At a recent international conference focused on research administration, there was the usual palaver about every researcher, their institution, and their dog achieving excellence.
It’s presented as why we’re in the game – to achieve this highly circumscribed and metricised ideal of ‘excellence’.
We’ve all heard this rhetoric before so I have a certain level of ennui every time I see the posturing.
This feeling also emerges for me these days when people use ‘innovation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘impact’. I’m extremely fond of Rolin Moe’s statement that “innovation means less than any other word we use in regular discourse” (The Innovation Conundrum).
I would say the same applies to ‘excellence’. Just about every organisation uses it, government policies are ridden with it, and senior executives at universities mouth it at every opportunity. But it usually signals little, and indulges in the conceit that if we say we have it, it makes us better than others who don’t say they have it (it doesn’t actually matter whether they have ‘it’ or not).
What made me ragey at this international conference, where there were many, many university research admin people, was that there was general head-nodding and agreement that we all know what excellence is and those who contest the idea only do so because they are not excellent. Therefore, these contestors are looking for special dispensation to play in the excellence sandbox when, really, if you’re going to question what excellence is, you obviously don’t have it.
There is an assumption that excellence is actually a thing in and of itself.
That’s wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that it could win a USA election.
Institutional research excellence is a construct. Individual research excellence is a construct. There is a special circle of Hell reserved for those researchers who believe in their university ‘brand’ and assume that, because it’s done at their institution, it must be excellent.
This belief in academic excellence (via achievement/outputs) is part of a system that is created by people like us – researchers, university leaders, administrators and teachers. This occasional paper on The concept of excellence in higher education (Brusoni et al, 2014, 531 KB PDF) articulates the inherent contradictions and manufactured markers for excellence as we know them today. ‘Excellence R Us‘ (Moore et al; recommended to me by the fabulous @sterretje8) argues that: ‘”Excellence” is not excellent, it is a pernicious and dangerous rhetoric that undermines the very foundations of good research and scholarship.’
Our research organisations jockey for position in exclusivist, narrowly focused institutional rankings and feed that particular monster, even to the extent of shepherding their researchers to meet a relatively arbitrary set of measures that will allow the organisation to scrape its way up the ladder. Thereby proving… that they can game the metrics as well as – or better than! – the next university.
I’m not saying ‘excellence’ means nothing, but I am saying that it means only a few things. And it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – ever be a binary judgement (i.e. you are or are not excellent).
I’ve moved across quite a few roles and universities so far in my career and I have a fairly strong idea of what we’re meant to think excellence looks like these days. Given that context, let me make this potentially career-limiting statement:
I don’t want to be excellent.
Gaining that kind of excellence implies that you’ll work stupid hours and make sacrifices on the altar of career progression, embrace and enact hyper-mobility, and prioritise your work more often than other aspects of your life. When I asserted that I’m coming back to the academic side of the fence and working relatively normal, non-weekend hours, I have encountered comments from colleagues that may or may not have started with, “Well, you might be able to get away with that when you’re not at a Go8…”.*
The highly inequitable and gendered nature of the demands that are attached to an ‘excellent’ academic habitus have been noted by many scholars in journal papers, books, and blogposts. The surprise seems to be when a ‘normal’ person – someone who has a rich non-work life, attends to self-care, and logs regular, sane hours – attains research success. We have witnessed that, more often than not, research success and excellence have become the domain of those who are academic outliers, or ‘stars’. Grant success rates of under 20%, or around 10%, are daunting and skew efforts to appreciate research that does not have – or need – attached funding. Just because a grant doesn’t get up doesn’t mean the research and team are below par. National research councils the world over repeat versions of this statement: There’s not enough money to fund all the great research projects that are going on out there. It does not mean they are not excellent. It means there’s not enough money.
Yet, with all this, there is the general and unquestioning head-nodding that goes on when research ‘excellence’ is wheeled out.
I know why it happens.
It makes it much easier to allocate resources in messy bureaucracies – let external bodies tell you what’s worth funding to gain the sticker of excellence. It’s why we’ve ended up measuring the things we do.
It’s shorthand for institutions that want to consider themselves elite (within the elite universe that is composed of elitist organisations). It’s the snobbery of the higher education marketplace.
It’s embedded in so many of our scholarly gold-star-seeking personalities – to be the top of the heap and considered the best at various things. Hoop-jumping is actually a prime academic skill.
I know why it happens and it’s exactly why we need to remain ever critical of the processes and contexts that attract this label. They function through exclusion. They set up unsustainable practices and performance metrics and embed them as standard.
Many researchers do excellent work without having ‘excellence’ bestowed. Be aware of what constitutes the ‘excellence’ Kool-Aid – but don’t drink it.
* Go8 = “Group of Eight” university. It’s the Australian equivalent of the American ‘Ivy League’ institutions, or the UK’s Russell Group.