‘Collegiality in its ideal form does not benefit men over women’

2016-08-22 00:34

As part of the debate on how universities and public administration have been impacted by governance ideals from the business sector, a new book explores the situation in academia. ‘Today there are several governance ideals that clash with each other, and this causes problems,’ says Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist, one of the authors behind the book about collegial governance.

Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist is professor of business administration, specialising in management, at the University of Gothenburg. Together with Kerstin Sahlin, professor of business administration specialising in public management at Uppsala University, she has written the book Kollegialitet: En modern styrform (Collegiality: a Modern Governance Form; published in Swedish). This is a book with an ambition to figure out how to optimise academic institutions.

‘Collegiality is a long established governance form, and it’s difficult to change things in an academic institution unless this fact is taken into consideration,’ says Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist. ‘The different governance forms that are implemented must harmonise with each other or else you end up with a dysfunctional organisation.’

Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist, Foto: Hillevi Nagel

Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist, Photo: Hillevi Nagel

In a nutshell, collegiality means that decisions are grounded in scientific knowledge, evidence and arguments. The ideal is based on the notion that knowledge emerges through a continuous exploratory dialogue. The collegial leadership must be rotated, and the leader must be appointed among his or her colleagues.

‘The scientific seminar is the best example of how knowledge is created and developed though cooperation,’ says Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist. ‘You can come up with the most brilliant idea, but if it turns out that nobody in the whole world agrees with you, you should probably reconsider. Innovation and new ideas alone won’t cut it, you need argumentation to move forward. Thus, good seminar leaders and access to others who can provide support are of key importance.’

Similar to government agencies, academic institutions are influenced by bureaucratic governance ideals. Compliance with rules is emphasised. So-called line management, that managers are appointed by their superiors and that all decisions must travel from the top to the bottom along a chain of command, is inherent in the bureaucratic model.

Finally, the academic domain is – similar to the education and healthcare sectors as well as the public sphere in general – also influenced by governance ideals imported from business and industry, collectively referred to as new public management (NPM). Critics often describe NPM as a neoliberal form of governance. In brief, NPM implies a stronger emphasis on leaders, policy documents, strategies and formalised internal hierarchies – as well as a focus on a style of economic governance that resembles marketisation.

One consequence of how management collides with collegiality is the trend of having a strong management structure that has emerged in academia. Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist believes that the collision undermines the governance mandate. For example, in the wake of its autonomy reform, the University of Gothenburg has replaced department boards with department councils, which have only an advisory function.

‘If you decide to spend 10 million on a project and then realise it wasn’t such a good idea, you can change your mind. If a board makes the wrong decision there’s a collective responsibility, but if a head of department goes against his or her advisers there is more than just the decision at stake. You’ll have a hard time maintaining your legitimacy after something like that. When there are bodies with only an advisory function there’s a lot of pressure on the department head, and having a line organisation in place won’t help.’

Although Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist and Kerstin Sahlin want to show with their book that collegiality plays an important role in knowledge-intensive sectors like academia, they also discuss its disadvantages. It is often described as a cumbersome system for decision-making that traditionally has benefitted men over women and that can lead to favouritism where friends do each other special favours. However, gender inequality and phenomena such as homosociality, that men choose other men that think and act like them, are not unique to the academic world.

‘All governance forms have their dark sides, but all governance forms also have their ideals. Collegiality in its ideal form does not benefit men over women. When the organisation works as intended, when there is an open communication climate and people feel safe, the collegiality won’t go wrong. But when the organisation isn’t working optimally, there may be some bad consequences. No governance form exists in a vacuum.’

The research on the peer review model – the widespread method where experts decide on research funding, publishing of scientific articles and appointments – points to men having an advantage over women and that interdisciplinary research is at a disadvantage compared with fields and topics that fall closer to the expert reviewers’ own research. Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist points to the so-called excellence funding and investments in strong research environments, which have been addressed for example in a report titled Hans Excellens (2011; in Swedish).

‘It turns out that men of a certain age and with a certain CV have received preferential treatment. There have been discussions on how it should be done, and scholars have been recruited internationally to ensure a high quality of the peer review process. But what factors are these international experts influenced by? We don’t know. It’s a system that doesn’t work so well in its present form.’

Ulla Eriksson-Zetterquist revisits the view of science and knowledge development as a collective process.

‘Knowledge is created in a context. When women’s bleak career prospects in academia became clear, some researchers turned their attention to the conditions faced in the academic world. This sparked a focus on gender, but since then the research has evolved to consider also other aspects, such as ethnicity, age and a lot more.’

Author Jimmy Sand, translated by Debbie Axlid
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