The decline in Trinity's overall standing in the latest world university rankings, and the fall in its standing relative to other Irish universities, is a cause for concern, and for some in Trinity, wonderment, even bewilderment. The university rankings-game is set only to become more competitive, with the same level of performance resulting in falling rankings; as more universities up their performance; increase their language proficiency in English, teach more and publish more in English and attract high calibre staff and students from around the world.
Trinity has lost staff to universities that once would have been considered benchmarking equivalents, or lower, but now soar well above us. While calls for more external resources are certainly timely and appropriate, this will not in itself be sufficient. Of equal, or perhaps even greater concern, is the decline in confidence in governance within the university; the demotivation and disengagement of at least some staff; and the decision of others to walk out the door.
Nowhere are concerns with governance more apparent than in the university’s human resources function, and specifically its obfuscation of academic promotions; with the resultant atrophy of spirit, motivation and productivity of many talented staff.
Of course, it’s not all the fault of the university: the employment control framework constrains the ratio of senior to junior staff, and this necessarily limits the number of senior positions available, inevitably resulting in many disappointed applicants who might well be promoted in less-constrained circumstances.
However, it is not the scale, or number, of promotions that is the greatest problem, but rather the perceived unfairness of “the system” and its apparent failure to embody the most rudimentary principle of organisational justice, upon which the integrity of any organisation rests. Furthermore, other universities are improving their standing in rankings, in spite of the employment control framework.
Opaque waters of promotion
For those of us who have successfully navigated a route through the opaque waters of promotion in Trinity, there is a tendency to then look away and perhaps even retrospectively to assume some validity to the overall process.
Trinity has a process of redress for those unhappy with the outcome of their application for promotion. If a staff member insists on continuing to be unhappy, he or she can ultimately take a case to the university's own internal court, "the Visitors" (currently the pro-chancellor and a High Court judge).
In a case I took regarding an application in 2012 for promotion to personal chair (the most senior rank of professor), the Visitors could discern no relationship between independent ratings of applicants’ merit and whether they were promoted or not; some of the highest-ranked candidates where not promoted, while lower ranked ones were.
Furthermore, neither human resources personnel, nor a representative of the senior promotions committee, who were called before the Visitors to account for this, could indicate what, if any, additional criteria were used to change the rank order of the candidates, or to deem some suitable and others not for promotion. While my own case was successful (in terms of promotion and remuneration being back-dated), the findings highlighted important failings in the overall system of promotions.
A university that apparently does not reward merit has a credibility problem. Regrettably, 15 months after the findings of the aforementioned appeal no action has been taken to address such problems, no procedures changed and nobody has been held to account
This is not an isolated incident. One of the criteria for promotion to a personal chair – that the individual should have made a "transformational impact" on their discipline – also takes on an Alice in Wonderland quality, as it is laughably undefined; worse, candidates are told they must demonstrate the undefined; while senior members of the promotion committee admit they can't say what such a transformational impact would look like.
The Visitors have noted the “opaque” nature of the promotion process and they have expressed concerns that promotion criteria have been “unevenly applied”. There is no mystery to fair and transparent promotion processes – other universities use them.
While rankings are certainly only one index (and not a very useful one) of a university’s performance, unfortunately they cannot be ignored – as they are a widely used measure of quality; no matter how inappropriate the assumptions on which they are based. However, we cannot expect others to take us seriously, if we don’t take ourselves seriously; failing to act on the findings of our own appeals procedures will simply – and rightly – increase the flow of talent out the front gate. To address the decline in the standing of Trinity externally, requires we start, by addressing it internally.
Among other things we need to stop spouting arrogant and defensive rhetoric about being Ireland's leading university; and embrace the merit of the strong competition – both internationally and in Ireland – that we are among.
After all, as the White Queen said to Alice, "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards". Changing poor governance practices, challenging assumptions about being "impassable" and treating our own staff fairly and with the dignity they deserve can make many more things possible; "why, as many as six before breakfast". Prof Mac MacLachlan hold a personal chair in global health at Trinity College