that affecting the role of the Head is something that can be done bottom-up as a rearguard response.
    We find that some Heads are now worked so hard that they market here and abroad, closely manage massive Schools and could only take the time to teach if there is willing, capable and well coordinated high-level support.  But the learning curve is steep and the Head is nowadays directly linked to so many others.  The job has been changed by design so that rotation and devolution is increasingly infeasible. 
    And the un-arrested trend is clear: the Head will become the representative of Senior Management at the factory floor.  Keeping the workers happy will simply become the HR aspect of the Head’s job. 

    Academic life within Schools will change to conform to this vision.  If Senior Management wants to raise performance, they will simply order academics to raise it, using the best available management science to measure compliance.  If academics protest that they want collegiality, send them directives from on high addressed, “Dear Colleagues”.
    One approach is for academics to facilitate this capitalistic phase to get through it as soon as possible then to reach some higher form of cooperative university in the long run.  A Trotskyite would argue differently though, rightly one suspects, and would strive to arrest the trend.

  19. Chris,

    You want to keep teaching out of the reward structure. Of course there is a need for rewarding good research, but not through the teaching load. 

    Further, I think that one can reward good performance, and one should reward good performance, but that should be criterion referenced rewards and not norm referenced rewards.

  20. Rohan-Paul 

    The post is about  running a good department and not about fixing a bad one. 

    They are two different things.

    Ultimately I’m saying that a culture of tenure is necessary for the longevity of great department. A culture of tenure is also , I think, what is behind the emergence of the good departments that I’ve seen.  

    So perhaps I’m happy to say  a culture of tenure can help fix a department. 


  21. Bruce:

    I’m far more optimistic than you. The problem has to do with information asymmetry. The hierarchical managerial structure is ultimately unworkable if the best informed person is the person at the bottom of the ladder. 

    Take for example hiring people? Can a vice chancellor hire well on his own? Can a committee comprising the vice chancellor, the dean and the head hire well in economics? 

    How about if they engage the services of a head-hunting firm? (who conceived of that when hiring senior academics? It’s odd, really odd.)

    I don’t think that you can avoid engaging the real experts on the factory floor; who are the best informed about the academic market.


  22. Hi Paul, Regarding your first comment: I don’t have problems with external funding that reduces teaching. External rewards for research performance are exactly what we need. The post is about internal rewards. 

    External rewards, market rewards, grants… are essential for a culture of tenure. 

  23. @Paul
    Re your first comment on country ewuilibrium, I don’t see people rushing en-masse to zero teaching jobs at bad places. Eg being @ Melbourne with teaching beats @QUT with none, doesn’t it?

  24.   rohan,

    yes, in hindsight Melbourne with teaching beats Qut without it. But if you look at the 20 highest repec ranked economists in the country, about half of them are or have at some point been at less good places that effectively offered them zero teaching. And one of the reactions to that by the better places has been to offer more no-teaching jobs. UQ for instance now offers a scheme whereby any outside no-teaching grants can get doubled in terms of time under a VC scheme (i.e. if the ARC gives you 3 years of no-teaching the university can give you another 3 whether the school agrees or not). So, as I said, its not really in the hands of the schools. 

  25. Paul,
    First, the RepEc rankings are just plain silly: not peer reviewed, not quality adjusted, only including people who subscribe. I don’t know anyone outside Australia who takes these rankings seriously. So your point about top 20 is invalid from the get go.

    Second, I don’t need hindsight regarding QUT and other places like UTS that tried to improve by buying talent. In the end, the old adage always comes up: a great department in a less-great institution is vulnerable. Ultimately, it will collapse. Witness Mike Keane leaving UTS, you leaving QUT, etc.

  26. Wow, so negative. how much of the ‘dismal’ in the dismal science is a function of grumpy old men? Or maybe the grumpy old men are a function of the dismal science? Any sociologists or psychogists in the house? 

  27. rohan,

    for me, the issue of what rankings one should take most seriously is entirely one of their use within the profession. It is ultimately a matter of internal politics which rankings are used, not first principles. Repec has over 30,000 authors, of which I would estimate less than 2% are Australian based. Hard to say with such a basic figure its only the Australians that take it seriously. I cant help it those rankings take citations and downloads seriously….

    On the topic of teaching, I am sympathetic to your argument as to what the prefered situation is, but cant help but note you yourself are now in a no-teaching situation! Given the reduced status of teaching, scholars will continue to want to avoid it and institutions will react to that.

  28. Paul
    RepEc’s main service is not it’s ranking: that’s a minor aspect. So it’s irrelevant that there are some 29, 000 non Oz users registered. With no quality adjustment of citations, it is indeed a bad measure on first principles. It’s like equating a fun run to an Olympic marathon! Relating to the post, I don’t thing you can run a good department if you hire and promote using RePEc figures.

  29. Hi all, (Rohan-Paul)

    I think that you are missing my main point, and perhaps I haven’t articulated it well.

    1. I have no objections to externally funded teaching relief coming from grant bodies similar to the ARC. If a researcher has a project that needs teaching relief, then surely he or she should apply for a grant for this. By external I also mean bodies external to the department but that may be part of the university. For example the vice chancellor. 

    2. I have strong objections to my department giving differential teaching loads to incoming senior hires (junior hires may need to find their feet, of course). This is not an issue of bad management nor is it entirely related to what I’ve written about in the post (i.e., the first principle above) 

    3. My post, which seems to have been lost in this avalanche of comments, objects to something entirely different. It is about using teaching relief internally as an incentive mechanism. I think that doing so is bad management.

    Now I understand that in Australia there are institutions that don’t have teaching; such as the RSSS. Paul’s point I guess is how does one attract people from the RSSS to an environment in which everyone is teachings the same number of subjects (a normal department)? That’s an important point.

    I guess such people should be encouraged and helped to get external funding for teaching relief. Further, if the vice chancelor is willing to pay in perpetuity teaching relief for a senior hire, then that’s external funding. So long as it is clear that this money is never going to show up on the departmental budget. Of course, VC’s come and go and the fear is that eventually my teachers/researchers will be the ones directly cross subsidising this teaching relief. So I would still be cautious about this. 


  30. Not sure if I agree with the head of school doing teaching argument! Really?! These guys are super busy.

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