Beware excellence

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.

About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development based in Melbourne, Australia. She is often on Twitter (@tseenster), created/convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN: aasrn.wordpress.com), and publishes on critical race studies, diasporic Asian cultures, and racialised academic identities.

18 Responses to Beware excellence

  1. Dear Tseen Khoo, another insightful, well observed and appropriately impatient post from you.
    Best
    Sally Gray

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dr_eff says:

    Well put. I am standing and applauding your critique.
    Now all we need is for you to harness your powers to rethink the way academic research is managed and administered (beyond measuring these constructs).

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      My issue isn’t with the fact that versions of academic productivity get measured – it’s with how these measures are narrow and used for completely unsustainable (and often meaningless) pursuits of ‘excellence’. Many universities already have the transformative potential of their work/teaching embedded in their slogans, etc, and current changes that are afoot to measure/capture impact point to different elements to consider. Diversifying how academic research can be done (therefore, differentiated outputs and research outcomes), how it moves beyond the ivory tower, its potential for future vs immediate outcomes…all these things would be part of what I’d like to see when it comes to a wiser and less short-sighted view of research. Seeing your uni climb institutional rankings for the sake of brand magnificence is just puerile if what we believe our research does is try to effect change and make a good difference in our societies/world in general. Yes, that sounds naff, but – at heart – I think most researchers are here for that.

      I think university senior research execs and the highered sector more generally need to be better at advocating and ‘translating’ what their researchers are already doing, rather than being reactive to every edict that comes down the line from somewhat whimsical government documents. I know they know this.

      Like

  3. cj13 says:

    Fabulous post. Best read I have had in ages. Just need a few more to point at the emperor and ask why “he” is nekkid! The universities in the US that just get on and do good work, one has to note, have *minimal* bureaucracy. They brag about that. Anyone for best practice?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Chris – glad the post resonated with you. I’d be interested in knowing more about these minimal bureaucratic unis in the States – do you have a link/post to this bragging? Fascinating idea in our increasingly policy- and form-laden contexts…

      Like

  4. lindabrennan says:

    Thank you! It is an insidious construct – I hope your career is not limited by being a human being in the academy

    Like

  5. L Smith says:

    This is an excellent post Tseen and I agree with your arguments. Excellence and research excellence are phrases that are thrown around by universities here in the UK all the time. I agree that that most people / universities would not be able to articulate what this meant other than they see it as something that must be achieved to push themselves up a league table. I won’t even start on the measurement of excellence – you have covered the key points there!

    I would say that excellence (the use of) is certainly not restricted to just the elite universities here in the UK. Pretty much all universities use it now as if they don’t they probably don’t see themselves as competing with the larger and more prestigious institutions. It is similar to the obsession with student satisfaction scores and the emerging Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

    For me I prefer to focus on integrity and the important role this plays in research. It is far more important and if excellence is to be achieved then without integrity it is even more meaningless. I expect that researchers and universities do research with integrity. If they do that they should be doing goo (excellent) research.

    As for innovation….well, wherever I hear this it makes me gag, whether in the HE sector or not! Thanks again for a great post!

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Lachlan! Really appreciate your support + always-encouraging words. I have many thoughts about the obsession with student satisfaction scores and whether they ‘liked’ what they learned in a given course or subject. It’s so problematic, and it’s something that’s being increasingly written about!

      That’s exactly right – if there’s no integrity in the research and the ways it moves around around sector and beyond, then why bother really? (IMO)

      Yes, let’s not go down the “innovation” pathway…make sure you read Rolin Mo’s piece on this, though – it made me cheer (and is fascinating in its own right).

      Like

  6. Nearly wrote ‘excellent’ comment Tseen!

    Instead I will shift to ‘wise words’ for us all to ponder. If the pursuit of excellence is not fully supported with financial and material resources to work at this level then it is, at best, an unsustainable aspiration; at worst exploitation.

    I discussed this very point about ‘professional perfectionism’ more broadly within TE management yesterday which echo your arguments regarding the construct of excellence.

    If invisible labour is necessary to get us past where we are reasonably funded and supported to work–then this is a risky proposition indeed to base our nation building responsibilities upon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      WordPress ate my comment! Curses!

      Just wanted to say thanks for your supportive words, Heather, and I’m glad the post echoed for you, too. The ‘invisible labour’ issue is extremely important – the unsustainable reliance on an exploited cohort that is being offered few (if any) work options cannot continue. There are significant shifts that need to take place if there’s to be any change, and I can’t imagine the institutions as we know them taking the lead on this. The ability to react but not lead is a facet of universities that doesn’t seem to be changing much over the decades.

      Like

  7. Lara Palombo says:

    Thank you for the great article. So timing for me personally as I have been thinking about this term ‘excellent’ and the way it is thrown around. I just sat for an interview for an academic lecturer job and part of the feedback was that the successful candidate was ‘extraordinary’ and ‘excellent’ and these terms were repeatedly used. Now, I am not saying the successful candidate is not excellent as I am sure she is and she will do a great job; but I found it de-stabilizing hearing about what panels think makes an academic excellent (i.e. publishing on pedagogical journals or issues or using new technologies) especially as in the process it completely devalues what else someone may bring into a position (i.e. over ten years experience teaching and researching). I am ignoring the feedback because as it has been amply demonstrated it is just another way of attacking casuals like myself who have been around for long-time and implying that somehow we do not have the skills etc…whilst simultaneously doing all the teaching and research work that is necessary for a University to exist. I think in this case ‘excellence’ is just another measure that keeps a culture of segmentation and exclusion in Universities.

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      The insidiousness of what is seen as ‘excellent’ filters into so many areas of academe. And, you’re right, precariat labour enables the university as we know it, but the staff who occupy these roles are rarely treated as researchers, given opportunities to develop, or offered mentorship on career paths/track-record. Despite all the ‘relative to opportunity’ rhetoric that is now embedded in national research councils’ guidelines, I think we’re still a couple of generations away from truly taking into consideration any deviations from idealised career pathways. And the elided, compromised experiences of sessional/casual staff may well endure beyond more general acceptance of career breaks like parental leave and illness, etc.

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  8. Thanks Tseen. When I presented on comparing global research performance models at INORMS 2014 in DC I found this gem of a quote: “Asking to explain excellenceis a bit like asking a biologist whatextra-terrestrial life would look like. The answer: we don’t know it,but we will when we see it.” (Claus Madsen, Senior Adviser at the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere). So it’s very subjective, rarely defined and is often a combination of considering ‘quality’ and ‘impact’ – interesting to note that there are lots of definitions for the latter but not the former i.e. ERA guidelines do not define “quality”!

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Michelle! And I love that quote. That’s the thing: for something that is so subjectively defined, it’s very heavily used as a measure and category. When something so fuzzy can determine how people’s careers and promotion possibilities might turn out, I think we need to take a step back and have a good look at what we’re actually trying to do.

      Like

  9. Jay says:

    Really enjoyed your piece, thank you for it.

    It interests me that an industry full of such highly analytical people (presumably) we are very very prone to be captured by orthodoxies such as this (and as you note, there are a plethora of them aside from excellence).

    Your article doesn’t go there, possibly for practical or even ideological reasons, but it’s not hard to make the link to neoliberal principles which create constructs such as this – and notably also ‘knowledge economies’ – in ways which narrowly define the roles of higher education institutions and make them far less capable of straying away from the norms they wish to maintain (and if you’re a marxist, you may call those the ones that protect plutocracy :)).

    Like

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Jay – and you’re right about not going there with the neolib university conversation. It’s entirely relevant and foundational to many of the dynamics we have in our universities now, but really, really hard to fit adequate discussion about this angle into a blogpost…!

      Like

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