The Crisis of the University of Sydney


Something I’ve been meaning to do is say something about Mike Spence’s arbitrary firings of tenured academics at the University of Sydney.

The truth is that like many busy academics – and most academics are busy teaching and researching – I basically avoid thinking about what has been happening in Sydney and how it affects the rest of Australia.

It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current Sydney VC are basically a gradual, long-run form of institutional suicide — and that’s bad for all Australian universities.

The nature of the sacking of tenured academics in Sydney means that no up-and-coming academic will want to work in Sydney and that all serious senior academics in Sydney will be looking for new jobs. It could also mean that it will be difficult for any Australian university to attract senior research talent from overseas; especially in areas like Business, Economics, Mathematics, and Physics where tenure is important.

(Indeed, I paraphrase Paul Krugman’s short post, not about Sydney or tenure, in this short post about Sydney)

61 Responses to "The Crisis of the University of Sydney"
  1. It might mean that. Or it might mean that some lazy bums who can’t even meet the lowest levels of research achievement get the flick and move on in their career to places where they are more gainfully employed.  Then new applicants who appreciate a research culture (not those who seek the opportunity of a job for life with no required output) might be attracted to the University of Sydney. I am honestly not sure which way it goes.  There are duds in the academic world for sure but possibly not that many.Most people seem to make a contribution.  But I still find it hard to understand those who cannot even meet Spence’s low minimum standards. 

  2. Harry,

    Academic tenure as an institution has responsibilities associated with it. These responsibilities have to do with teaching and running a department.

    Tenure protects against the downside of research bets. There is no where in the world where a University cannot fire a tenured academic who decides not to turn up for teaching (on time). But in good universities the downside of research bets is protected by a safety net called tenure.  As you know one starts research projects not knowing if they will payoff in terms of scientific breakthrough.

    All of this has little to do with Sydney University where academics are being sacked based on arbitrary ex-post research output rules of thumb. 

    I have known you for a long time Harry and you have always courageously spoken out  against what you considered incoherent policies of university administrators. These sackings in Sydney, Harry, are shaping to be a disaster for the University of Sydney and are likely to turn into a national disaster for all Australian universities.


  3. Let’s be honest. Our ‘elite’ Universities are full of dead weight. To call them bums or duds is putting it lightly.  Krugman’s article, ‘American Thought Police’ was about sacking for political reasons, not sloth.   This is all a consequence of the performance management bureaucracy in Australia. Perverse incentives drive people to ‘play the game’, publishing in the top journals (according to what Canberra says this year) for short run hits, neglecting substance and the long run. That’s a criticism you want to make — people wearing their journal records on their sleeves. Those too, are bureaucrats.  Keep in mind the sackees are all getting redundancy packages. Making redundant a few old geezers at the top is arguably the best thing for students and junior staff. Yes, teaching and research is important. The excuse that “some people are just only good at one” doesn’t work anymore. Does free riding have a negative impact on quality? Absolutely. Take the social sciences (yes this includes ‘business and economics’), for example. Australia is lightyears behind international best practice. That’s also a concern for the bright young people you’re worried about. The cream of the crop don’t want to come here and work with dinosaurs.  Unis have budget problems, are poorly managed, etc. but the priority is research. That’s what drives up X ranking system and that’s the business model. We can’t fire the professional staff — who would process all the overseas student applications?   

  4. CB, I don’t generally engage anonymous posters. In this case I’ll simply restate what must be obvious: no half decent  university in the world would do what Sydney is doing.  Making my way down from Chicago, Harvard, Oxford, Paris,  to reasonably decent European universities, I cannot think of any that would do what Sydney is doing. Best practice does not involve arbitrary sacking of tenured academics.  


  5. It seems to me that the question is… what is a good way to measure research performance?  I don’t think anyone is saying good research performance is not a good thing, but if you are basing employment on it then it needs to be defined and measured.

    For that you have to know what research is for, how you tell it is being done and how you tell it is being done well.

    Publication is being used as a proxy, is it a good one?  If it is, why is it?  If it isn’t, why not? 

    Not being an academic I don’t know the answers but the obvious point to be addressed is the apparent rise in the physical sciences of positive outcomes being published that can’t be replicated.  That would seem to indicate that publishing is not a proxy for good research. at least not as it is being done now.

    CB I don’t think Rabee’s arguement is that bad researchers should be retained, seems to me the problem is how the “deadwood” is being identified.  


  6. It seems the key question is whether the firing of “tenured academics” (what does that mean in Australia anyways?) at the University of Sydney was arbitrary, based on arbitrary ex-post research output rules of thumb, and whether those rules of thumb do indeed provide perverse incentives for the future (e.g., submission of quick n short publications in Economics Letters or some such journals, or not engaging in high-risk projects, or just choosing exit over voice internally).
    It seems to me that the stay that the NTEU affected (see here; see also here for the FWA terms of settlement: ) provides at least some evidence that management should have done things differently in the first place. That the NTEU had to call in FWA tells a story.
    This story is likely to damage Spence’s reputation, and that of U Syd, independent of the ultimate merits of whatever case they might have. 

  7. ZJ, agreed.

    Incidentally, you see the consequences of all this not just in the physical sciences. Coercive citations, or strategic citations, as well as multiple dippings (recall the recent Frey scandal),  resume paddings (see here: ), and irreplicability of results, are afflicting economics, too. But all that has to wait for another post … 

     We have a system where it takes a head of department has to go through a process of performance evaluation which gives reasonable notice to an academic that they needed to pull their socks up.  Most academics that I know respond to proper performance evaluations and targets. They want to know that they are being appreciated and are willing to work hard to make sure that this is the case.
    The case of Sydney seems simply crazy and totally unfair. People woke up without notice to an arbitrary retrospective performance hurdle that they had not met over the last three years. That benchmark was set based on the number of academics that need to get the sack. Administration had a quota for the number of academics that need to get the sack and they set a retrospective performance hurdle based on this.

  9. @Harry
    I know personally some of those who are being targeted, and they are far from being sloths. You are assuming that the Sydney admin got it right: far from it .In fact, your face might turn a bit red if you compared their cvs to yours! Spence got it badly wrong, and now there are student riots over sacking of only 43 people. Is this good management? Perhaps you should remember that old Christian adage: there but for the grace of God go I.

  10. Rohan – can you explain what you mean by “You are assuming that the Sydney admin got it right: far from it.” My understanding is that individuals who hadn’t published in the last 4 years were targeted for redundancy or demotion or whatever was going to happen. Are you saying that some had published in the last four years and were still targeted?

  11. Sinclair–yes, not only that, but A* journals in the top 15 that I along with most people in our profession would rate as a career highlight. What’s more, the criteria were retrospective: Academics at USyd were operating on a performance monitoring scheme called “Peer Mentoring and Development” that specified goals and what to do if performance was unsatisfactory, etc. That was thrown out ex post. Some have been targeted for sacking who were recently promoted.

  12. Sinclair, 

    It was not just bad implementation. It is a bone headed policy. The policy was that anyone who did not have four papers published in three years 2009-2010-2011 will be slated for sacking.


  13. Rohan, I am surprised the way you seem to fawn at the altar of “top ranking” journals and “top ranking” US graduate schools but oppose people getting the flick if they don’t do minimal research. I don’t compare CVs (so I would not suffer from what you call “red face” syndrome) but I am interested in people who are paid to do research but don’t do it. Why do think you are one to make strong claims about the CVs of others -including mine – anyway? 
    If the Sydney procedure is 4 A* publications (rather than in Economic Record or other good applied journals) that are required then I think the administrative procedure is inept because that would be an unnecessarily narrow way of characterising what is good economic research.  

  14. Harry,
    This post is about really serious stuff: the lives and careers of our colleagues in the profession and how this might influence our lives and careers. The relative merits of publishing in different journals in economics isn’t the issue…

  15. I completely concur with Rohan and Rabee. 4 publications in 3 years independent of quality? That’s simply ridiculous. The setting of (marginal) incentives for quantity at the expense of quality couldn’t be more clear. We will now have people looking to satisfy Sydney’s rule by having four 5-page notes in journals like the Economics Bulletin rather than two 15-page regular articles in appropriate field journals. Again, that’s just crazy.
    Can it really be the case that this rule was applied independent of other measures of research productivity? (grants, conference presentations, working papers, revise-and-resubmits, etc etc etc). It completely staggers my mind.
    Btw, for anyone reading this who is not an economics academic, it should be borne in mind that it is in fact quite difficult to publish at a rate greater than one refereed article per year if you are trying to publish in top journals.
    (Ok, I admit to being a little biased here; I would have been fired if those rules were applied to me, I had only 2 publications in 2009-2012…) 
    My sympathies to everyone at Sydney who is affected by this procedural and intellectual travesty.

  16. In February Micheal Spence had a ‘hit list’ of 750 academics slated for potential sacking. Of these, 150 where expected to be sacked: 

    Since then I know that people have been saved and pulled out of the 150 “death row list” through the decisive interventions of deans/heads. Some have remained on this list and their pink slips are current.

    I now wonder what the ethnic/minority composition of those “unsaved death row” academics is. Of course I don’t have this information. But if it happens that ethnic minorities or women academics or LGBTi academics dominate the slated to be sacked list, then surely the whole process is rotten to the core.  


  17. @Rabee,
    I hope they haven’t ended up with a minorities hit list. Australia has been generally unfairly tarred with the racism brush: witness the tragic attacks on Indian Students in recent years. But if there is a racial bias in the sackings our industry is in for even more trouble.

  18. @Harry,
    The people Rabee and I are talking about are real, this is happening now, and they are not “some lazy bums who can’t even meet the lowest levels of research” as you suggest. (As I said, they have produced good research.) I find your comment quite disturbing and I hope its not the typical view of the Australian academic economist.

  19. @Chris,
    Thanks for your support. It seems there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to speak out. What I find most problematic is the retrospectivity of the sackings. There was a scheme in place that was ignored. If they are successful, my concern is what ex-post criteria will they use next time?

  20. @Rohan
    Exactly, that is what I mean by the “procedural travesty”.

    Even if one granted that the publication targets were reasonable, which I dispute, the decision to override existing performance criteria is extremely disturbing. 

  21. Of course, Australian academia pracitises racism. Most of the racism is covert. For example, Ghanshyam Mehta had to retire as an Associate Professor inspite of having a great publication record. Many academics at NSW university were (in the period: 1970-2000) treated as second class citizens inspite of having great publication. For example, Nripesh Podder retired as an Associate Professor inspite of having great publication record. Nanak Kakwani who has nine Econometrica publication was not chosen for Distinguished Fellow Award. Why do you think top Asian academics avoid Australia and prefer USA and Canada?
    From the information that I have, I gather that one XXXXXXX economist is in the list of sacked people. He has publications in journals such as XXX, XXX & XXX etc. (Edited by Rabee to hide personal information)

  22. I understand that there are been stuff-ups in the process – but in principle it is hard to go past Harry’s point. If people are not doing the job they’re being paid for then should be moved on. Now 4A*s in three years is a tough ask, as Harry says, but the notion of tenure isn’t there to protect people who don’t work, it’s there the protect people doing controversial work.

  23. Pradeep,

    We generally like full names in these posts. Do you mind if I change your post to include your full name?  

    Also, I have redacted personal information about a sacked colleague.  

  24. Sinclair, what do you think is the role of academic tenure aside from protecting academic freedom? 

    Aside from tenure (which is like partnership in a law firm). What institutional framework can we have in which incumbents are not averse to hiring people better than themselves?

    A strong head? A strong and knowledgeable dean? What? 


  25. Rabee,

    Thanks for hiding the personal information of the sacked academic.


  26. I also signed the petition against these sackings. Like Harry and Sinclair, I am not opposed to the principle of sacking people who don’t produce, but these are real lives being messed with so it is important to have an open, transparent, and announced strategy as to what the expected output levels are. The willy-nilly, make-it-up-afterwards-to-meet-the-target approach pursued at Sydney is completely counter-productive and unfair.
    I also expect the whole thing to end up going to industrial tribunals or the courts and expect the University will have to pay out large packages in compensation. Having had experience with these things, I predict the VC will probably try and pay them off by huge amounts in return for confidentiality clauses that keep it out of the papers. Hence one should not fear too much for the people still on the ‘death lists’. Their future asset position are looking very rosy.
    An expensive mistake for Spencer to start his reign with.

  27. Rabee – I’m not convinced that universities face a unique problem in employing people. I’m well aware of the arguments in favour of tenure – I’ve also read your previous posts on the issue. Australia doesn’t have a tenure system like the US – maybe it should, but it doesn’t.

    When sitting on employment panels I’ve always selected the best candidate. Good candidates lead to good colleagues. The solution to having juniors who are better than me, is to ensure that I continue to add value to the organisation. Competition from below concentrates the mind.

    The other thing to ensure is that Dean’s and PVCs have oversight. If they make bad hiring decisions they lose their jobs.

    I remember reading an interview with the head of INSEAD in the late 80s (unfortunately have never been able to find it again) where he said, “professors do research or they are fired”.  

  28. Sinclair 

    I’ve never seen a coherent argument for the managerial model of universities: head of department is middle management who makes sure that department hires well.

    Take a look at this paper it has a nice explanation of what I’m talking about:

    Incentives in Academics: Why is There Tenure?
    H. Lorne Carmichael
    Journal of Political Economy
    Vol. 96, No. 3 (Jun., 1988), pp. 453-472

    The basic idea is that the difference between a baseball team and an academicdepartment is the way in which new members of the team are selected… 

  29. Sinclair,
    There is a lot of interesting stuff out there on organizational economics which deals with issues like this.
    Examples of tenure-like systems outside the university sector include law firms, with a partnership structure. This institutional form is an incentive scheme for the junior lawyers–who work like crazy to make partner, thus delivering surplus to the partners, as well as a way of ensuring that the partners have an incentive to hire the best juniors. Peter Bardsley and Katya Sherstyuk have an excellent paper on the topic…

  30. “Some say that requiring any 4 publications over 3 years neglects the issue of quality of publication but that is a poor argument.  If the 4 publications are low quality then those rejected cannot even get 4 low quality outputs.  This involves setting a low hurdle and cannot sensible prejudice those who can do better.”
    You’re suggesting that high-quality researchers should have no problem achieving the ‘low hurdle’ of 4 low-quality outputs, however you’re ignoring the fact that researchers were unaware of this rule. If researchers knew they only needed a certain quantity of outputs (irrespective of quality), they could change the way they undertake research to satisfy this rule. However, since they were unaware of this requirement at the time they were undertaking their research, it is likely that some high-quality researchers will have produced <4 outputs.
    Timing aside, even if the researchers knew the rules of the game, surely a system that encourages participants to produce 4 low-quality outputs over 3 high-quality outputs is seriously flawed.

  31. Rabee, Rohan – yes I am familiar with the literature on tenure. I will have a read of the JPE and then provide some detailed comments. I’ll sneak my tablet into some very important, value-added student- centred meetings that I’ll be today.

  32. So far my comments are at 800 words so I’ll be posting later (maybe Sunday). My initial thoughts are that the paper ignores joint production and team work and over-emphasises asymmetric information. It applies, at best, to a university where the academic staff in a department appoint professors from outside.  What Donald Kennedy calls a Type I university. First those types are rare and second as Henry Rosovsky makes clear there are oversight mechanisms in place in those types. 

    Long story short: of the arguments for tenure (Academic freedom, internal market discipline, and social contract) I’m not convinced by the internal market argument (i.e. it isn’t a big problem, or unique to universities). 

  33. Sinclair, 

    Where will you be posting the comments on that paper? I now someone very clever who tried to model tenure (in particular the argument that it makes academics cheaper) but had difficulty coming up with a rational expectations dynamic model.


  34. I work at U Sydney. (Well, for now, anyway.) I don’t think it’s helpful for people unacquainted with specifics to pontificate about supposedly unproductive people at the ends of their careers, or people who’ve chosen to take a salary while doing next to nothing to earn it.

    The fact is … that the facts are not clear. Even those of us at the institution are struggling to get good, reliable information. The process is not transparent in the slightest.

    The best informal, first- and second-hand information (and there’s a lot of that, as it happens, because people are upset, and are talking about it) is that this has been an unanticipated and arbitrary application of one-size-fits-all rules in which some disciplines (e.g. various applied science anc technical disciplines) get off lightly because they produce multiple papers with cricket-teams of authors, and/or submit lots of works-in-progress to lightly refereed conferences.

    The social sciences and humanities disciplines are being hit disproportionately, as best can be discerned from a process in which details are being kept as hidden as possible.

    To presume that this is going to be an effective exercise in getting rid of alleged “deadwood” is kind of charming in its naivete, and I best leave it there before I say something I possibly shouldn’t.

  35. Michael, If you know anyone affected by this you should impress upon them the need to stand their ground, not give in, and fight this. Don’t sign a thing!

    Also, there is no doubt that the economics academic community can be rallied to offer support in terms of letter writing and advice.

  36. Rabee, I know several people directly affected by this, and I have heard many tales of others, in various areas across the university.


    – an academic in a business school discipline (in a department already understaffed based on regular attrition over the last few years) who had time off during the assessment period because of a serious illness (brain tumour, I believe) who has been kept on the final list for redundancy;

    – in the medical school, several surgeons and clinicians, who teach the next generation of medicos in between doing operations and whatnot, are being given the flick for being “non-research-active”. In one case, I understand the teacher was close to retirement and was lining up a successor, who is now not going to sign on to the university because of this;

    – several mature-age academics who had been employed on a fractional full-time basis with non-trivial teaching loads (and admin on top of that), who had done PhDs part-time, publishing or submitting work along the way, who had JUST been promoted to Level B, now declared research-inactive (or insufficiently research-active, or whatever wording you prefer).

    These are based on cases where “final letters” were received just this month, or where some terms were agreed to based on previous letters.

    I have more stories. None of this, it should be noted, indicates the degree of “churn” that has gone on in this process since last November, as names went on to lists and came off lists for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

    Or the names that have stayed on the list despite appeals from deans and heads of schools about the importance and worth of particular individuals. The comments reported in the weekend’s SMH attributed to the VC (that the uni management drew up a large list of names based on research outputs and then faculty-level committees made the eventual decisions) is inconsistent with both what my Dean has said, and what the correspondence coming from university management says, which always refers to a central panel as final arbiter.

    This is a fairly miserable place to be right now.

  37. Michael,

    If indeed this was the case:

    “faculty-level committees made the eventual decisions”

    Then it should not be difficult to figure out who made the sacking decisions at the faculty level, and without a doubt the heads of departments would have been consulted.

    I have talked to a number of people about these things including senior American based academics. There is a view that the first thing that anyone should do is get professional legal advice. And fight fight fight this legally.

    Do you know if the Economic Society of Australia has taken a stand on this?–given that the social sciences have been affected.

  38. Rabee, I have kept this post short after deleting a longer one that I should probably keep to myself for now! But to your final para:

    I am not aware that the ESA (or my organisation, AARES) have taken any kind of position about what’s going on.

    I’m also not aware of (either of) them being approached to do so.

    I think it’s important to think about what occurs after the process runs its course. These societies may wish to reflect, and possibly opine openly, on how they think their members/colleagues have been treated and what it says about how their disciplines are regarded. And why such a discriminatory criterion was applied without any warning.

  39. Michael, I think that the ESA should take a stand, it is to my mind a far more consequential crisis than even the ERA journal rankings issue that engaged the society for so long. People should contact officers and lead members of that society in their state.

    The econometric society also has a role but it seems to me that the ESA has a lead role in this.

    Academic economic associations and societies cannot be wilfully silent on this issue.

  40. Its the standard Australian trade union ethic you are exposing Rabee and it damages Australia. To hell with productivity let’s just protect those affected by these moves.

    Of course those who are productive and who deliver good research outputs as per their contracts should be protected. Indeed if their are brilliant academics at Sydney plugging away on Nobel Prize-worthy outputs then, for sure, protect such people even if we have to wait a while for what is produced.

    But maybe that is not always the case. Maybe some academics should be redeployed because they don’t and cannot produce or be creative. You don’t want such people in the universities – they are not intended to provide a lifetime income to those who cannot deliver.

    Doing the opposite is unfair to those who do struggle and work hard.

  41. Harry, We generally like full names in these posts. Do you mind if I change your posts to include your full name?

    Also I think that it is entirely unfair to the reader that you remain engaged in the conversation in this particular post given the general history associated with the “deleted threads”.

  42. No Rabee I’d prefer the abbreviated name which some respect but which you don’t. Blogging allows such abbreviations in part because we share official duties in the institutions we work for. If I comment on John Quiggin’s blog he always responds(if he does at all) as hc which I prefer.

    And I think that the deletion history bears no relation to my comment. You know the reason for the deletion and it had nought to do with the points I make in my comment.

    Why not respond to the point rather than raising irrelevant issues?

  43. Actually Harry, the vitriol and viciousness associated the deleted threads is relevant here. It frames this recent comment within a perspective that I had not anticipated from you. Which includes extraordinary antipathy to the author of this post and other colleagues.

  44. hc,

    Try responding to something I’ve said. My name’s on my posts and I am in the thick of this.

  45. OK Michael I’ll repeat my original response to Rabee’s claims that the measures will disadvantage Sydney:

    “It might mean that. Or it might mean that some lazy bums who can’t even meet the lowest levels of research achievement get the flick and move on in their career to places where they are more gainfully employed.  Then new applicants who appreciate a research culture (not those who seek the opportunity of a job for life with no required output) might be attracted to the University of Sydney. I am honestly not sure which way it goes.  There are duds in the academic world for sure but possibly not that many.Most people seem to make a contribution.  But I still find it hard to understand those who cannot even meet Spence’s low minimum standards. ”

    That remains my view. That you are in the midst of this gives you no more authority to discuss the implications of the policy than a pedestrian who is hit by a car has authority over the causes of traffic accidents. Its an issue of the way universities should run – not a targeted criticism of any particular group or person.

    As I said in the last comment if low publication outputs are the product of lags in production then provide more time. Otherwise if academics are paid to deliver research outputs but don’t then they need to either switch to teaching only positions or try something else.

  46. I think they should remove tenure at the second tier places in Australia, and bring back compulsory retirement. Time to give the new young productive academics a go! At least we will publish in the better journals!!

  47. hc,

    I know more about who is being targetted and their performance than you do.

    All you have on offer is “Or it might mean…” which means you know nothing and are speculating.

    A pedestrian who is hit by a car may be able to testify more accurately about the circumstances of the accident and the driver’s actions (like, that they were talking on their mobile phone while driving) than someone pontificating from another city who has only seen a photograph of the aftermath, right?

    You seem determined to imagine that something is happening that suits your prejudices, and then to comment authoritatively as though what you imagine is happening is what is IN FACT happening, without any supporting evidence.

    Are you really in the habit of drawing such strong conclusions without the remotest shred of evidence?

    This is utterly, staggeringly mystifying.

  48. What evidence have you brought to bear on the issue Michael? You are right I know only what I have read. I do that a lot. Inform us.

    Is a few papers over 4 years unreasonable? In some cases – those seeking very high level outlets for work involving years of work – it might be. Is that the case here?

    Yes Lars old and second rate… win…..

  49. Harry,

    It appears that you don’t actually read:

    “…yes, not only that, but A* journals in the top 15 that I along with most people in our profession would rate as a career highlight…”

    But that’s not the main issue. The quality of journals is secondary. Reread the thread and you will read about the main issue. It has to do with fairness and retrospective performance targets.

    In all of this what has surprised me the most is the bitterness associated with those who seem to relish the thought that some colleagues are being sacked: genuinely being entertained by these sackings.

  50. hc,

    I brought evidence above. You have brought precisely — PRECISELY! — none.

    Here’s the summary of some examples I already brought up, with a couple more added.

    – Business school academic who has suffered a serious illness during the 3 year assessment period.

    – Medicos who taught med students in between doing, you know, life-saving surgery, trivial stuff like that. They were not engaged to be researchers as best I understand, but are now effectively being fired for not doing any. (As mentioned above, this has completey trashed the “succession planning” in the case of one about to retire.)

    – Several academics who did PhDs part-time (submitting papers along the way), while teaching and doing admin. THEY HAD JUST BEEN PROMOTED through the university’s own internal promotion procedures in recognition of their performance across a range of activities as described above.

    – At least one academic who’d won a sizeable ARC grant.

    – At least one academic who’d been (in effect) a head of school in two of the three years under assessment and had been promoted during it.


    1. It is not “a few papers over 4 years”. It is 4 or more papers within 3 years. (I know of AT LEAST one 3-papers-in-3-years academic currently targetted.)

    2. The process underway completely discounts any issue of publication quality. Without wanting to enter a pissing contest about which journals matter or don’t, the point is NONE OF THAT COUNTS HERE. (In the case of the 3-papers-in-3-years academic I mentioned just above, there is already evidence of the work being read and cited.)

    3. The process is incredibly uneven across scholarly disciplines. I have what I presume to be a representative recent paper from the public health area at USyd. Once you remove the lengthy reference list, there are more authors on the paper than pages. It is quite clear (because it is explicitly STATED) that the first author did most of the work, and the other dozen or so offered suggestions or read the draft. In our discipline, that would merit a thank-you in the acknowledgements. This is not to say one approach is right or wrong — it’s to point out an inequity in the current process. (Being the 10th author on four papers means you are safe from harm. Being the sole author of three papers means you are not.)

    4. This process has not been explicitly targetted at improving productivity and removing alleged “deadwood”. It has been about “saving money”. If you base your opinions on what you read, then you would have read that. It is entirely unclear that getting rid of 50-something academics will save much money, and certainly not clear that it will be worth the loss in morale and reputation that is occurring.

    5. To the extent that there is a genuine productivity problem at the university, with some academics being research-unproductive but not being required to pick up the slack on teaching, there is a performance management process there to handle that. If the performance management process is not being applied properly so that underperformers are slipping through the cracks, THEN FIX THAT. That is what it is there for — to ensure people do the job they are expected to do. I stress again, I know of several cases of people who were meeting performance management requirements and who WERE ACTUALLY PROMOTED during the assessment period, people who were given NO SIGNAL WHATSOEVER that they were underperforming, who are now being told that their performance is sub-par and their job is at risk.

  51. Rabee, quote: “In all of this what has surprised me the most is the bitterness associated with those who seem to relish the thought that some colleagues are being sacked: genuinely being entertained by these sackings”.

    This is over the top and foolish Rabee. Look at your original post which made a strong set of claims with no evidence at all. When I suggested the facts had another equally plausible interpretation you become hysterical. Its the old “I have no evidence so I’ll offer outrage and hope that no-one notices that my claims are empty”.

    As for being entertained by the prospect of sackings what baloney. We face severe problems in my home institution where packages have already been offered and many have left. The packages in some cases were offered to people with incredibly strong CVs – people who had certainly met minimum levels of research achievement. That doesn’t alter the basic story that the research performance of university researches needs to be assessed. And all your affected outrage and trade unionist ethics won’t change that.

    Thanks Michael for spelling out some facts. That I didn’t present facts was related to the fact-free posting of Rabee. I simply pointed out that his claims had another interpretation. Furthermore I stated that I was unsure which way the facts lent. I still find the minimum research hurdle fairly weak. If there is a financial crunch and people have to go would you make retrenchment offers to those with a strong publication record?

  52. hc,

    What you’ve done is discuss Imaginary World, where there exists Imaginary University, with a recently arrived and reasonably enlightened university administration that has decided as a matter of urgency in a period of financial stringency to deal with a non-trivial minority of underperforming academics. This administration makes clear that research matters and that the small minority not pulling their weight have to start doing so or to lose their jobs. People grumble and complain, but quiet comments are made in corridors and tea rooms that it “probably had to happen.”

    Of course, the events at Imaginary University have next to no connection to what’s been happening at Sydney.

    I’ve spelt out anecdotes, based on insider knowledge of particular cases. (I spelt some of them out earlier, which you either overlooked or disregarded.) I have done this because the university administration have ensured the process they have initiated is as opaque and unaccountable as possible.

    But the FACTS that matter are on the table and can be discussed sanely without needless bloviation.

    – The process was unannounced and unanticipated; as clear an arbitrary “rule change” as could be imagined.

    – The criterion employed was “one size fits all” in a highly heterogenous scholarly environment. Generalising: historians write books; economists write papers, slowly, with one or a few authors; other disciplines write many papers with many authors; some disciplines submit papers to “refereed conferences” with unknown refereeing standards (such conferences don’t have the reputational issues journals face). A four-papers-three-years criterion with no — repeat, NO — control for quality is pretty much guaranteed to have severely differential impacts across any given campus.

    – The university administration has shifted the rhetorical goalposts in ways convenient to its purposes as the process has rolled out; from “financial crisis” (the original announcement by the VC), to “dealing with underperformers” (as evidenced in the SMH discussion in April about whether universities should have the right to sack unproductive academics), to “it’s not about performance, it’s about money” (see Provost Garton quoted in the AFR 9th May saying “the point people miss of course is that this process is not a comment on the quality of the scholarship – it is a budget situation.”).

    – Although the degree of churn between the initial master list drawn up in November, and the final letters going out in May, is difficult to judge with precision because of the lack of transparency in the process, the existence of fairly major churn can be ascertained just by reading Stephen Matchett’s blog in The Australian which has followed the story over several months.

    Your comments so far, hc, have been characterised by a bluster-to-data ratio that’s been pretty well off the charts.

  53. XXXXXXXX XXXX XXXX, (redacted by Rabee)
    I know this is same thing as bashing of Indian students in Australia! Firing foreign Professors in Sidney. A racial disgrace!!

  54. @Michael
    What is the role of Heads of School in all this? I understand it was devolved to them by Fair Work Australia… Any sign of pushback from them against the retrospective sackings?

  55. Rohan, I think that this is a crucial issue. I’m not sure about the final process but in the end this is an important question.

  56. I heard that the whole thing is collapsing and Sydney admin is folding on the sackings. I guess that means people have taken up a legal challenge or something. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case: it seems to me that using retrospective performance criteria is a big loser from a legal perspective…

  57. Rohan, If that’s the case then Micheal Spence the Vice Chancellor and Primate of Sydney should move back to being a regular professor.

  58. Rohan/Rabee

    I might be in a position to say more soon, perhaps.

    Right now what I know from heads of departments & schools I have talked to/heard from is they have had little role or impact. Those that have had most impact are those that have gone outside and “called in the cavalry” e.g. I heard Anthropology was saved from serious impact by intervention from global heavy-hitters in the profession.

    The result of the Fair Work Aust hearing was that the university then went through a process of “work group” meetings to discuss the impacts on work groups of redundancies. Nowhere was it specified what a “work group was — a core group of specialist teachers/researchers? a whole department? an entire Faculty? Anyway, after such meetings, deans wrote reports to the Provost on the outcome of the work group meeting, which in some cases appear to have been roundly ignored. There were no “teeth” in the work group negotiation process, just a requirement that they happen.

    The process appears on shaky grounds but I have not heard about a legal challenge. Perhaps one is underway. Public statements appear to indicate that numbers targetted have dropped to 55 (proposed redundancies) and 55 (proposed teaching-focussed appointments). It’s not clear how this averts any financial crisis that may or may not be happening.

    I’ll tell you what I think will be the short-to-medium term outcome — well, two. Firstly, academics will cut back on any tasks that appear remotely discretionary. That is, they will aim to do the minimum teaching that they can get away with, and to do as little admin as possible. Deans who seek staff to sit on committees, chair working parties, do grunt work of one sort or another of a “public good” nature will find that “volunteerism” has dried up. I heard of one group that would take a day or two as a unit to do “mentoring” stuff with their grad students is now abandoning that practice. It’s not rewarded, and it takes time, so why do it?

    Secondly, there will be an increase in quantity of publications, and a reduction in average quality. A representative academic will now be likely to look for lightly edited books to publish in compared to a demanding peer-reviewed journal. And some of those new journals that promise two week turnarounds in their reviewing proceses suddenly start to look less dodgy and more appealing.

  59. First I apologise for the delay in your comments. It went to moderation because you put a forward slash in the opening salute (Unix for directory). Further, while authors of posts get an email about a new post, they do not get one when a post goes into moderation.

    There is an AFR article about letters from heavy hitters reversing sackings. This seems to be a good way to do things with economics/agecon/econometrics. We have a couple of major conferences happening and surely this issue should be raised there.

    If this had happened in the US or in England the community of scholars would have without any doubt provided significant support to the sacked academics. I haven’t figured out why this hasn’t happened here. It seems to be a “it’ll be right mate” attitude and some confidence that the sackings cannot withstand legal challenge.

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