What does it mean to be an academic leader?

Image Source: Mikael Kristenson for Unsplash.com

By Mark Carrigan

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot over the last few days. I returned to Cambridge at the weekend to attend farewell events for Susan Robertson who is stepping down as Head of Faculty in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge to take on a new role at Monash University. It was a wonderful weekend in which I temporarily inhabited my pre-pandemic life in Cambridge, giving me the opportunity to reflect on a lot of things which had been bubbling below the surface of my psyche over the last two years. Compared to a lot of people I had a relatively easy pandemic but this weekend brought home to me how settled I was in my life in late 2019. There are many elements to this (lost) settled state which I won’t blog about here but the one which is relevant to this post’s title concerns the Culture, Politics and Global Justice (now Knowledge, Power, Politics) intellectual community which Susan led in the Faculty of Education.

At the official leaving party in the beautiful Faculty garden on Friday afternoon and the more informal party in Wolfson College on Saturday night, I heard many colleagues reflect on the encouragement which Susan offered them throughout their careers. The time and energy she put into bringing people together around issues of shared concern. As one of her doctoral students said on Friday afternoon, she created conditions in which early career researchers could flourish. This was certainly true of myself, as someone who stumbled into the Faculty utterly by chance with no intention of pursuing a tradition academic career and left for a lectureship at the Manchester Institute for Education where I lead the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education (DTCE) and co-lead the DTCE Research & Scholarship group with Louis Major. The environment in the Faculty, particularly the research cluster, was one in which I could figure out what I wanted to do and how I could go about pursuing it. I was far from unique in this experience and it’s left me thinking about the relationship between academic leadership (a term I’ve hated) and intellectual community (a term I’ve long used).

It reminds me of what Bev Skeggs said at the launch event for the The Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference: “Never underestimate the importance of an infrastructure … Most of us work in universities where we inherit structures. We don’t make those structures … you need those very stable structures in order to enable anything to happen”. In this sense I think Bev and Susan have a lot in common, in so far as both deeply grasp the human consequences of infrastructure as well as cultivating a relationship of care to the maintenance and transformation of infrastructure:

Much of what I’m now doing has been shaped by my last year in the Faculty in particular, where I worked with Susan and Shawn Bullock on developing the Digital Learning and Working strategy. Both of them grasped that Covid-19 meant we couldn’t rely on what Bev described as ‘inherited structures’ and instead we needed to make the structures which would enable things to continue to happen. In a nutshell this is why I’ve spent the last two years going on about the post-pandemic university, even though I’m increasingly aware it’s a term which troubles many people. It was clear the university would undergo significant change as a result of the making-of-structures necessary to negotiate the challenges of the pandemic, as well as a wider socio-political environment transformed by the upheaval the novel coronavirus left in its wake.

In this environment I think the disposition of structural maker embodied by both Bev and Susan is crucially important. It’s not sufficient to simply inherit structures (and then maintain them and see they continue to function) because the context in which those structures developed is itself undergoing transformation. We are facing new challenges (e.g. hybrid working, flexible learning, student disengagement) in a new environment (e.g. spiralling inequality, contestation of academic expertise, instrumentalisation of funding) while new technologies interrupt familiar modes of operation while facilitating new ones. Not only does this change what happens ‘inside’ the university system, it transforms institutions adjacent to it such as the scholarly publishing system and learned societies. The pandemic has accelerated these changes but it hasn’t created them. To be an academic leader under these conditions involves recognising the challenges facing inherited structured and finding ways to develop new ones more adequate to the circumstances that we confront. It involves taking the attitude of a designer to the systems and structures we inherit within universities, as well as the practical vacuums which need to be filled by some regularised form of conduct.

In itself this could be a recipe for the worst kind of ‘disruption’ in which working lives are carelessly rearranged in pursuit of successive leadership visions. Listening back to Bev’s talk, I was stuck by what she said later in the introduction about “bringing on those who are actually making the challenges rather than us old dogs who are just making the structures now”. I think this concern for the next generation of scholars (which I’ve also heard Susan speak to many times) is a crucial part of academic leadership, not just at the level of social justice but as a practical matter of how renewal happens within universities.

This means working to build structures in which, as Alex da Trindade put it on Friday, younger scholars are able to flourish. This can mean shielding them from the unfortunate pressures of university life, in the role my friend Milena Kremakova once described as the ‘troll on the bridge’ building on her ethnography of a university Mathematics department. But it should also have a more active sense of finding ways to ensure an intellectual and political agenda can bubble up from below, as well as be steered from above. In this sense academic leadership involves helping these projects emerge and giving them institutional, intellectual and interpersonal support. It means recognising the importance of these nascent agendas at an institutional level, ensuring this recognition is manifested in practical terms and being on hand to lend time and attention to the process where needed. One of the things which always struck me about Susan was that she was one of the most regular attendees at research cluster events, despite being by far the busiest person in the group, particularly after she took on the role of Head of Faculty.

Most of all it involves recognising that intellectual community isn’t just an optional luxury within higher education. It’s a necessary (but insufficient) condition for academics to act together in meaningful and effective ways. The design orientation I described above needs to be coupled with a commitment to intellectual community and an intergenerational solidarity in order to avoid its destructive potential. This is what I learned from Susan Robertson over the four years I worked with her and it’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot over the coming months.

Dr. Mark Carrigan blogs here. You can find more details about his work here.

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