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Academic promotions are Faustian bargains

By Dianna Kenny - posted Tuesday, 6 April 2004

There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.
- Vincent Lombardi

Vincent Lombardi, football coach, was no academic scholar but he demonstrated a much better grasp on how best to manage a diverse group of people than senior personnel in universities. Lombardi’s goal, and indeed the goal of any good sport’s coach, was to recognise and nurture the individual skills of each member, thereby creating a strong and unified team, in which players can simultaneously excel individually and contribute to the higher purpose of team victory. Members of football teams have specific roles to play – centre forward, back, wing – they are assigned these positions and maintain and enhance them throughout their football careers.

Makes good sense? Perhaps to the lay man but in universities, academics are expected to excel in a range of diverse and complex areas, such as teaching, research, administration, and contributions to the profession and community in order to gain promotion through the ranks. To attain promotion to professor, one must be deemed outstanding in all areas.


Internal promotion is a time-consuming and gruelling process, opaque and probably of merely fleeting interest to anyone outside our academic institutions. Perhaps it is time to inform the community about such processes. For promotion to professor (pdf 166Kb), one must first gain the support of one’s Head of School and Dean of Faculty. One must then compile a document that addresses dozens of dot points in each of the substantive areas and provide corroborating evidence of achievement. One must enlist the support of five referees of high international standing (whatever this means) to support one’s application. Once submitted, two independent assessors are assigned to comment on the merits of the application and to provide written advice. The applicant is called for interview before an eight-member Faculty Promotions Committee (FPC), which makes a recommendation to the Central Promotions Committee (CPC), after having considered the application, the interview, the referees’ reports and the written reports of the independent assessors. The ten-member CPC essentially duplicates the functions of the FPC with added roles:

". . . to ensure that standards are equitable across The University and to make the final recommendations for or against promotion. The CPC will be guided by the advice of the FPC (Levels C, D and E)."

The problem with the CPC is that it has no first-hand knowledge of the applicant or his/her work, has not been present at the interview and frequently has no representation in the applicant’s substantive area. On average, the CPC rejects the applications of about a third of those seeking promotion to professor each year. Many of those rejected would have had the support of their Faculties, their referees, and the independent assessors.

In October 2003, Gavin Brown wrote a piece in Sydney Uni News (reproduced in On Line Opinion) in response to negotiations with Brendan Nelson regarding the conditions specified by the government before additional funding would be forthcoming. He stated:

"After eight months of hard but constructive enterprise bargaining we found that our agreement with the Unions violates many clauses suddenly imposed by the government one day before its signing . . . There are many other protocols that must be satisfied before we qualify for the additional funding, which the Minister has frankly stated is necessary for higher education. It is my opinion that we have been offered a Faustian bargain and that it would be better for the sector to face lower quality arising from an inadequate resource base than to place ourselves in a state of total impotence."

These words ring strangely ironic to those who have suffered at the hands of the CPC. Gavin Brown enters into Faustian bargains with staff every year at promotion time. In overturning their recommendations, he and his CPC discount the integrity and good judgment of their own Deans, Heads of Schools, referees and assessors. How could they all be so wrong? The psychological damage wreaked on career academics by a system that offers no satisfactory appeal process is immeasurable but the CPC is comfortably removed from these consequences of their actions.


The University of Sydney has a Resolution of Complaints Policy. It states:

"In the case of the Vice-Chancellor, any complaint shall be routinely referred to an appropriate external organisation or individual, free of any real or reasonably perceived conflict of interest, unless the Chancellor is satisfied that the complaint can be resolved by the Chancellor, without there being any real or reasonably perceived conflict of interest, and should, having regard to the nature of the complaint, be so resolved."

However, this policy does not apply to the appeals process in academic promotions. A Deputy Vice Chancellor is assigned by the Vice Chancellor to hear the appeal, which may only be made on procedural grounds. How can academics have any expectation of a fair hearing from a staff member who reports directly to the Vice Chancellor, who is simultaneously his boss, Chair of the CPC, and ultimately responsible for the decisions of the CPC? In most jurisdictions, this would be considered a serious conflict of interest. Not so in the university! This reprehensible practice is not only considered appropriate; it is apparently unassailable in law.

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About the Author

Dr Dianna Kenny is Professor of Psychology at The University of Sydney.

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