Face-to-face value

Interview potential staff to determine whether their ethics will match your institution’s. By Kerry Cox.
Having been brought up on a farm, I was told early in my life that, “A chain is as strong as its weakest link.” During many years as a senior academic administrator in three quite different universities, I have reflected often on the question, “Are universities as good as their least competent staff member?” The answer is no, since universities, unlike a chain with linear connectivity, are complex organisations of fellow members of humankind with many inputs and outputs making up the strength of a particular university. Nevertheless, a university can suffer considerable harm to its reputation, and therefore status, because of incompetence, or worse, corruption, by a single staff member or a small group of staff. Thus, another question arises: why is it that universities, particularly when recruiting new staff (and also whilst managing the performance of existing staff) generally address quite sparingly the values and behaviours of an individual academic staff member with respect to their potential contributions to the university’s goals, strategic priorities and operating processes? An answer is that it is too difficult to do so reliably. So the focus during selection of new academic staff tends to be on the research capacity of a particular individual. Whilst the selection process can vary a lot, not infrequently there is little more than a cursory overview of issues such as the capacity to facilitate student learning and to contribute to the general wellbeing of the university through helping other staff.
Some years ago at Edith Cowan University (ECU) we set out for almost a year to negotiate a restricted number of values to which the University community could commit and which would guide our decision-making and operating processes. Settling values is the easy part. Whilst a fair bit of turbulence was created as colleagues proffered and then pursued energetically their predilections with respect to values they thought appropriate, after several iterations and much reflection it was possible to settle on four: integrity; respect; rational inquiry; and personal excellence.
Integrity has two domains – ethical behaviour, and arguments and intellectual positions that hold together. Respect mandates providing space for individuals who make up the huge diversity of humankind, provided they are law-abiding. And even if they are not law-abiding, their human rights are to be honoured. Rational inquiry is the core business of universities, a focus on evidence and analysis, cause and effect, and logical outcomes in comparison with the politicisation of any issue with scant regard for evidence and analysis. Facts should be preferred over prejudice. The fourth value, personal excellence, is to promote the idea that everyone should strive to be as good as they can possibly be and not worry about whether they are the best in the world. Not everyone can be the best in the world and whilst being the best is a laudable achievement, it is folly, in my view, to promote such a goal in the wider community.
Settling the policy position is easy, implementation is the tricky bit. A key is for the many senior leaders of a university to be, and to be seen to be, “walking the talk”. Pursuit of values can conflict with achievement of strategic goals. As an example, universities prize the ATAR cut-off for each of their courses as a measure of prestige and quality (this is spurious because it is an input rather than an outcome measure).
Some years ago at ECU, when we were well short of the student load agreed upon with the Commonwealth government, an opportunity arose to accept a busload of students, provided we lowered our ATAR cut-off. In discussions, it was said we could protect our ATAR cut-off, so we were still seen to be competitive with other universities in Western Australia, by simply giving the students bonus marks for some arbitrary reason (it was claimed that another university was going to do just that although that was never proven). I decided that before we allocated arbitrary additional marks to protect (what would become a false) ATAR cut-off, a recommendation would be required for the next University Council meeting saying that we would have to eliminate the value of “Integrity” at ECU since we did not practise it. The busload of students never came to ECU, which was a big loss in the short-term but very helpful to the university in the medium and longer terms, in pursuing a goal of fair dealing with others and with the wider community.
In choosing new staff, after some years now, fellow panel members are never surprised that we seek to have candidates tested not just on academic excellence but also on interpersonal skills, values and their fit with the corporate culture of the university. Most internal candidates perform well with respect to values and cultural fit. Many external candidates do not. Worse, often their answer to a simple question such as, “What do you think of the university’s values?” will start a monologue on how important values are, which is truncated with a courteous, apologetic interruption, “Please answer the question”. Exchanges that then follow often have the candidates losing ground quickly because of their attempts to cover up something that’s obvious, which is that they have no idea of our values. In those circumstances, a good answer would be, “I’m very sorry, I do not know the university’s values. Can you please tell me?”. Such an answer might give confidence that one of their personal values was integrity. That would give a good fit with our university! In one case, a long-serving professor at a top-rated university (who did not get the job), wrote a two-page critique to the headhunters, including that the vice-chancellor treated him as if he were a boy scout. It is good that a potential misfit was found at interview and not after appointment.
Another very straightforward question that candidates complicate at their cost is, “If we were to offer you the job, would you accept?”. It is extraordinary how many external candidates have no idea how to answer that question. Answers such as, after considerable hesitation, “I want to tell the committee I am not here to leverage…” from a candidate who’d been acting for 12 months at another university at the level we were seeking, was a give-away and created doubt about an answer earlier in the interview to the question, “What attributes make you a good leader?”. The person had explained that he was very trustworthy. Another candidate, who had done very well in the interview to that point, suddenly changed their tone and said, “I would probably be prepared to consider it”.
The appointment of professors and other senior staff who are excellent in their disciplines and professional areas, and who are very committed to fair dealing and ethical behaviours with others – particularly subordinates – is a value-adding way for a university to establish a culture from which staff, at formative stages of their careers, and students, would derive considerable benefit. It is not as if treating people well and academic excellence are mutually exclusive.
The late Nelson Mandela has said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Without knowing for sure, I suspect Mandela was referring to much more than academic excellence.
Professor Kerry Cox is vice-chancellor of Edith Cowan University.

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