In commercial companies you will mostly only have a handful people per manager. For example in a law firm it might be four or five and rarely that I know of more than a dozen. But in (university) academia, a department can have 60 academics in it and only one department head. How does line management (i.e., the chain of command) work with such a huge ratio of staff to heads of department? Are there a lot of middle managers below the head of department that professors report to?


5 Answers 5


Generally speaking "management" in a university takes a different role and faculty are generally expected to know what to do and to do it to a high standard. In a certain sense, every faculty member is an independent entity and they only need to coordinate on a few things. Those things, such as curriculum and grading policy, are normally handled by committees of faculty, not handed down from above.

Typically a department will have monthly faculty meetings in which things are communicated and new opportunities and directions are discussed. Solutions are normally by consensus. The meetings may be mandatory or not, but the mandate can be pretty loose.

There are few situations in which a tenured professor is told what to do by "management". And some of the layers of management, such as department heads and even deans may actually be chosen by vote of the faculty.

So, in a forty year career, I seldom "reported" to anyone in the traditional sense and no one "managed" me and my work. True, I submitted an annual report of my activities and said there how I worked toward the three traditional goals of the university: teaching, research, and service. The department head or dean would respond to that report, perhaps making suggestions, usually minor, on things I might do in the coming year.

Even it times of conflict, such as when a student complains, the complaint often is handled by faculty rather than by "management."

Faculty normally self organize into seminars and such, and normally worry about their funding. There may be some pressure about that in top universities.

In the traditional (Medieval) university, the faculty IS the university and it would hire "managers" to do those tasks that they found unsatisfying. It is still somewhat similar in many places, but less so in large R1 and State Universities.

There is a story about Rockefeller Columbia University (if I remember correctly) that when ex-president Dwight Eisenhower became the university president, he held a meeting and told the faculty all the "wonderful things the university would do for the faculty." The head of the faculty (an elected position) stood up and said something to the effect that the university couldn't do anything FOR the faculty. The university WAS the faculty.

There are, however, many support offices in a university that are managed in a traditional sense. There is often a funding support office, an enrollment office, a counseling office, etc. It can be very extensive. But they don't manage faculty. Instead, they provide support services to faculty and others, though internally they may be traditionally managed. A "student recruiter" would probably answer to a "boss".

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    @anush the first point of contact would probably be the director of undergraduate studies, who chairs the UG cmte. If the DUGS is involved, the chair. Oct 9, 2020 at 21:17
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    @Anush In practice, often nobody.
    – academic
    Oct 9, 2020 at 22:24
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    There are universities outside the US... Oct 10, 2020 at 11:19
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    There are few situations in which a tenured professor is told what to do by "management". - I think this is rapidly changing. I am often told what to do or how to do something. However, I am not likely to get fired for not doing these things and I agree that there tends to be more freedom in academia than in some other careers.
    – Kimball
    Oct 10, 2020 at 16:20
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    At our place generally the HoD will ask for volunteers and try things by concensus first, but they will tell professors what to do if they need to. Oct 10, 2020 at 20:33

An answer from a Dutch perspective. Short answer: there are no traditional managers for academics.

At the top level, the university has an executive board. These are normally (ex-)academics, and each has different responsibilities. There is a rector magnificus, who is responsible for all academic and educational affairs, and a president, who is responsible for basically everything else (finances, housing, etc). Usually there are a few more people who are delegated some of the responsibilities. There is also a supervisory board, consisting of people appointed by the minister of education for a fixed term. As they are more political, this usually causes some friction with the academics.

The university is organised into faculties, headed by a dean, who is a (possibly elected) member of the faculty of one of the departments. They usually are the head of faculty meetings, and represent the faculty in meetings with the board.

Each faculty is organised into departments, lead by a department chair. They are just one of the full professors of the department who have taken on some extra tasks. Similarly, there are typically heads of education, research, program chairs (for the various educational tracks), etc, all members of the faculty. Most decisions are made by committees consisting of these people, and they are usually advised by elected groups of faculty and students representing those interests. Sometimes a member of these advisory groups also gets a vote in the decisionmaking process.

Each department is split into groups/divisions. These are typically headed by a professor, and consist of members of faculty doing research and teaching in a specific subfield. For instance, my CS deparment has divisions called Interaction, Algorithms and Intelligent Software Systems. Each division may be further split into smaller groups, usually of a few full/associate/assistant professors, post-docs and PhD candidates.

Each of these groups generally has complete freedom to do what they want, provided they have found a source of funding for their research. This source of funding may provide some specific targets the recipient needs to meet, but these are usually quite vague. Each individual member of staff does have a "work leader", with whom they have a yearly meeting to discuss their progress and plans for the future, and who is typically their first point of contact for any work-related or personal issues.

However, there are essentially no "managers" in the traditional sense. These exist only at the top level, where the executive board makes decisions about finances, housing, and long-term strategic plans to attract more researchers/students/funding, and (as mentioned by Buffy) in the supporting departments like accounting, student affairs and the research support office.

As an academic, almost nobody ever tells you what you should spend your time on, other than some generally agreed split between research and teaching. This is something almost all academics I know enjoy, but it also means that if you can't handle that level of freedom and responsibility, academia is likely not for you. One small exception is usually PhD candidates, for whom their promotor is usually quite involved in decisions about directions for research. This is of course quite natural, as the PhD candidate is still in the process of learning how to do independent research.

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    "As an academic, almost nobody ever tells you what you should spend your time on" - this is a great falsehood which is typically discovered in the first year of PhD
    – benxyzzy
    Oct 11, 2020 at 8:18
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    @benxyzzy in my experience it's true though. There tends to be some generally agreed upon split of time between teaching and research, but no one ever tells you "today you're going to work on this research topic". This is somewhat less true for PhD candidates, but that's more to do with not knowing what you should be doing yet. Obviously there are deadlines for e.g. conference publications, but those are self-imposed. Oct 11, 2020 at 17:16

As Buffy mentioned, many universities do not use a line management model. But some do. There are several strategies used to deal with the ratio of "managers" (department chairs/heads of school/deans) to "workers" (professors/lecturers/adjuncts...)

  • Disfunction is a popular option.
  • Adjusting the scope of the work unit. For example, a department/school might have as scope of "optical physics" or "physics" or "physical sciences" or even "arts and sciences" depending on its size.
  • The department chair may have managers below them. These managers are not responsible for a subset of people, but for a subset of duties. There might be assistant chairs for research, undergraduate education, and graduate education, for example. These assistant managers manage all faculty in the department, but not all of their duties.
  • Nonacademic staff (administrators, technicians, etc.) may have their own management which could be exactly like what is done in a corporation.
  • The number of levels of management varies a great deal.
  • In some cases all professors are managers who have direct control over other staff.

Usually each university takes its own approach to management structures and it is common to change the structure.


Self-organization on a high level

One aspect (at least in many countries) is self-organization and self-elected "managers". For example, in my research institute the leadership (both "mid-managment" of various research labs and the whole organization) differs from a research department in a commercial company in three substantial aspects:

  1. The chairs are scientists - they are selected from the scientific staff, bringing in an outside manager is impossible/prohibited, so they are "one of us" in some way even if they specialize (and they can't permanently specialize, due to term limits etc they'll have to step down and continue scientific work).
  2. The chairs are elected by the staff, and they answer primarily to the other scientists and not to some external stakeholders;
  3. The administrators don't have hiring and firing power for scientific employees (they do hire/fire administrative staff, finance people, etc), the scientific staff has to approve all that by voting.

So in some aspect they're the opposite of a regular manager, my "boss" can't fire me but I (together with my colleagues) can fire him from that position. They are essentially representatives of the staff chosen to handle internal coordination and external representation. Perhaps the appropriate non-academic analogy is a workers' cooperative?

Project-based teams on low level

For the daily research work (teaching is different), however, most of the coordination happens on the project level, partly because that's how funding is assigned and managed. It doesn't matter as much where you are on the "organizational chart" in general, the thing that matters is on whose grant you're working. Once a principal investigator has obtained long-term funding for some research goal, they are personally responsible for achieving the goals and managing the researchers and students working in the project. The management of those teams is much closer to how the industry works. Those are smal (equivalent to a "two pizza" team popularized by some non-academic management approaches?), functional teams with a clear goal.

One aspect of those teams is that they are inherently not permanent - they have an end date; some people may be explicitly hired for the duration of the project (e.g. post-doc contracts) and while it's common to have much of the team continue in a future project with a similar topic, IMHO it has more staff rotation to different teams than in a business environment - also partly because both the "individual contributors" and "project managers" have a quite free choice on their work; if I don't want to work on a particular project or with a particular PI, there's literally no way how "the management" could order me to do that; as long as there are any other projects/PI's with funding willing to take me on, I can go work on them; and PI's can pretty much arbitrarily choose what research projects they will pursue (though they do need to win grants to fund them).

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    Regarding the last heading about grants, the employee is a profit center. They write the grant, which brings in outside money, of which the university gets about half (for "support"). They're personally in charge of how it's spent. The grant system ensures that individual PhD's are in the driver's seat. Oct 10, 2020 at 19:06
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    Your boss not being able to fire you is a property only of those systems that have tenure for academic staff, and I hear that even in the US tenure is not what is used to be. Oct 10, 2020 at 20:23

Old ideas of academic freedom, and the academic as a self-organizing unit are getting rarer than they used to be.

In my university a faculty member's line manager is definitely the Head of Department (HoD), and conversely postdoctoral researchers, technicians, and research assistants report to the faculty member. The number of staff members a faculty manages differs, but in life-sciences an average group might be a couple of postdocs, a technician and 2 or 3 PhD students.

The HoD might manage between 30 and 100 academics depending on the size of the department. There are teaching and research directors and committees, but they are advisory bodies/working groups, and don't really hold any power. There is also a chief administrator who is line manager for professional services and other non-academic staff in the department.

Once upon a time, HoDs were elected from within their department, and served as the department's champion within the university. Now they are appointed by their superiors and are responsible for enacting the Faculty and university's goals and priorities within the department.

The KPIs for research are the number and quality of papers, and research income. As long as you make your targets here, how you go about your research is pretty much left to the academic.

However, teaching and service roles are more actively managed. While volunteers for given roles are generally welcomed, and the HoD is guided by the teaching, administration and research committees, the HoD has the final say on who does what. The HoD is responsible for balancing staff member's workload under the Workload Allocation Model. The HoD leads the annual appraisal of each academic and is responsible for initiating performance management (and ultimately dismissal) if KPIs aren't met. Interestingly promotion isn't within the power of the HoD, but rather the promotions committee of the Faculty.

I've often heard this complex structure referred to as a pastiche of a commercial corporate structure, with many of the down sides, but not really any of the actual efficiencies.

  • By "30 to 100 academics" do you mean faculty? That's an enormous department. Or are you including all the graduate students that report to the faculty that report to the HOD? Apr 20, 2022 at 23:49
  • My current department has 145 faculty (+ 150 postdocs, 300 grad students and 2000 undergrads/masters), although this is recognized as unusually large (second largest at the university). It was formed from the merger of three departments. The department I was in before had 25 faculty and was merged because it was felt too small to be sustainable - it had had 45 academics when I arrived 10 years earlier. Similarly the university is in the process of closing down a department of 15 faculty because it had gotten unsustainably small, and would have needed an investment to bring it back to size. Apr 21, 2022 at 8:32
  • Hot dang. I'd consider 30 "large" Apr 21, 2022 at 14:09

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