Ramblings of a University Middle Manager in the Year 2020

These are some rough reflections on aspects of middle management filtered through the lens of current university crises. What crises? Let’s see: COVID-19 and the sudden shift to remote delivery, loss of international income and associated job losses; confusion in the wake of the end of the demand-driven system; federal bias against humanities style ‘non-vocational’ degrees; endless structural change within our institution; casualisation of the academic workforce; etc.

I am Head of the School of The Arts, English and Media in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wollongong, with roughly 35 academic staff (it keeps declining) and 12 professional and technical staff.

I’m afraid that I can offer nothing like a coherent overall perspective on my role. I offer instead a few observations, first in relation to middle management generally, then in terms of the contemporary enthusiasm for institutional ‘agility’ and finally upon reading spreadsheets.

On being a middle manager

The middle manager strategises in between.

At the top are the senior managers. They think most generally. They are concerned with wider contexts and are responsible to the key stakeholders (the University Council).

Then there are the middle managers, who follow senior management direction, but also are expected to behave strategically and to develop and implement local ‘visions’. We are in a semi-executive position. Our responsibilities are technical, HR and strategic.

Beneath us are the line managers , who deal with the performance of local workers and local level implementation processes. Line managers have duties, whereas middle managers have targets and goals (KPIs).

Middle managers are expected to manage upwards and downwards. Their loyalties are not only to senior management but also to their areas and teams. They are criticised for being superfluous, for slowing down change, for over-complicating things, for blocking flows of information/ communication. So there are the various caricatures of the HOS: the scheming and ambitious entrepreneur, the apparatchik who just passes messages up and down the line, the micro-manager, etc.

The middle manager experiences a curious paradox. Management assumes action. For the middle manager, however, while action is expected, it must always be limited, subsumed beneath higher strategic interests and not altogether compromising lower level autonomy and scope for individual action. The challenge is to conceive at once a space for meaningful activity and inactivity – for agency and non-agency. None of this is clearly defined, so everything depends upon judgement, estimation, feel – alongside the grudging recourse to policy, etc. There is a mix of involvement and distance. There is a stress on balance, discretion and judgement (more than procedure). The key issue is to determine precisely how much and how little to do.

Picking it up

I should stress that I was not trained in any of this. I’ve just picked it up along the way. I spent most of my academic career as a teacher, but in the last decade I have done very little teaching. I have found myself instead in all kinds of higher and lower middle management roles.

Of course always hard to identify the middle. Everything is relative. Somebody below me sees me as a senior manager, but I’m acutely aware of the limitation to my powers – and indeed of all the drudge work that I do that is scarcely at all strategic.

Middle management is a blurry, uncertain space. VCs probably also recognise all kinds of limitations to their powers – all kinds of more senior layers of management, but they tend to fall outside the institution itself. Everything depends upon reference to the hierarchies within a particular institution.

I always try to remember that it is just a role. Mumbling to myself: humility; don’t wreck things; don’t think you always know better; listen rather than proclaim; we are always expendable. Believe it or not, I don’t actually find keeping this in mind all that hard. If I have survived for so long, it is because I have lived by this perspective.

In this context, I can’t help referring to some quotes from Chinese philosophy that mingle Taoist reserve and disengagement with Confucian concern to properly serve society:

‘Cut off knowledge, abandon argumentation, and the people will benefit a hundredfold. Cut off cleverness, abandon “benefit”, and there will be no more thieves or bandits. Cut off activity and abandon purposefulness, and the people will again be filial…. Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the simple. Have little thought of self and few desires.’ (Henricks 2000: 28; cp. ch. 19 of received version DDJ)

‘Rulers succeed by allowing nature to take its course: by “not acting (wuwei)”’.

‘“Clarity (ming)” comes when one realizes the perspectival nature of all affirmations and denials. Having attained this kind of clarity, it makes no sense to put oneself on the line for any one set of evaluations, like “our state must triumph” or even “it is better for humans to flourish than plants”’. (Zhuangzi: Rejecting Governance)

‘… which merely establishes equilibrium, itself doing nothing; yet the mere fact that it remains in balance causes lightness and heaviness to discover themselves. (Shen Buhai: Bureaucratic “Non-Action”’ , SBH p. 352)


And so we move to action itself and the privileging of agility.

We think of a cat. The capacity to move flexibly and precisely, even in response to unforeseen circumstances.

A battleship is not agile. It is slow and lumbering. It must stop, turn or speed up well in advance of any immediate signals.

In any case, the notion of agility is easily extended from the level of the individual organism to that of the institution. The latter is also some kind of living thing, at least inasmuch as it has inputs and outputs, produces and consumes, responds to the environment and makes strategic choices and decisions.

Yet we can stretch the notion of agility to the point that the organism itself is in question – that is, the nature of its life, its integral sense of being. We learn now, in our current adverse financial circumstances, that an agile organisation is one that can expand and contract as needed. More specifically, it can rapidly gain and shed staff to respond to current exigencies. This is not by swiftly increasing or decreasing actual staff positions, but instead by defining a very restricted core of permanent and contract staff and drawing upon a large pool of tenuously employed casual staff. Agility here then is obtained by dividing the organism in two, or possibly regarding it in minimal skeletal terms, or more likely as an abstraction that has little relation to the actual cultural life of the institution. Agility is obtained by re-conceiving the nature of the organism, which is now less a coherent living thing than a disassembled, disembodied phantom thing, which responds by growing or hacking off limbs that were never even limbs in the first place, that were simply agile and non-living resources.

We need to consider then what agility means for the university – for its capacity to have cultural life. And what it means for a me as a middle manager attending to both the rhetoric of sustainability and processes of agile decomposition.


Email and spreadsheets – these are my new forms of literature.

Damn, a spreadsheet. There is this initial panic as I struggle to find my bearings. I have to slow down. I have to forget about understanding things all at once. I have to very deliberately make sense of the columns and rows. I have to get a feel for the scale of the numbers and the play of quantities, percentages and logical relationships. Often this can take me some time – often much longer than I have available. Somebody is speaking, they display a spreadsheet and then identify some key features (‘take homes’), while I’m still stuck trying to make sense of the overall representation. This can mean that I end up accepting all kinds of arguments and strategies that I might ordinarily resist, or find the means to resist, if only I were a bit clearer about what the numbers mean and the underlying logic that informs their relevance.

Despite this, I have grown used to spreadsheets, even to the point of regularly employing them myself. This is partly, perversely, because they pose an intellectual challenge for me. I don’t read them quickly and intuitively, so I am interested in overcoming my immediate experience of opacity, difficulty and illegibility. Beyond this, I’m aware that they represent particular managerial perspectives and priorities, so that it is vital that I find the means both to understand them and to recognise the assumptions, values and strategies that underlie them.

So while spreadsheets may not be my go to way of representing aspects of the world, I am not opposed to them. Nor, more importantly, do I wish to insist upon a binary division between a quantified managerial mindset and a more holistic and value-based academic perspective. There are differences here and they do link to modes of representation, but this is not based simply upon a difference between the abstraction of numbers and the human nuance of language. There is a continuum between abstraction and lived complexity and both can usefully inform one another.

My more significant dilemma relates to the issue of disputing the kinds of arguments that tend to be made on the basis of spreadsheet information. A typical financial spreadsheet will represent the relationship between income and expenditure. Our survival, it is evident, depends upon appropriately balancing the relationship between these two. I can object that this informs an inadequate and reductive conception of higher education – one that is myopically focused on financial growth and sustainability, that loses sight of the intangible public value of education and that misconceives education in narrowly financial terms. This is true enough, but it scarcely effectively resists the managerial perspectives and priorities represented in spreadsheets. A key issue is that the priorities themselves and the conception of higher education that frames them is not explicitly declared. It is embodied in the spreadsheet, but in a way that tends to obscure any sense of explicit value. The spreadsheet provides apparently neutral quantitative evidence. It displays dimensions of apparently unquestionable organisational being. It subtly and less subtly chides us: as much as we may like to think of ourselves pursuing some worthwhile public role, this is predicated upon our capacity to balance our budgets – to be frugal and careful homemakers. In this manner, the spreadsheet seems to reach beneath the surface of what we do – and our convenient self-image as a community of scholars, artists and educators – to the awkward material basis of our existence. Everything we say in defence of our current culture, largesse and inefficient practice, is exposed for its demonstrable ‘un- sustainability’. Within this context, spreadsheets become the mechanism for establishing a dimension of being and truth that appears irrefutable.

How can we resist this sense of pragmatic realism? It is not, I suspect, by resisting spreadsheets altogether, but instead by developing our critical literacy and our own practices of spreadsheet making that allied with explicit value-based arguments present different perspectives of things, different indices of what we do and of what matters.

One aspect of critical literacy involves unpicking the assumptions that underlie management spreadsheets. For instance, managing my school is regularly likened to managing a household budget. If my income drops then I must make whatever sacrifices are needed to get things back on track. This makes sense to some extent, but the notion of household suggests an overall context of equilibrium. I live in my nice little home. I earn a predictable income. I pay a predictable level of tax. I pay roughly predictable prices for the all the things that I need. I am cautious with my spending and set aside an appropriate sum for my retirement or a rainy day. But what if everything falls apart? What if I lose my job? What if tax rates massively increase? What if the economy goes into depression? What if I cannot afford even necessities? Then I am subject to these wider calamities and all my ordinary, responsible strategies fall apart. The world becomes suddenly dangerous and the household is no longer something that can be tweaked into economic health. Things need changing before anything can be made to adequately work, and as long as I continue to make survival focused local adjustments in response to the surrounding crisis I am only likely to make matters worse. But this is not the kind of household management that the spreadsheets tend to embody. Instead, as I say, they assume a more predictable and stable world where there is scope for responsible local level agency and action.

It seems to me, however, that we are in a different time, a time of crisis rather than predictable domestic economy. For instance, COVID-19 has exposed that international student income is not at all secure. Even domestic income is uncertain within the context of the legacy of the demand-driven system and ruthless competition between providers. So the income side of things is unpredictable and currently in free fall. It can scarcely be managed within the analogy of a relatively stable home environment. If we have any control it is only in terms of constraining expenditure, and this is what the university is constantly pressing us to do, but somehow without compromising our teaching and research, and somehow while still maintaining a positive, agile mind set. While it is worth knowing how we sit vis a vis income and expenditure, there can be no hope of equilibrium at present (especially as we are still paying upwards of 55% contribution margin). What’s actually needed is an acknowledgement that balance is currently impossible. This should provide the basis for a discussion about what we value and wish to maintain in these conditions. And this has to look beyond any simple bottom-line, any simple calculation of profit margin and delivery efficiency. We have to consider the fundamental value of what we do and its continuing value for society.

The problem, however, is how to frame a wider discussion like this within the context of immediately pressing constraints. How will staff wages be paid if our income radically drops? What options are available other than shedding staff? Unlike government, we have no scope to print money. We have no scope to sustain ourselves ex nihilo. So we confront spreadsheets that demonstrate our plight and offer no other solution than massive expenditure cuts involving reduction in our activities/offerings and significant associated job losses. Here, once again, the point is not so much to dispute the figures, or to shoot the managerial messenger, as to insist upon dimensions of identity, culture and value. Rather than being positioned as secondary considerations or inevitable casualties, these need to provide the basis for how we conceive our on-going existence in precisely the same way – and now I will employ a domestic metaphor – that a household is primarily a family rather than a financial ledger. If everything around them collapses a family of people tend not to abandon this relationship since it is a primary source of identity and value. They will abandon living standards, the house, all manner of things, but less commonly the family itself. While the university is not a family as such, while we are bound by contractual relationships, still, even as a ‘corporate’ institutional entity, we must consider what it is that makes this thing worth continuing. Financial sustainability is ultimately secondary to this. It should serve our underlying sense of purpose rather than supplanting any consideration of value via the ostensibly inarguable logic of a financial spreadsheet.

A final and less crisis focused point. Counting things in spreadsheets is no doubt very useful and can often prove illuminating, but there is also the real risk that if you only recognise what can be counted then you miss a great deal and encourage activities that provide the illusion of relevant activity only because they are straightforwardly measurable. Take the example of research culture. Our standard measures of research activity involve adding up grant income, HDR completions, scholarly publications and non-traditional research outputs. On this basis assessments are made about how active we are as researchers and the overall success of our research culture (as assessed by ERA or various external rankings agencies). This is all very well and academic staff have largely taken on board this metrics focused conception of research activity and performance. Yet it is hard not to be suspicious. Are we all doing such great research? Is our research culture vibrantly alive because we have scored a 4 or a 5 in ERA, or has an entire industry arisen around enabling our research to be counted – a proliferation of publishing contexts and measurable outcomes that provide visible evidence of research activity but a much more restricted sense that research is actually happening around us, informing the life of the institution and affecting the world generally. There is the strange awareness of a closed and circular system that counts instead of genuinely evaluating and only evaluates by counting. Who for instance measures the research life of academic corridors or the unpublished thoughts of an extraordinary teacher? Too little of the genuine research life of the university is recognised and represented, only abstract indices that would be fine as general indicators if they didn’t quickly become hypostasised proxies for research activity itself.

In this sense then, spreadsheets can both clarify and distort. They are not simply tables of evidence, but instead particular quantitatively focused visions of the world. While we must learn to read them better, must expose their assumptions, must identify their underlying conceptual and evaluative frameworks and must develop our own spreadsheets as a counter to official ones, we must also continue to speak of particular things in ways that are meaningful. Alongside identifying quantitative trends, we must also make arguments and tell stories so that the richness, complexity and evaluative context of real circumstances is not lost.

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