imagine there’s new metrics (it’s easy if you try)

Academia has become obsessed with metrics. Institutions jostle for the “top” positions in international rankings, departments are evaluated nationally to identify the “best”, and individuals are lined up against one another to find the “leaders”.

Let’s take the international rankings (eg THE, QS, SJ) for example. These were established, apparently, to help students and staff identify the highest quality universities. The rankings would allow people to make informed decisions about where to study, teach and conduct research. It follows then that a higher rank will mean more students, especially international students, and this in turn means more money coming into the business university.

Indicators used to calculate these rankings include things like academic reputation, research income, number of publications, number of citations to these papers, industry income, and the ratios of faculty:student, international:local student, international:local staff, and doctoral:bachelors student. Data are gathered from detailed surveys sent to academics, employers, and universities, as well as from companies that specialise in providing research citation data (Thomson Reuters, Scopus etc).

There are two things that are troubling about these indicators. The first is that there are no upper limits where there probably should be. Considerable effort is expended by institutions to increase each indicator with the aim of getting a top spot. If we extrapolate, without applying upper bounds, what could be the consequences of behaviours driven by these metrics? Hmm, let’s see. If the number of PhD students is a key indicator and there is no upper bound, this might lead to oversupply. In turn, this might result in PhD student disenchantment with academia during the course of their studies. If large numbers of PhD graduates are being produced, it’s likely that a considerable proportion of early career researchers will be unable to find positions in academia. The pressures on PhD students to focus on producing research papers would lead to a lack of time and opportunity to “explore (other) aspects relevant to their future career options”. This situation might produce a generation of highly intelligent, highly qualified PhD students/early career researchers who feel like failures.

The second thing that troubles me is that international rankings are meant to identify the best workplaces, yet none of the rankings evaluate important indicators like job satisfaction, work-life balance, equal opportunity. Taken to the extreme, the research quality indicators might drive behaviour that leads academics to work ridiculous hours, taking no time off during the year, not celebrating their successes, and expecting the same work ethic from their team. In this scenario, leaders of the largest research teams would thrive, because they would produce more results than smaller groups, so that we might see the rise of academic Ponzi schemes (BTW the independent development plan linked in that blog is worth checking out).

With funding cuts to research and a growing number of large teams led by senior researchers, we might also see grant funding success fall to record lows and junior researchers miss out on funding. Those who work best in collaborative, cooperative settings will become disenfranchised and demoralised in the hypercompetitive environment that develops. Researchers might consider cutting corners, and the academic pipeline will likely leak first with those who have significant domestic and caring responsibilities. Perhaps we might observe an increase in mental health issues among academics.

Hmmm, does this set of circumstances seem familiar to anyone else?

While there are good reasons to evaluate research quality and impact, it is inevitable that bad things will happen when no checks are placed on how the loftiest research heights are attained. If the goal of international rankings is truly to identify the best places to study and work, then new metrics are needed to identify institutions that combine achieving research and teaching greatness with offering the “best” diversity in their professoriate, boasting the “top” work-life balance, and supporting “leaders” who train research students for positions outside academia.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve dreamed up a few new metrics to use alongside the more traditional ones. Maybe this combination might lead to rankings that identify the most successful, most highly productive higher education training grounds and workplaces that are also best at supporting career aspirations and mental, emotional and physical well-being.

1. The no-asshole rule

A few weeks ago at the SAGE Forum in Canberra, I heard about the no-asshole rule. We’ve all met them. We’ve all had to work with them. According to Bob Sutton who wrote the book on the no-asshole rule, assholes are defined by two characteristics:

  • after encountering the person, people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves
  • the person targets less powerful people

If these characteristics apply, there is your asshole (figuratively speaking). Bob outlined the dirty dozen* actions that assholes use on a regular basis, and described an asshole scoring system (levels 0-3) and management metric. To be eligible to participate in the new international rankings, universities must teach the no-asshole rule to freshers, employ no level 3 assholes and tolerate no level 3 asshole behaviour by staff or students (see, one of too many recent examples, Dalhousie “gentleman” student dentists). One asshole incident without consequences means the whole institution gets the big red dislike button.

2. H-index

No not that one. This is the Happiness index. Bhutan has one, it’s called gross national happiness. Staff and students at universities will be surveyed each year to measure their happiness in the workplace. Someone else has already done the hard part by working out the questions for Bhutan, though no doubt we’ll have to add a few new ones for academic happiness (eg fairness in allocation of – and appropriate recognition of – teaching and service roles, simplicity of university travel approval system, availability of high quality coffee (or tea and biccies in my case) etc). An essential indicator of happiness will be the annual leave ratio (ALR). This is a simple calculation:

ALR = ALT/ALA

where ALT is the combined number of days of annual leave taken by all staff (unprompted by HR) for the previous year, ALA is the combined number of days of annual leave available to all staff each year (with a minimum of 20 days per staff member). Universities for which all available annual leave is taken by staff would rate highest with an ALR of 1.

3. F-index

The F-index is about fairness. Despite published pay scales, men are paid more than women in the upper echelons of academia for doing the same job. Because “loadings”. In my perfect world, to be eligible to participate in international  rankings, universities would make public the average pay for men and women in leadership (professoriate and above) by posting the data on the front page of their website every Jan 1. The F-index is calculated as follows:

F = W/M

where W is the average salary for women in leadership positions and M is the average salary for men in leadership positions. Universities with the highest ratio (and thus the smallest gender pay gap) would rank highest on international rankings. It would be a fun experiment to see how long it would take for this indicator of university ranking to reverse the gender pay gap in academia. Looks like the University of Sydney will skyrocket on this measure: the VC indicated at the “Women at Sydney” event in late 2014 that remedying the gender pay disparity is a strategic objective for the university in 2015.

4. D-index

D is for diversity. Diversity is goodDifferences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems lead to better outcomes. In Australia, our universities are populated by people of diverse culture, gender, age, socio-economic status. Yet our leaders are mostly male and mostly white. The D-index measures how well the leadership teams at universities (professoriate and above) reflect the diversity of the broader university (all staff and students). For example, let’s take gender. Plenty of studies show that more women in the workplace, especially more women in leadership positions, is not only the right thing to do it’s the smart thing to do because it’s good for business. Yet gender equity in leadership positions remains at dismally low levels (<20%) across the board while male CEOs dig their heels in at quotas. To counter the entrenched system, the D-index for gender (Dg) will be evaluated:

Dg = GB(lead)/GB(all)

where GB(lead) is the gender balance or proportion of women in leadership positions (usually <0.2) and GB(all) is the proportion of women across all staff and students (usually >0.5). Most universities would have Dg values of 0.4 or below. Those who score the maximum D values of 1 would zip up to the top of university rankings. If the D-index was implemented, would we see an exponential rise in women, POC, Asian and Indigenous people in leadership positions? I’d sure like to find out.

5. K-index

K is for kids. One issue that crops up again and again, is that primary caring responsibilities often fall to women, with a consequent reduction in their academic competitiveness (unless their track record is considered, fairly, relative to opportunity). So problematic is this issue, that some women choose to forgo having children to remain competitive in their career. Why do we make it so difficult for the smartest women to reproduce? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? At the same time, male academics want to spend more time caring for their kids, but face stigma and lack of support from colleagues and bosses for taking time off for parental duties. Why do we make it so difficult for the brightest men to participate in the most important work of all? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? Germany dealt with this specific problem by awarding an extra two months to the standard 12 months paid parental leave when both parents took time off to care for their children. The K-index celebrates the birth of children to academics:

K = (A+3B+C+D)/E

where A is the number of days of parental leave taken by women over the past year, B is the number of days of parental leave taken by men over the past year, C is the number of childcare places on campus, D is the number of parenting rooms on campus and E is the total number of staff and students on campus. On this metric, those universities that best support and encourage families will rocket to the top of international rankings, and most likely will have to turn away large numbers of outstanding students and academics.

endnote

You may say I’m a dreamer (but I’m not the only one). I’m also something of a realist. No doubt if these indices are implemented, game-playing would follow with unintended consequences. Nevertheless, it’s been interesting to think about university metrics that might drive new, perhaps more socially just, workplace behaviours. Maybe I’ll dream up some indicators along the same lines for ranking individual academics in the next post….

 

*Bob Sutton’s dirty dozen

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

for dad

If you’d known dad only in the past few years, you’d think of him as a frail and sometimes grumpy old man. But let’s wind the clock back more than 50 years to when I first knew him. In looks, dad was tall [1], dark and handsome. In manner, he was the strong and silent type.

dad-008

1960s; kids, cats and home. Photo credit, Judy Martin

Mum says that when they first met in the 1950s, he would visit her at the nurse’s lounge and stay for over two hours. If he said more than two words in that time it counted as lively conversation. It’s a good thing that mum easily does the talking for two, otherwise none of the next generation of Martins would be around today. But things did progress; the family eventually included Tony (stepson), Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Peter, Jan, Cally and Gerard.

Dad was born to a very poor family, and left school aged 14. It was 1944, towards the end of WWII. He took a job in a paper bag factory in Melbourne and later worked as a courier for an engineer, an odd-job man at a guest house – milking cows, catching rabbits, and doing the gardening – and finally landed his dream job driving trucks and buses. By the time he was 18 he was driving trucks interstate – delivering beer from Adelaide in SA into NSW and QLD. Some 10 years later he drove the bus connection from Sale to Bairnsdale in Victoria, delivered logs from Bullumwaal near Bairnsdale and then returned to interstate trucking.

To me, dad’s occupation as a long-distance truckie – or cartage contractor as he liked to refer to it – really suited his character. It gave him time on his own to think and contemplate. What’s more, he could spend the long days driving his White “Road Boss” semi-trailer through the beautiful Australian countryside he loved so much. At the same time though, traveling around Australia meant he was away from home. He was often torn between work and home, because he would be gone for more than a week at a time. On some occasions, leaving home for a long trip was a huge effort. Mum remembers he would find excuse after excuse to get out of the truck and come back into the house for something he’d forgotten, finally admitting “I really just want to stay here”. I think that’s why his favourite song, the song he expressly asked to be played at his funeral, was John Denver’s “Back Home Again”.

The White "Road Boss" Photo credit: Jack Martin

The White “Road Boss”
Photo credit: Jack Martin

I worried about dad being on his own so much. For one birthday in the early 1980s I gave him a soft toy wombat to keep him company on the road, and to remind him that his family was thinking of him. That wombat travelled everywhere with dad, and stayed with him long after he stopped driving trucks in the mid 1990s. It went with him into aged care two years ago, and literally followed him to the grave.

For someone whose formal schooling was so brief, dad had a remarkable intellect. He read widely, could do complex maths in his head or on paper and he had the most beautiful copperplate handwriting. He loved puzzles, cryptic crosswords, and jigsaws and when we were young there were loads of board games too. Dad also had a photographic memory for the country roads of eastern Australia – he knew them like the back of his hand. In the early 1990s when I first moved to Queensland, I planned to drive on my own from Brisbane to Melbourne one Christmas, a journey of 1600 km (1000 miles). However, I got stuck halfway down with floodwaters in New South Wales. I called dad from a payphone. Yes, this was a long time ago. There were no mobiles. No GPS. No Google Maps. But I didn’t need them – I had dad – and when I explained my situation, dad knew exactly where I was. He gave me detailed instructions on which roads to take to avoid the floodwaters so that I arrived home safe, dry and on-time.

Dad also visited me in Brisbane on several occasions over the years, usually when I was in some sort of a pickle. Once or twice that meant helping me pick up the pieces of a broken heart. The last time though was the very happy occasion when Michael and I were married, in 2005. Dad stayed on for a week after the wedding to take on cat-sitting duties while we went away on honeymoon. At the time, dad was 75. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine many other 75 year olds taking on that task – traveling interstate, and looking after two spoiled cats for a week – yet it seemed so natural to ask dad because he knew Brisbane so well and he loved animals. He did it with pleasure, and took the opportunity to call on some old mates from his trucking days who lived in south-east Queensland. He didn’t meet up with all of them though, because like many country folk of his era, he didn’t let them know he was in town, he just turned up unannounced.

A country boy at heart, when we lived in suburban Dandenong dad would take us on Sunday drives in the old Rambler Matador station wagon up to the nearby hills, or to south Gippsland or the Mornington Peninsula. On summer holidays, he’d drive us to Lake Tyers in East Gippsland where his mum had a holiday house. The kids would run along the shady wooded path down the hill to the white hot sandy beach, with the noise of the pounding waves providing the soundtrack, and dad would get the fishing rod out for a spot of surf-fishing.

The kitchen was always the centre of the home in our house. Dad was an excellent cook, specialising in comfort foods. Although he had trouble expressing his feelings in words, he had no trouble showing his love for us through food.

  • On a cold winter’s morning we’d often wake up to dad cooking porridge on the stove;
  • He made a mean lasagne, and the best pea and ham soup ever;
  • There was egg and bacon pie, sausage rolls and meat&veg pasties – all favourites of the family to this day;
  • Many, many sweets: orange cake, raspberry coconut slice, hedgehog;
  • And batches and batches of scones that would go as quickly as they came out of the oven.

Since the late 1990s, dad lived alone on acreage in countryside about 50 km south east of Melbourne. He surrounded himself with animals – dogs and cats, as well as horses on agistment – and his garden; vegies and herbs, Australian natives, rhododendrons, proteas. He loved the animals, the garden, the space, the peace and quiet, the solitude. Despite urgings for over a decade from family members that he move closer to family, he refused to leave his paradise.

His own paradise Photo credit: Cally Martin

His own paradise
Photo credit: Cally Martin

Like his mum before him, dad was keen on astrology. His star sign was Gemini, the twins, characterised by a dual nature. Whether you believe in astrology or not, dad certainly had two sides to his character. On the one side he could be stubborn, uncommunicative, quick-tempered, unkind. On the other, he could be gentle, helpful, caring, supportive. No doubt some of this duality was a consequence of depression, which he struggled with for decades. More recently, he battled dementia. This meant short-term memory loss. Dad couldn’t remember things that had just happened. His older memories though were vividly intact. On a trip to the Dandenongs two years ago, just after he moved into permanent care, we drove through The Basin where he had spent time as a boy and young man. Dad pointed out the street and the house where he used to live, he remembered where he was standing when he saw bushfires coming down the mountain towards the town and he described the dance hall at the top of the hill.

Dementia didn’t touch his trademark understated dry humour either. Soon after the diagnosis, his GP asked dad a series of questions to assess his memory. To questions like “What day is it?”, “Who is the prime minister?”, “How old are you?”, dad gave a straight answer – but when the GP asked “What state do you live in?” he simply replied “A state of confusion”.

One of the saddest things about dad moving into care was the institutionalised food. But he found a simple way around this problem. He left. Late on Christmas Eve 2013 he disappeared from the nursing home. When the police brought him back 4 hours later he had travelled several kms, had no money with him, but was carrying two grocery bags filled with cold cans of coca cola. I happened to be there when the police returned with him. Worried sick for his safety, I said that he really shouldn’t go for walks without telling anyone because he didn’t know how to get home again. “Yes”, he said pulling his sleeve up with a wry smile on his face “Perhaps we could get tattooed here “Inmate of ……”.”

Early this year, he was moved to high care, and even there he would attempt to follow visitors out as they were exiting. When the staff caught up with him he would say “I’m just going out for fish and chips” or “I just wanted a meat pie”. Realising that discretion is the better part of valour, the good staff ordered food in especially for dad, and we brought him the food and drinks he liked too, which made a big difference to his comfort. In this respect, we completed the circle, showing him our love by providing food he most enjoyed.

On Friday last week, dad was admitted to hospital with acute pulmonary oedema resulting from chronic kidney failure. Most people on their deathbed being fitted with an oxygen mask and told “You might die without it” would accept the advice obediently. But not dad. He refused, saying “I might die with it too”. He was moved to palliative care for the last few hours of his life. I arrived from Brisbane late on Friday evening to join most of his family who had been at his bedside all day. He was unconscious when I got there, and passed away barely an hour afterwards.

Dad died as he lived. His own man. Uncompromising. Doing things his way. Sorting through some of his possessions this week, I came across a stamp he had used for many years to mark cheques “Not Negotiable”. In some ways, that phrase described the way he lived his life too. Perhaps the most succinct description of dad came from a staff member who looked after him at the nursing home: “He was a nice guy. A bit of a shit at times, but a really nice guy. And he will be missed.” Yet there was more to him than that too.

He was a complex man. The most precious things to him were family, home, kids, animals, his footy team (Essendon) and nature. He battled demons we cannot know about. He was father to a brood of strong, and strong-minded, women and men. He was fiercely proud of and loved every one of them.

Reading a paper; cat on lap. Photo credit: Cathy Martin

Reading the paper; cat on lap. Photo credit: Cathy Martin

Now that he is gone, this man I once thought invincible, I will think of him through simple things that we both enjoyed: a quiet cup of tea, a native flower, a cat on my lap. I will miss those enormous, all-encompassing bear hugs with the sloppy kiss on the cheek when he said goodbye. I will treasure the times I spent with him recently – too few – helping him when he couldn’t help himself. And I will remember dad the way he was when I first knew him. Tall, dark and handsome. The strong and silent type.

 

MARTIN — Allan John “Jack”

18.6.1930 – 27.9.2014

Passed away peacefully.

Will be sadly missed by his family Judy, Tony, Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Peter (dec.), Jan, Cally, Gerard (dec.), and their families.

Now at Peace.

 

This post was prepared in part from text used in the eulogy (Cally Martin) and tribute (Jenny Martin) given at the funeral of Allan John “Jack” Martin held on Thursday 2 Oct 2014 at Wilson Chapel, Springvale Cemetery, Victoria.

[1] Well, OK, maybe not that tall, but then I’m pretty short