Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Publishing and perishing under gameable metrics

My alma mater is in the New Zealand news again, and again it is to do with gaming the metrics by which the research performance of New Zealand tertiary institutions are measured. This time, the article describes how many staff with poor publishing records have been made redundant from the university (that is, they have lost their jobs) prior to the assessment later this year. While I have little sympathy for those in permanent lecturing positions who do not publish (see my previous comments here and here) in this case it seems like the staff who have lost their jobs are predominantly teaching staff, or staff who are still developing their research record (see this post from one who lost her job for the same reason some time ago). If that is the case, then I have to say that the university administration is making a mistake.

Teaching takes a lot of time and energy (my last semester teaching at Otago, I was in the office at least six days a week, and often worked from 7:30 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night). The purpose of having teaching-only staff is to take some of that load off of the lecturers so that they can do their research. Indeed, the major thrust of the article is that the redundancies are putting more stress on the remaining staff, as they are having to pick up extra teaching in addition to lifting their own research outputs. While the teaching load could in theory be reduced by hiring contract lecturers (who would not, as I understand it, be assessed) I have already posted on why this is a bad idea.

From my research with evolutionary algorithms, I know that optimising to one criteria or metric seldom results in optimal or robust systems. By optimising their staff to one (flawed and gameable) metric, the University of Otago is reducing the robustness of their institution. The long-term outcome of these redundancies is yet to be seen, but I do not think that it will be good for anyone concerned. Non-performers need to be removed, for sure, but early-career researchers need coaching and leadership to develop. They don't need the great big stick stick of the threat of redundancy waved at them (such threats are more often than not a sign of dysfunctional management, rather than a sign of competent leadership).

Ultimately, only those who set the metrics can resolve this situation. As long as a metric can be gamed, then institutions will game them. In the meantime, people will have their lives upended and their careers destroyed by narrow-minded administrators and cynical political operators who are trying to wring a few more points out of the system to make themselves look good.