Equality, promotion, and the loyal servant theory – advice from the front line

Promote v.t.  advance (person to position or higher office); publicise and sell (product).  [OED]

Last year I was promoted.

I moved from being a professor, one amongst many, kicking around in a large category called ‘the professoriate’ to being a banded professor, one who now has her salary tied to criteria that actually spell out what my HEI thinks I should be doing for the money it pays me. I got a hefty pay rise primarily because there were, at last, rules to the game of salary negotiation. I don’t think the rules adopted are particularly good, but now there are rules in existence at least I can market my achievements to the published criteria.

The long and winding road that led to my promotion to the rank of ‘banded professor’ included a three-and-a-half week sojourn at the Reading Employment Tribunal where I had a great deal of opportunity to reflect more generally on the business of promotion and academia. Certainly this has changed a lot since I joined the profession. And when I was trained as a postgraduate student in research methodologies, I was schooled in areas such as bibliography, palaeography, historiography; now I find what I need most are skills in basic marketing; economics for beginners; a crash course in how to negotiate without getting cranky; plus a dash of employment law. Indeed, it seems to me that that some of the skills required for really sustained, rigorous and robust research – tenacity bordering on obsession; fascination with the obscure; manic attention to detail – are not always compatible with the attributes that seem most valued at present: telly friendly communication skills; a photogenic appearance; the ability to chase various definitions of the word ‘impact’; success in securing mega grants; a conviction that the lone scholar is a dead as the dodo.

There is also a problem for many academics in marketing themselves for promotion at any rank: if you are any good as a researcher then you will, almost inevitably, be something of a self doubter. Part of writing the second (or fifth or tenth) draft of an article, or scrutinising your results, or testing your hypothesis rigorously one more time is self criticism and self doubt. In order to be sceptical thinkers, questioning the evidence, interrogating the theoretical framework, checking the scholarship, academics have to be prone to self criticism. As a result academia is full of people suffering from impostor syndrome; and these are the academics who are most likely to be under promoted and under paid.

Academics also need to treat themselves as serious research projects.

I once heard a senior manager speak very satirically about a colleague who seemed to rush off to brush up their CV every time they attended a committee meeting. But, as I learned last year, that is actually a very strategic thing to do. At the Employment Tribunal I was being asked about teaching loads going back ten years. Because I had forgotten what courses I was teaching in 2001 I had to go digging around to find out. I excavated committee minutes going back decades. Under cross examination from a QC, I wanted to be able to wave around proof that I was on that committee, that I attended meetings and that I contributed. My situation was unusual but it has taught me that keeping my CV up to date, plus keeping evidence to back it up, is very important.
In fact I used to think that the annual submission of my CV for inspection was a chore; now I see it as a crucial self marketing and documentation process. In addition, I now also keep evidence about things I have been asked to do but that I have turned down; and never again will I respond to a head hunting email by thinking ‘oh that’s nice’ and then pressing ‘delete’. That email is the kind of evidence senior management respects. Given my own pay history, it appears to me that a 70,000 word monograph full of groundbreaking research is worth peanuts in pay negotiations compared with an email suggesting that a rival HEI might be after you.

Another reason many academics are poorly paid is because they tend not to talk about salaries. But if you can’t bear to gossip about how much you earn, you can research the evidence. The THE publishes league tables of salary averages. How far adrift of your HEI’s average are you, and is that appropriate? If it isn’t then talk strategies with friends and colleagues. Look at each other’s promotion or pay applications and offer constructive criticism. There are quite possibly people at your HEI – in economics or management – who have researched payment practices in academia and related fields. Pick their brains; offer yourself as a case study; read the research that’s available online. If you are really struggling to find out information then put in a ‘freedom of information’ request for averages in your faculty. However, don’t ever put anything in an email that you are not prepared to hear read out in court and remember that your HEI has the legal right to access your institutional email account; use private email addresses to discuss salary and promotion strategy.

Loyalty is also an important consideration.

During the past few years I have been introduced to the ‘loyal servant’ theory. In academia loyalty is often not rewarded, rather it is underpaid and undervalued, and if you are seen as a ‘loyal servant’ that can be costly. And yet most academics seem to have an ambivalence in relation to loyalty and their HEI. Academics usually say they work ‘at’ an HEI not ‘for’ an HEI and the ‘at’ is very suggestive. My research and my grants move if I do. My teaching skills go with me. I brought in money to my HEI via the RAE and will do via REF, but I would bring that money in to another HEI if I moved there. But if my paymasters consider me ‘loyal’, for whatever reason, I am less likely to be seen as a retention risk and that can affect my pay or promotion chances very significantly. So if I am known to be a pillar of the local community, it may count against me because I am perceived to be less likely to leave.

For me, this issue is best illustrated by the example of kids; if anyone in the food chain that is assessing your bid for promotion or a pay rise knows that you have kids in good local schools then you will be seen as less likely to leave. But if you are known to be commuting 120 miles to work, or your partner lives in Edinburgh and you work in London, then you are more plausible if you threaten to jump ship. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests, that expressing discontent with local house prices/schools/etc is more likely to do the trick for men. So my cynical advice is if you are a man then, unless you are in a department being targeted for cuts by senior management, talk about how many HEI’s would be interested in having your publications for their REF submission.

If you are a woman, do the same but read up on the loyal servant theory, gender gaps in pay and the equal pay act, watch Made in Dagenham and then write your application.

Higher Education is not the best environment at present for talking promotion and pay rises. But what I think of as ‘The Proudfoot Principle’ should always be invoked. When I applied for my very first job the supervisor of my PhD thesis, Richard Proudfoot, responded to my ‘shall I? shan’t I?’ wittering with a pronouncement I have come back to many times since: ‘If you apply for this job, I do not know if you will get it. What I do know is that you will not get this job if you do not apply for it.’ It’s a version of ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ but the dry tones in which the Proudfoot principle was uttered also suggested that applying for a job, a promotion, a pay rise, has to be treated a bit like a game; and if you don’t have the mindset of someone playing a game, you risk getting battered and bruised. Of course, money and status are not the main reasons academics go into their careers; many have turned their backs on more lucrative professions. But some academics have been playing a very canny game for many
years. . .

And do you really want to be taken for granted?

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