Transforming academia

Outlines my current passions and plans for the next decade

After more than 30 years in academia, I have published all the academic articles and have fulfilled all the formal academic leadership roles I could ever want. I have taught thousands of students and marked millions of words. I have also played a considerable role in external engagement, providing service to the wider academic community, including through the Publish or Perish software, significant public speaking, and the use new technologies for outreach.

I have also been blessed with more awards than I had ever imagined possible. In addition to dozens of awards for my papers, I was elected by Women of the Future as one of 50 Leading Lights for my work with CYGNA and Middlesex University. This work, combined with my research in IB, also led to my election by WAIB (Women in the Academy of International Business) as Woman of the Year, and by the Irish Academy of Management as Distinguished International Scholar. Finally, I am also one of only 24 awardees – selected from 11,688 nominations – of the Inaugural 2023 Positive Leadership Award.

In the last 10 years of my academic career, I would therefore like to focus on giving back by helping individuals, institutions, and the Higher Education sector as a whole, in three inter-related fields: EDI & Talent Management, Building inclusive and proactive research cultures, and Transforming Research Evaluation

Equality Diversity & Inclusion and
Talent Management in academia

Building inclusive & proactive cultures

Transforming Research Evaluation
Research assessment  - The role of impact - New programme of research

This is where I believe I can make the strongest and most enduring contribution in the next decade. These three themes also reflect my longstanding interest in supporting women and early career academics and in inclusive research evaluation. Moreover, they connect my daily academic practice and external engagement with my research interests.

Equality Diversity & Inclusion and talent management in academia

Throughout my career I have been interested in supporting female and international academics. However, it wasn’t until the mid-late 2010s that I started to get interested in the research foundations for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion. In 2019-2020, I completed an internal research project at Tilburg University – where I have a visiting appointment - on gender and international diversity & inclusion. Resulting in a 64-page report that was shared with all Business School Deans in the Netherlands, it provided important background for many of my other EDI activities.

Earlier, I had been invited to write a piece for the thematic issue on female academics in a prominent Dutch magazine, which was distributed at all universities. Titled: How to make career advancement in Economics more inclusive, it provided a conceptual and empirical analysis of the factors underlying gender differences in career advancement in Economics, drawing on the latest research in the behavioural sciences. In 2020, I participated in a panel at the Academy of Management on improving gender diversity in academia (See: We need a different kind of superhero).

CYGNA: a living laboratory

Most of the members of the CYGNA women’s network, established in 2014, and virtually all its UK members are working outside their home country, thus representing both gender and international diversity. Hence, the CYGNA network is a “living laboratory” to experiment with new ways of promoting inclusion in academia. Currently the organizing team is working on an article on new approaches to networking in academia. Moreover, we are planning for our 10-year anniversary event to include several research incubators in this area.

Academic nomads: precarity in academia

My concern for EDI also extends to academics in precarious employment. I am currently working on a project entitled “Academic nomads: complicating the narrative on the academic precariat”. I conceived this project with Khalida Malik and Dorothea Bowyer (Australia), collaborating with Juan Felipe Espinosa (Chile) and Nico Pizzolato (Middlesex University, UK). Data collection (survey and interviews) has been completed; we are now embarking on data analysis and hoping to publish our first results in 2024.

Talent management

In the coming years I would like to expand my work on talent management. It is my firm conviction that academia in the UK is heading for a recruitment and retention crisis, especially in Business Schools. If they want to survive, universities need to change their perspective on all aspects of Human Resource Management and put talent management centre stage.

I am planning to write a book on Human Resource Management in universities. This book would combine my research expertise in (I)HRM, cross-cultural/lingual management, and research evaluation, with my 30+ years of experience in academia – much of it in leadership positions – into a short guide with actionable insights to improve HR management in universities.

Building inclusive and proactive research cultures

A large part of my current role at Middlesex University revolves around building and supporting inclusive research cultures. This is achieved by a comprehensive model of staff development, as well my work in EDI and talent management. The key to success is consistent and tireless day-to-day activities. Building up a supportive and inclusive research culture might sound wonderful. However, I have been in university management long enough to know that the devil is in the detail.

Strategies and action plans are often mere “statements of intent”, created to satisfy external demands, whether that’s the University senior executive team if you are a mid-level administrator such as a Dean or Research Dean, or external organizations such as the national government or ranking organizations. That’s why I am so happy with our new MDX strategy whose tagline is “Knowledge into Action”.

My own work at MDX is very much guided by an emergent, incremental, and iterative type of strategy with practical, day-to-day, on-the-ground support. I spent a lot of time experimenting with a variety of activities and getting to know the institution’s culture and needs. Only then was I able to put this together into a coherent programme and start “filling the gaps”. This philosophy is summarised in my presentation at the CABS conference: From words to action, from outcome to process and the video below.

Encouraging both junior and senior colleagues to be more proactive

Building inclusive cultures also requires proactiveness. We will not be able to change cultures unless we are all willing to get our hands dirty. Too often I hear academics say: someone needs to do something about this, why not be that someone? You are not a worker on a production line, you are an independent professional!

For junior academics this means daring to be different and critical in their research. Although “playing safe” might be tempting and might even be encouraged by your PhD supervisors, a new generation of cookie-cutter academics is not going to change the system. If you are passionate about a research area or about an aspect of the research process such as Open Science, act on that passion.

It also means that – even as a junior academic – you can play a role in changing your academic environment for the better by taking on leadership roles at your level. The most successful junior academics that I have worked with in the past 30 years were those who took that initiative. They used the level of autonomy that exists in any academic job to make improvements within their own nexus of control. They created bottom-up improvements rather than wait for “management” to solve everything.

The work you are doing is extremely important for so many colleagues and their career progress. But for me personally, what I admire most is that you set a new standard about what senior academic leaders should be like. It is this role modelling to your peers which can change how we relate with each other and how we impact the culture of our profession more broadly!

That said, senior academics carry an additional responsibility. My main recommendation to senior academics is to “walk the talk” or “put your money where your mouth is”. Many senior academics tend to complain an awful lot about ”the state of academia”. But most do so largely by publishing their concerns in books and opinion pieces in top journals and make little effort to change things in their day-to-day practice.

You are not going to change anything by just writing about it. We need to be proactive and work to change our academic systems and culture. As academics, we often justify our actions based on presumed external constraints, but as Alvesson, Gabriel and Paulsen (2017) cogently argue in Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say we - and especially senior academics in relatively secure positions - have more freedom than we often pretend we have.

"Developing and reinforcing myths about the impossibility or enormous costs of not following the system's imperatives [...] means that researchers can wash their hands of responsibility, happily complaining about lack of choices, and often profiting from the game."(2017:53)

Sustainability: institutional memory and succession planning

Once you have set up a support structure, your next challenge is sustainability. Unless you ensure sustainability, any support structure runs the risk of crumbling when key individuals leave. First, we need to create institutional memory.

I do this through circulating 4–6-page monthly Research Resources Bulletins (see below) that – if needed – can be used by my successor to understand what was done in the past. These bulletins include different “corners”, such as events, publishing, funding, impact, promotions, research skills, Open Science etc., to alert staff to new resources.

I also created an online portal, our Professional Development Gateway, with access to dozens of folders containing over 500 documents, videos, and Power Point presentations on general topics such as publishing, impact, funding, and research profile building, but also more detailed topics such as theory development, networking, Open Science, reviewing, journal submission, quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Finally, I recorded a series of videos for one the key activities I am running - a writing bootcamp - documenting its entire structure. I am also maintaining a detailed guide for my “back to campus” programme of activities.

Second, we need build capacity by inspiring others. In achieving this I also try to facilitate team leadership. Many female academics in particular prefer to share leadership roles in order to have a sounding board and create some redundancy. For me inspiring other also means being willing to show your own vulnerability. If you seem infallible as a leader, it may be hard to get others to give it a go. We need to show that failures are all part of the job.

Inclusive cultures make “business sense”

Inclusive cultures are not just morally right, they also make “business sense” for universities. Although it is always hard to evidence a direct link between inclusive research cultures and improved rankings, Middlesex Business School has improved considerably in the international research rankings such as QS, THE, USNews and ARWU Shanghai. Most recently, it also showed an excellent performance in the REF 2021, doubling its 4* rated research and increasing its quality ranking from 52 to 37 and its power ranking from 38 to 32.

At most universities, research cultures are individualistic, competitive, and focused on a very narrow set of metrics, rather than being collaborative, supportive, and inclusive. Although some academics might enjoy being spurred on by a climate of competition, I don’t think this brings out the best in people, certainly not all people. In the past decade it has also led to increasing problems with research integrity.

I am not the only one who feels like this. Calls for more inclusive cultures have come from funding organizations such as the Welcome Trusts and from Research England’s Future Research Assessment Programme. As another example, Middlesex University’s most recent promotion guidelines explicitly include collegiality, not just as an optional extra, but as a core criterion for promotion.

#PositiveAcademia: small gestures can make a big difference

Early in 2022 I launched the #PositiveAcademia movement. In this movement, I encourage academics to celebrate the positive aspects of academia (without denying the many challenges and problems we face).

In its first year, I have given voice to this movement by writing and sharing LinkedIn recommendations for colleagues, mentees, co-authors, and others I admire. I did this daily in January 2022 and then weekly from February onwards. I encouraged others to do the same or to simply send a nice email to one of their colleagues, providing clear examples of how to do this.

I have also written a wide range of blogposts providing concrete examples of how to make academia a kinder place and provided resources to support this movement. I expanded the initiative in 2023 by developing three strands: resources supporting #PositiveAcademia, LinkedIn recommendations, and initiating discussions on LinkedIn around core #PositiveAcademia themes.

Transforming Research Evaluation

I have been interested in research evaluation  for most of my academic career. To date, I have been working in three different areas: journal quality, the publish or perish software, and research on data sources and citation metrics. All these initiatives were primarily meant to create a more equal playing field for academics in different disciplines, and in particular the Social Sciences (see videos below). However, in many cases they have also led to more inclusivity at the level of individual academics not belonging to the dominant group, as well as for universities with different missions.

Research assessment hinders inclusive research cultures

Supporting EDI and inclusive research cultures is complicated by research evaluation systems that provide incentives to narrowly focus on one’s own career. The time-consuming process of research evaluations such as the British REF (Research Excellence Framework) also deprives academics of the time needed to support EDI and research.

In 2017 I therefore suggested replacing the publication component in the REF by metrics and using the time and money thus saved more productively. You can download the slides for a presentation I gave on this on the Science and Technology Indicators conference in Leiden in 2018 here.

Let's stop wasting our time on evaluating individuals for REF submission or serving on REF panels that evaluate the “end products” of our colleagues' research activity. Instead, let's spend our “evaluation time” where it really matters, i.e. in reading papers and funding applications of our (junior) colleagues before submission, and in carefully evaluating their cases for tenure and promotion. Wouldn’t that create a far more positive and productive research culture? [Harzing 2017]

The role of impact

In 2022 – after being invited by SAGE Publications to write up a blogpost on impact for their blog Social Science Space – I extended this to a white paper Research Impact 101. In it I draw on terminology familiar to academics to build a bridge between the Science of Science and the “academic in the street”.

I show how to define and operationalize research impact, distinguish it from related concepts, avoid strawman arguments, test empirically rather than rely on anecdata, avoid the ecological fallacy by carefully considering levels of analysis, and understand that the research process is as important as the research outcome. However:

If we want academics to get serious about research impact, we need to ensure they are intrinsically motivated to achieve these outcomes. Most academics truly want to have an impact, they truly want to make a difference in the world. But many universities are still treating funding (input) and publications (throughput) as the final “end product” of our research.

A new programme of research

Hence, building on an article on EDI in MNCs and my leadership in this field at MDX and beyond, I am working on half a dozen research projects on the interaction between research evaluation and inclusive academic cultures. In addition to providing a research base, these projects will aim to provide universities and the sector with pragmatic and implementable solutions. Watch this space!

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