Academic talent

Peter Sutherland may have been quoted out of context, or inaccurately, in today’s Irish Times, where it is reported that

Yesterday, Mr Sutherland was also critical of Government moves to reduce the pay of university presidents and other senior academics. Mr O’Keeffe has written to university presidents seeking a voluntary pay cut, while the Higher Education Authority has reviewed procedures which allow universities make special payments to its top academics.

Mr Sutherland called for a new flexible approach, “necessary to retain talented but highly mobile staff”.

But presumably the academics here can all agree that in the entire history of higher education, there has never been a recorded case of a talented student saying “I must get my PhD at Harvard, they have a really exciting President”, or “Oxford is the place for me, their Head of Human Resources rocks”, or “what about that VP for Research at Stanford, there’s no other option as far as I’m concerned.”

Academics — even, or perhaps especially, the opinionated ones — make universities what they are. The best students go to places like Harvard because of faculty rosters like this. VPs, Presidents and all the rest are not ‘senior academics’. They are university bureaucrats, or administrators if you prefer. In the Irish context they sometimes come up through the ranks, while sometimes they are hired in from places like the HEA.  I doubt that they are particularly mobile internationally. Paying them enormous salaries strikes me as a waste of money.

If Ireland wants to become a ‘smart economy’ it would be helpful if basic distinctions like this were kept in mind.

32 replies on “Academic talent”


Otherwise an excellent rant.

And it is true of more than universities. Senior management are largely irrelevant in a knowledge economy company. They don’t have the knowledge to lead the company and private sector administrative skills mirror their academic counterparts for turgidity.

Kevin: call them what you like but it would be astonishing if the quality of university president’s,vp’s etc did not matter. We know the effect of bad ones. So the normal rules of economics, supply’n’demand, opportunity cost etc, are bound to apply to some extent. And in general, the experience is that good leaders, whether of armies, corporations, drug cartels or schools, make a difference. The fact that faculty or students are not concerned about who the head of HR is, is irrelevant. You do need a functioning HR department and good people there cost.
So its really an empirical matter: are our current cadre over-paid? I am sure some are but, heaven forbid that someone would want me to run a university, I would want around €200k+.

The really outrageous quote in Sutherland’s speech is this one:

“Our universities must have the flexibility to differentially reward their best performers, to incentivise those who are willing to take on academic leadership positions, and the flexibility to recruit, reward and terminate contracts that is the norm in the UK and the US.’’

Uh, no. Tenure in the US is ironclad. There is almost no scope to terminate the contracts of tenured US professors. Not coincidentally, the US has the best professoriat in the world. Something to bear in mind in the current national enthusiasm for the idea that our universities simply must be filled with “dead wood” (rather than the dead hand of bureaucracy).

This weeks Times Higher has a reference to a study which shows uni chiefs pay is a good predictor of institutional performance. Have not read it and can’t comment but the authors do note that high pay at the top with less reward for academic staff is a problem. But I take Kevin O’s basic point and also that of Kevin D. From my experience we have an unusually large number of ‘executive’ posts that are wholly managerial in our Universities. I think UCD (my own institution) started that but all others followed. It was interesting to see how the Pres and Provost of Melbourne Uni are both still involved in teaching and research (mainly through grad student supervision). This is in keeping with the idea that really good academics might be desireable as Presidents etc – something dealt with in a recent Vox article by some Warwick researchers! A colleague recently told me of how he was chatting to someone during his son’s induction at NYU who turned out to be the Uni President. Probing further it became clear that this President also taught a course etc etc as ‘the parents would expect nothing less’.

@kevin d

I think the thing that is important is that you literally do multiply across all seven (and indeed IT’s – salary scales are pretty much the same in the IT sector). There is no local discretion. This relates to @ernie’s comment too – US academic tenured staff have variable and individually negotiated salaries as increasingly do UK equivalents.

@ Ernie
Tenure awarded practically on signing of contract here & much harder to get in the US. If harder to get then unlikely you will want to get rid of them.

I see no point in the @Paul Iticsdotayee post. Please comment on the economics of the issues the review committee should be examining but the personalised commentary is not relevant to this thread whatever people might think of the personalities involved. For example the review committee certainly took some great advice from Bruce Chapman from Oz about the reintroduction of fees but that was killed by the Green’s deal with FF – that is a much more important point then who chairs the Committee.

The answer to this might be obvious, but… how does one measure the performance of a University? Hence separating the Presidential wheat from the chaff? There is surely more to it than scanning the balance sheets of interim reports, and the like.

@Colm Harmon
You think drawing attention to senior involvement in our economic policy making process in the run up to our economic & banking collapse is, “personalised commentary”. I think it is profoundly relevant. I am sure Colin Hunt is great crack but he is conducting a review of our third level education system. As such his record must be highlighted.


I don’t know colin hunt from the next man for the
record. I think that this blog should be concerned with what his committee is doing in terms of it’s impact on economic development, for example. I don’t consider it an issue for this blog to concern itself with the personalities involved other than in viewing them for their skills to complete
the task. I do not know of his interest in the economics of higher education, but can see from leaks that the committee has consulted widely and well (although again for the record not from me despite this being
my research area and that of colleagues at UCD).

This is not saying that the sort of links you are concerned by are unimportant in the wider debate but it is just that – a wider debate. Not one I have a
view on as an economist.

To take another example – the new FAS board lacks deep experience from folks with core research knowledge of labour markets and training. That fact is important for this blog as we will be grappling with the actions of FAS for years to come in this forum. The fact that the Minister for Education lobbied for a representative from Cork IT, or any other issues of this nature, are important but not issues that this blog
can really deal with.

I do not wish to trivialise or ignore your point. I just don’t see it as something
this blog (and certainly this thread) is set up to deal with. perhaps !!!

The point, surely, is not that the students are attracted by the office holders but by academics who are indeed frequently attracted by office holders.

They are an easy target, but in a number of cases in our recent past they have clearly made substantial contributions to the development of their universities. The amount that they receive on top of the salary of a senior professor seems modest.

@Mods/site owners
Any chance of a post on the ‘spend your way to recover’ conference? Dr. Dan, Dr. ESRI Fitzgerald, & Dr. Ahearne?

Kevin, I think we can agree that there has never been a recorded case of a talented student saying they chose a university because of the university president, but on the other hand they do choose universities because of reputations about the overall student experience at the university, not least how efficiently run it is (registration, the library, IT services, availability of readings, transparent course options, general de-snagging etc) and how demanding / exciting / well-organised the teaching is. Those things in turn can be very much affected by the university administrators whose quality therefore matters a lot. The same is true for academics who tend to want to work at well-run institutions. In my experience, there’s still a lot of room for improvement here and hiring some academic administrators internationally is certainly worth considering because outside perspectives could raise Irish standards.


There are a few issues we need to ponder in third level and beyond, in parrallel with this issue.

We are trying to get as many people into third level education as possible, give or take the varnish of entry systems/ points etc. This democratic impulse, while much valued has other effects.

Attempting to frame Third level institutions as world class etc, introduces an aristocratic impuse where the virtues are seperated from the vices, students recieve grades, etc

This interaction between quantity and quality needs a little daylight.
What quantity of students can expect/recieve what quality of education?

If improving the quality results in lowering the quantity, then are we up for it?
Most likely no, because numbers bring in revenue.

If improving quantity results in lowering quality…?
Arguably we are already here, with the free fees?

So at what junction is an acceptable outcome in quality and quantity??

I remember this a few months ago:

Isnt it a little dishonest to have opened the doors in terms of quantity, and then speak of quality without acknowledging that the easiest way to increase the quality of student and student experience is to reduce the quantity?

All the education providers ignore this and ask for more money from Government!!

Academics seeking to hone their talent, deal with the quality by reducing the quantity, but this leaves someone else to deal with it: A. Lecturer or postgrad etc. We seem to be a little desperate as a nation at the moment to distinguish ourselves, and we are looking for sophists to aid our cause.

Suds is seeking to reward the more talented, but isnt it hard sometimes to tell ambition-but less talented from talent…. and usually when the distinction becomes clear it is too late.

Lets start this whole thing with an honest answer to the following questions:

1- What do we have that is ‘world class’?
2- Can it produce world class in others?
3- Is this more productive at an individual or group level?

Most of what is being debated at the moment is a smoke screen hding more core issues.
Apologies for the rambling


Colm Harmon’s reply to Paul Iticsdotayee (above) raises an interesting issue. He argues with a degree of conviction that the politics of the personalisation involved should fall outside of the thread – even the blog. Perhaps. But isn’t it this type of subtle and well-mannered distinction that gives the opportunists and carpet baggers of the times the unchallenged space to do the damage they do? And given Colm’s aside that he himself wasn’t consulted by Colin Hunt and his group despite his expertise /research area and that of colleagues, maybe there is a case for being just a little bit wary of what’s coming down the track.

@Colm Harmon

Tenure is no longer awarded on signing here. At UCD I believe there is 3 years or so between appointment and consideration for tenure.

I don’t suppose that anyone has given any thought to the fact that quick tenuring is actually a competitive advantage that Ireland could perhaps use to attract young talent: even the highest young flyers don’t want to go through the gruelling tenure process in the US which has few checks and balances (annoy a few colleagues and you won’t be getting tenure, no matter what your record). In a tight job market, Ireland could use the quick tenuring to its advantage.

But, no, we’re so preoccupied with begrudgery and ressentiment and we’re so convinced that the only thing that motivates academics is money and that if we pay the “good ones” off the scales salaries why, sure, of course they’d come to a shithole where serious academic work isn’t valued in the least and the academics are all demoralised and everyone is counting up articles like that’s what matters. So we’ll piss away one of the only competitive advantages we actually have over UK and US universities because, that way, will never recruit another lecturer from overseas.

Does this country have to shoot itself in the foot in everything it does?

In my experience we have never hired or indeed retained – locals or international folk – based on tenure. We do so because we were good enough to attract (or retain). The early tenure (and it is pro forma pretty much – hire, probation, tenure without any major review and within a short time period) usually surprises folks – they would most likely have still come here even with the rigor of a tenure process. To offer this as a competitive advantage would be a mistake in my view.

Having been busy today I have lost the thread of the argument here, if there is one. Let me address an important point that KoR raised: that we could save money by not paying rents to the big cheeses. Of course it is true but I am not sure it is that important:
In times of fiscal crisis, such as now, a common refrain from well-meaning and mostly left-leaning people is “tax the rich”. Nice rhetoric, but one problem ( & there are others) with this is that there aren’t many of these people so you don’t actually raise much money that way. You need to tax low & middle income earners for the same reason that you need to rob banks: its where the money is.
The point of all this is that there is a very similar issue for universities. Cutting rents from the nobs will save some money but there are not that many of them. And – here is the important bit- they are not the only people earnings rents in academia. So there are dozens and dozens of others probably making rents, namely lecturers and professors. If rents weren’t being earned, the recent pay cut would have made many people scarper. I am sure there is a bit of this happening but not a lot. Moreover we have pay scales common across disciplines even though the opportunity cost for a classicist is very different for a computer scientist, say. So that generates rents too (Scaling this up by 7 or 700 doesn’t change the argument by the way).
In short, if we want the universities to be efficient: lets get real and not just focus our ire on a few, however much they deserve it.

Update, from today’s Sindo:

Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”

Undergraduates attracted to Harvard by the strength of its faculty would be very disappointed to discover how little contact they will have with the “big names”.

Top administrators can have a vital influence on the development of a University (even if the effect is more image than reality), hence the extravagant remuneration packages which US Universities offer their Presidents. I doubt if Peter Sutherland (speaking as Chair of the LSE) was being misquoted by the IT on this point.

A University does offer its students a “brand” and the explosion of third-level education in recent decades has made the great brands immensely valuable. The intense competition for places in the Ivy League colleges, despite the enormous costs, is a measure of this value (and sadly not direct reflecting the quality of faculty).

Now, apply that lesson to the decision to abandon Ireland’s second most prestigious “brand” – the National University of Ireland.

@Lefournier: I was talking about PhD students. The big difference between the US and here is that there is an enormous market for admin talent, and you end up with market wages. How many top university administrators in Ireland have been hired in from overseas in recent years? I would really like an answer to that one. How many are likely to leave Ireland in pursuit of higher wages in academic admin abroad?

@Kevin: you’re not saying that academics are less mobile than Irish university administrators, are you? Don’t forget, there is a world economic crisis on right now, so the fact that people haven’t left yet tell us nothing. We will see what happens once it is over. But in the past few years, TCD/UCD have lost Peter Neary, Mick Laver, Nicky White and many other really good people who actually matter for the quality of our teaching and research. How many heads of HR have we lost to our overseas competitors? And would it not be easier to replace such a person than to replace Peter, Mick or Nicky, in the unlikely event that they were poached by MIT?

And, for the record, I am not calling for the academics to be paid above scale, as I made clear in another thread. The country is broke. We can’t afford it. I think it could too easily degenerate into top ups for the boys. We can’t afford the enormous admin salaries either.


“reward and terminate contracts that is the norm in the UK and the US.’’

Uh, no. Tenure in the US is ironclad

Not for administrators. Administrators can, and are, fired in the US. I know of one case where a college president was fired with less then one month notice. Tenure only applied to your academic position, it does not extend to an administrative job. Business school deans have an expected life of 5-6 years here, about the same as CEOs. And, like CEO contracts, deans’ employment contracts typically include performance targets against which their performance is measured.

Update, from today’s Sindo:

Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”

Ended up choking on my coffee laughing at this one.

Re: our current highly-paid, go-getter entrepeneurial college presidents. They seem set to leave as their legacy debt-burdened institutions which have sold themselves out to commercial interests and all but abandoned the arts and humanities, and this country is much the worse for their inglorious reign.

Kevin: I think one needs to distinguish between academics in senior positions (VPs etc) and officials, like HR types. You seem to be lumping them together, if I read you correctly. There are markets for both just as there are for academics. The market for, say, HR people may not be international. I don’t know off-hand what the outflows and the elasticities are and I doubt you do either.
My main points are: academics shouldn’t think of themselves of as so special (some are, many are not). Academics earn rents too: I suspect many people in universities would struggle to get a job in McDonalds if they didn’t have their present posts. Certainly they wouldn’t have the combination of benefits and freedom that they (i.e. we) enjoy.
So I think its a bit rich for academics to point fingers at say an official in another building (“hey that useless bureaucrat is overpaid”) when there is something equally scandalous going on down the corridor. In a sense, I think economists have a particular duty not to be complicit in wasteful public expendtiture.
I also prefer not to personalize the argument by giving examples: its not feasible for legal and other reasons for me to give counter-examples.

@Kevin: to me, an academic is someone who teaches and does research. End of.

And can you give me any examples of admin people — HR staff, university presidents, whatever — in Irish universities who have been hired in from outside the country?

Academics are mobile. Those guys aren’t. So they can’t claim international mobility as a reason to escape wage cuts.

Thinking about Peter Sutherland’s reported remarks that Ireland should have fewer than the current 7 universities I had quick lookat other comparable Anglophone countries. I used the hopefully unbiasedly inaccurate Wikipedia and tried to lean the figures in favour of the Ireland has too many viewe.g I counted University of London as just one University while I’m count NUI as four. Ireland had approx. six hundred thousand people per university, while the UK, Australia and New Zealand had only five hundred thousand people per university and Canada had a mere 4 hundred thousand people per universities. Not sure that a ‘university’ constitutes a good unit but thought it was an interesting rough calculation in the face of declarations I have heard in conversations that Ireland has ‘obviously’ too many.

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