Divided We Stand | AUA Blog

I once heard a retiring departmental manager give the following rallying cry to their colleagues upon their departure: “You’re a great bunch, and I’m sure you will be able to cope with whatever the University throws at you next!”


Jonny Moore AMAUA 
School Manager
School of Modern Languages & Cultures
Durham University


“Whatever the University throws at you next”?! It may be a common sentiment, but does it not suggest that ‘the University’ and ‘the Department’ are separate entities, locked in mortal combat?!  For those of us of a certain generation, it’s reminiscent of a scene from the Whacky Races, with Dick Dastardly throwing pins on the track, trying to ruin his competitors’ race! Even if things in your institution are (hopefully!) not that bad, there probably is some tension between central management or professional support services (‘the Centre’), and academic departments – you may well have felt that tension yourself?

Well, if that is the case, why does it occur, and what might we, as professional practitioners on both sides of the divide, do about it?

Just an HE problem?

A quick look at any Management or Organisational Behaviour textbook will demonstrate that this is not a problem which is unique to Higher Education. Any large organisation is likely to have central functions (e.g. senior management, finance, HR, etc.) and operational ‘units’ (e.g. factories, restaurants, regional offices), and face questions over the extent to which it wishes to centralise, or decentralise, decision making, autonomy, budget control, etc.

Nevertheless, there are, I think, some traits unique to HE which exacerbate the tension:

  • First, is the very nature of the academic endeavour, which Polanyi, Ziman and Fuller summarize as follows: “[Academics], freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment.” They go on to point out the implications of this understanding of academia for the organisation of their activities: “[Academics] are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organisation… Such self-coordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about… Any attempt to organize the group … would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation.” [1]

We might feel that this conclusion is a little over the top – ‘organizing’ academics doesn’t necessarily ‘paralyse’ them – but the point still carries weight. Almost inherent to the nature of academic enquiry is a dislike of being co-ordinated or organized, which is at least a part of what central functions need to do (‘If you want to introduce a new module, you need to complete this process…’, ‘All teaching materials must be available on the VLE with the following minimum requirements…’, ‘Seedcorn research funding will be available only for collaboration with institutions in the following countries…’).

  • Secondly, changes to the HE sector over the past 25 years have resulted in greater central governance in many institutions. To name but a few:
    • Policy / Quality Regulation: the growth in quality regulation – subject review inspections and the like, has necessitated a growth in central resources given to meeting these requirements. As Winn and Hall argue, increased policy and quality regulation has created “a policy framework that has catalysed corporate university governance … [and] militated against participatory governance by a community of scholars.”[2]
    • Marketization: In the increasingly competitive HE environment, more is at stake for senior university managers and so they often (naturally?) seek more control (or, if we’re being generous, seek ‘assurances’) over operations across the university. As just one example of this, the rise of league tables, say Locke et al. (2008), “is encouraging moves to stronger central and corporate management for some functions.”[3]
    • Massification: Universities are, for the most part, much larger organisations to manage than was the case in the past. More students, more staff, and more complexity results in more need for standard processes, specialized functions, and so on. Long gone is the all-singing, all-dancing departmental secretary who alone could support every aspect of a department’s work. Academic departments now employ numerous staff, or roles have been amalgamated into centralised functions.

So, as in most large organisations, there’s an inevitable tension in universities between the ‘Centre’ and the ‘Units’ (academic departments). But there are also particular traits unique to universities – the nature of the academic endeavour, and the changes in the sector of the last 25 years or more, which exacerbate these tensions. Can anything be done about this?

What can be done?

The band Canned Heat once famously sang, ‘Together we stand, divided we fall… C’mon c’mon let’s work together.’ But is bridging the divide between the Centre and Departments as simple as just playing some inspirational music and all determining to ‘work together’?! I would suggest not. Let me suggest, from my own and others’ experience, three levels at which we might begin to think and act differently, as institutions, teams, and as individuals, which together might go some way towards helping the cause.

  1. Metaphor

How do you think about the University? If you had to describe what it is like, what would you say? Your answer to that reveals something about what you think a university’s constituent parts are for. For example, I have heard an academic describe the Board of Studies as akin to a ‘Rebel Unit’, seeking to shake off the shackles of ‘the Centre’ and protect ‘the Discipline’ from its maleficent grasp! Which makes it all sound rather like something out of a Star Wars film (VC = The Emperor?! Deputy VC = Darth Vader?!). Clearly, that starting position will set you on a certain trajectory, viewing every move of ‘the Centre’ as a nefarious power grasp to be strongly resisted. It doesn’t really lend itself to harmonious partnership for the greater good.

Or, take the view espoused by Laurie Taylor in the THE, who proposed a theatrical metaphor in which academics are seen as the actors – “sensitive, thoughtful, creative beings … temperamental and occasionally difficult. Their loyalty is not to any individual theatre but to ‘the theatre itself’”, and administrators / management as “support staff to those upon the academic stage, as producers,property masters, scene setters, audience providers” [4]. This certainly puts ‘the Centre’ (and indeed all administrators) ‘in their place’! But would departments, left to their own ‘creative devices’, produce anything anyone would want to see, to continue the metaphor, or which could be viably marketed? And would the ‘audience’ (students) feel aggrieved that the ‘show’ in one department was so much glossier than in theirs, or that some were given complimentary snacks or comfier seats?!


How we view the University will guide how we think about the ‘other’ parts of it. Can we come up with a metaphor which sees the university as a whole, whilst recognizing the unique contributions of each part? A trellis (Professional Support Staff functions) and vine (teaching, research, wider student experience) would be my own tentative suggestion… but that’s another blog post.

   2. Structure

This one is probably out of most of our hands, unless there happen to be some VCs or Registrars reading. Still, it must be true that some forms of structure will work better than others in terms of helping the organisation as a whole perform to the best of its abilities and reducing the friction between centre and departments – accepting that this will differ for different institutions in different situations and at different times. As Peter Drucker said, “Good organization structure does not by itself produce good performance… But a poor organization structure makes good performance impossible”.[5]

Two pieces of generally acknowledged good management practice are to devolve decision making to as close to those affected by the decisions as possible, and to recognise the important role of ‘middle managers’ (Academic Heads of Departments, or perhaps Faculties/Colleges in some cases). How much autonomy and budgetary discretion do the departments at your institution have in decision making, especially over areas which have a direct impact upon their staff and students? And what role do Heads of Departments, or Faculty Deans, etc. have in transposing strategy from an institutional level to a local level; in acting as a ‘buffer’, or a shock-absorber, to reduce the friction which can be caused when ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ layers of an organisation grate on one another; or in setting a culture and priorities which reflect both the institutional strategy and departmental / disciplinary nuances?

What examples of effective organisational structure have you seen in the sector?

   3. Relationships

Relationships, by contrast, are very much within our control, and we’re getting to the practical end now. This is all about us asking the question, of ourselves and our colleagues on the other side, ‘How can we work better together?’ What is required, it seems to me, is two things; and these may be the most basic, but also the most important, things I have to say in this article. Number one is richer communication; and number two is humility.


As so often with relational problems, communication is key. Get to know the people on the other side of the divide – who are they as people? What does their role actually entail? What are their

drivers, pressure points, busy periods? Go and meet them face to face every now again, or at the very least get on the phone to them, rather than always emailing. From my own experience working in both the Centre and in a Department, and from conversations I’ve had, here are some of the key things colleagues on both sides would love for the others to be mindful of.

If you work in the Centre, you would do well to:

  • Get to know the academic calendar / cycle. Be aware of this when making requests for information with short turnarounds, or when sending difficult messages about change initiatives, for example. If it is the first week of a new academic year, or the midst of exams, these requests may not go down well!
  • Recognise that each department is unique and that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.
  • Trust your counterparts in departments; they really do know students.
  • Realise that they are working just as hard as you are.
  • Have excellent standards of written communication – remember words are what your academic colleagues are expert in, and they may not have much time for poorly written or argued proposals.
  • Have patience, they’re having to manage academics!

Similarly, if you work in a Department:

  • Trust that your colleagues in the Centre do care about teaching and research.
  • Acknowledge the complexity of the Institution, and don’t assume you are quite as unique as you think you are!
  • Recognise the need for professional help, and acknowledge it when it’s given.
  • Remember you’re one of many, and resources are invariably tight.
  • Have patience, they have to manage the Executive Committee (or equivalent)!


Often, in order to get to the bottom of whatever problems there might be in our working relationships with those on ‘the other side’, it will be important to acknowledge our own propensity for ‘in-group’ bias. We all tend to assume the best of ourselves and those on ‘our team’, and the worst of those ‘outside’. We can tend to judge our own actions according to our motives, to justify ourselves – “I know getting this to you late puts you under pressure, but I’ve had so many other important things to deal with that I just had to prioritise….” On the other hand, we often judge others’ actions simply by the actions themselves, rarely giving the benefit of the doubt – “I can’t believe they’ve submitted this late, that’s typical of them!”

Of course, we all have colleagues where the problem genuinely is with them – their attitude, their behaviours. But a little humility can go a long way – what if the issue is actually with me? What if I start with a spirit of generosity in how I think about them? Couple this with the rich communication we’ve just mentioned – actually getting to know them, and seeing things from their perspective – and we’ll have a firm foundation for working more effectively together and bridging the divide between Centre and Department. Perhaps we’ll even start to wonder if there’s a divide there at all…?!


[1]Polyani, Michael, et al. “The republic of science: its political and economic theory”Minerva, I(1) (1962), 54-73.” Minerva, vol. 38, no. 1, 2000, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, .

[2] Joss Winn and Richard Hall, ‘Time to move past the obsession with leadership’, accessed 22/5/19, emphasis mine.

[3] Locke, William; Verbik, Line; Richardson, John T. E. and King, Roger (2008). Counting What Is Measured or Measuring What Counts? League Tables and Their Impact On Higher Education Institutions in England. Higher Education Funding Council for England, Bristol, UK.

[4] Laurie Taylor and Simeon Underwood, ‘Laurie Taylor on academics v administrators’, accessed 22/5/19.

[5] Drucker, Peter F. ‘The Practice of Management’ (1955), Elsevier, Oxford, p195.


Leave a Reply

0 comments on “Divided We Stand | AUA Blog