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Are academics normal? Well, obviously their intelligence isn’t: they’re the best of the best, experts in their chosen field, on the brink of research that could change our lives forever. And you see them sometimes out in public, on Radio 4, on Great British Menu, chumming up with comedians for light-hearted podcasts… they seem normal then, right?


Yes, there they are, with the TV cameras or recording equipment turned on, chatting away with celebrities, acting like they’re perfectly normal people just like you and me. Except, of course, for the small matter of their superior intelligence and expertise, which must be acknowledged and deferred to.


They are normal people, just like you and me, but, you know, better. As long as you accept that, and it informs and underlines your every interaction with them, then everyone will get along just fine.


There is a fairly common trope in fiction that places brilliant, maverick leaders, creatives and scientists at the centre of a story, frustrated by wrong-headed bureaucracy and narrow-minded paper-pushers.


Of course he or she is getting angry, the story says, their self-evident genius is being blocked and subverted by nefarious know-nothings! Who cares if they happen to shout at one or two of these faceless drones, or throw a few things around? They’re the hero of the story, dammit, and they’re so close to a breakthrough.


In real life, such behaviour could perhaps be justified by, say, the people working on the COVID vaccine. Or ground-breaking cancer research. But in their minds, all academics are working on their version of a cure for cancer, or something equally important.


In fact, it would take something as incredible as that to impress those academics who would be otherwise engaged in sneering competitiveness and one-upmanship between disciplines: the professor who would dismiss research in the field of history as ‘sitting in their French chalets drinking wine and making things up’ but then jump to align his own ‘soft’ science subject with more concrete breakthroughs like vaccinations - and would doubtless be ridiculed in a meeting of a ‘hard’ science department for doing so.


Despite the perpetuation of stereotypes that might seem unfair, it was remarkable how often they turned out to be true: scientists were aloof and hopeless with people; the artists could be charming but also highly strung and easily combustible; academics involved in counselling courses were constantly psychoanalysing others; while the law department’s big problem was [redacted].


And I once saw a philosophy lecturer, upon being challenged about the loss of around £600 worth of textbooks from the library, trying to argue his way out of the charge on the basis that ‘books are just ideas’ and ‘ideas are meant to roam free, not be locked up in a building’.


Academia as a career breeds a certain mentality, one based around single-mindedness and self-focus. Don’t be too nice or you’ll be seen as a soft touch, or be given loads of thankless jobs that no one else wants to do. On the other hand, if you act like a dickhead, throw your toys out of the pram, do a bad job or refuse to engage with things that you consider beneath you, then this behaviour will be rewarded.


The notion of a community of like-minded scholars is largely for the sake of appearances only, with the forced bonhomie of departmental meetings masking a whole network of simmering resentment and personal agendas. Each of those sat around the table could not care less about the fates of the others, unless they were to suffer some kind of professional disgrace that would also impact the department and its reputation.


Genuine friendships appeared to be fairly rare. Ultimately, however much two colleagues might have liked each other and worked closely together, they were also rivals. If two new lecturers were to co-teach a module, for example, it would be a battle to see who would end up doing most of the heavy lifting while the other was able to focus on their research and a possible promotion ahead of the other.


Those with a larger teaching load and lower research profile might take the opportunity to pontificate on learning and teaching, but this territory, too, was there to be fought over, a smaller piece of influence to disagree about and squabble over. Meanwhile, the senior professors considered this all beneath them; lower beings fighting over table scraps.


The place of non-academic staff would be somewhere below the table scrap level. In some ways it was difficult to know whether it was better to be treated with open contempt, for at least that displayed some honesty, or to deal with the slightly more patronising approach of having people think you unintelligent and worthless while pretending to consider you a colleague.


It took me a while to realise that academics often didn’t even treat their peers as their peers; when they worked in completely different departments, each would consider the other inferior; if it was the same subject, but a different research area, ditto.


Those who were below them on the ladder deserved to be there; those above had been fortunate. It helped me to not take things that they said and did personally, even if it did create an atmosphere that proved rather suffocating.


The shared office would be the only place any of us felt we had any power. Six pairs of eyes focused firmly on someone with no social skills could be quite disconcerting, as they scrabbled about trying to garnish whatever it was they wanted with the kind of easy-going small talk they were ill-equipped to deliver.


It also meant that there would be several witnesses to any inappropriate comments or behaviour that may ensue. Of course, we were all perfectly polite at the time, safe in the knowledge we could rip the piss in private as soon as they left the room.


The best and most frequently repeated scenario was an academic tip-toeing into the room, rictus grin affixed, eyes darting left and right trying to find a familiar face and perhaps even a name to go with it. More often than not, they would come up empty, until they blurted out something along the lines of, ‘Who can I talk to about…?’ or one of the assembled support staff would put them out of their misery and initiate contact.


When the longest-serving administrators left, it brought howls of anguish from academics because theirs was the only name with which he or she was familiar. ‘Why are they leaving?’ the academics would ask, as if being treated like shit for years for crap pay was something that the likes of us should be grateful for and reluctant to abandon.


One day, I overheard a member of my team making polite small talk with a notoriously unpleasant academic. My colleague had recently married and managed to buy a house within commutable distance of the university. He was relaying this to the lecturer with some level of pride.


She congratulated him on his news and asked where he had moved to. Upon hearing the location, she made a childish sort of retching noise and said, ‘Ugh! Why would you move there? Horrible! Horrible!’


Even as someone well used to such things, he was rather taken aback. However, he understood the rules of the game that needed to be followed in order to ensure a quieter life. There was little point in responding with unprofessional behaviour of your own, or by trying to use what little power you had to withdraw co-operation.


Academics didn’t seem to understand that their being rude did bother you, actually, but there was no point making a fuss, because they were never going to change, and raising it was more trouble than it was worth.


The rules that bound us did not bind them: quite literally, because the HR codes of conduct applied only to support staff, while academics were governed by dusty statutes, presumably written on parchment during the Middle Ages.


One professor even argued, when challenged, that her right to be rude to administrative staff was enshrined in these statutes and that any request to moderate her behaviour impinged on the codified principles of academic freedom.


(An argument otherwise known as the ‘this is actually against my actual human rights, actually’ defence, as uttered by countless sullen teenagers upon being sent upstairs to clean their room.)


In other words, they could treat us however they liked, and we had to take it.


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This is an edited extract from Our Teaching's Great, The Admin Sucks: Tales From Inside Higher Education by Ben Richards, available to buy now.

  • Admin

Stay in one place for long enough in HE and you’re bound to be caught up in a restructuring of some kind.


Observing a maelstrom of wasted time, incompetence and frustration beneath them, but lacking the appetite for any serious confrontation, restructurings were a great way for senior management to periodically look as if they were doing something about it: call in some external consultants, pay them a lot of money, then throw staff into a big mixer and see what happens.


My first year as a manager ended with the news that the entire administrative function of the institution was to be restructured and I would need to reapply for a different, but similar, role in the reconfigured organisation.


The pertinent details of this process are seared into my memory. The interview began with an extremely uncomfortable wait outside the room, during which one member of the panel could be heard giving an unfavourable appraisal of the previous candidate, who had recently departed.


Much as I tried to focus on something else, the volume level made it difficult to avoid, and to enter the room with phrases like ‘She hasn’t got what it takes’ and ‘If she can’t handle the pressure in here, what is she going to be like in the job?’ ringing round in my head was less than ideal.


Such comments were a portent of what was to come. Although perfectly capable of messing it up on my own, the panel, and, in particular, its most voluble member, had evidently decided that turning up the heat was going to be his method of sorting the wheat from the chaff.


The nadir was a role-play scenario designed to test clarity of thought and skills with regard to multitasking – a kind of ‘these five things are happening, what do you do first?’ type thing.


It was fairly standard stuff, but under the pressure of the situation I managed to become fixated on the fact that one of the people vying for my attention in this scenario was the indiscreet panel member, a rather senior member of staff, who needed the toilet.


Clearly, I should not have been so literal-minded, but I could not get my head around why the Deputy Registrar was in my office asking where the nearest gents was. What made it worse was that, rather than giving me the opportunity to think it through, the panel began badgering me to show some urgency, as if this scenario really was unfolding, right there and then.


‘David needs the toilet! He’s RIGHT HERE, in your office! But there are all of these other things to deal with, so what are you going to do? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?’


I can’t remember what I said, but it involved some floundering, which was apparently held against me. I knew it had gone badly and could only imagine what kind of comments about me the next candidate overheard as they were waiting to enter the room.


I had been through an internal recruitment process once already, completed a year in the role, passed my probation, and received encouraging feedback from my manager. Yet this was somehow deemed less important than surviving the slightly ludicrous and contrived pantomime to which I had just been subjected.


The university seemed very keen on formal internal recruitment processes for administrative staff, and no alternative to putting people through them for every contract extension, secondment and slight change of role could ever be countenanced.


This could be a source of great embarrassment on both sides, particularly where colleagues who had been working together for some time found themselves at opposite ends of the table, with the same or similar questions being asked to people who had already answered them under near-identical circumstances at some point in the recent past.


I later figured that it was all part of the university’s extreme cowardice when it came to managing bad behaviour and poor performance. A recruitment process gave them an easy way out, an opportunity for a ‘better candidate’ to come along rather than deal with any problems with the person in post directly. As a strategy for retaining and motivating staff, it left something to be desired.


There was a six-month period in which I ended up interviewing the same internal candidate three times for different positions at the same grade. Despite being at pains to provide constructive feedback, his performances at interview only got worse. Such experiences cultivated a sense of paranoia and conspiracy among longer-serving colleagues who were continually knocked back.


(Some departments fed this by discouraging career progression, either internal or external, to the extent that those working there compared the environment, in hushed tones, to a Stalinist cult, with any future aspirations viewed as disloyalty to be ruthlessly punished.)


Having sought feedback after my interview, I was offered a meeting with the man with a penchant for loudly slagging people off and an inability to find the men’s facilities of his own accord without bursting into the nearest admin office and asking for assistance.


‘What we were doing there,’ he said, ‘was recreating the pressure of the situation in the room, to see how you’d react. That tells us a lot more about you than what you actually said.’


He seemed very pleased with himself for coming up with this rationalisation, which still didn’t make much sense to me. It was almost worse that he was being nice now, although he had little in the way of encouraging or useful feedback for improvement, which was what I was really after.


‘You just need a lot of improvement in all areas,’ he said. ‘At the moment, you’re a long way off. A long way off.’


It turned out that this man was of the school of thought that there was, in fact, only one way to do things, and that way was to be bullish and unapproachable. Clearly, he wanted to recruit in his own image, and my apparent timidity had not impressed him.


I later discovered that he had also bellowed some unsolicited interview feedback from across a corridor to one of my colleagues, whose application happened to be successful.


‘What the f*** happened in there, mate? You nearly f***ing s*** yourself!’


As did you, without anyone to tell you where the toilet was, I thought. But as feedback goes, ‘a long way off’ didn’t seem too bad in comparison.


That wasn’t actually my worst interview experience in HE, which was for a post at an institution that fancied itself as a prestigious world leader.


Having failed to acknowledge this quite deferentially enough during my answer to the opening question set the academics on the panel against me, and things deteriorated from there, to the point at which they started discussing my performance in unfavourable terms while the interview was ongoing and I was still in the room.


(For example, in immediate response to one of my answers: ‘What he’s said there doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he’d know what to do in that situation, unfortunately.’)


The process ended with a guided tour of their historic buildings. As the genial old groundskeeper type noted my haunted expression and dwindling enthusiasm, I explained politely that I was very unlikely to be working there in future and made my excuses.


Anyway, despite my disappointment, the nature of these things was that they seemed to work themselves out in the end. And by ‘work themselves out’, I mean that more vacancies would eventually come along on the basis that the person previously doing the job had hated it, or gone mad (or both) and quit.


Sometimes such an opportunity would come along whereby the process of hating it or going mad was ongoing, and you would be asked to cover, on lower pay and with less support, for the duration of an extended and unspecified period of sick leave.


Basically, once there was no one else left willing or able to do a job, that’s when I’d start warming up.


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This is an edited extract from Our Teaching's Great, The Admin Sucks: Tales From Inside Higher Education by Ben Richards, available to buy now.


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