‘Rank and Yank’ in Higher Education

From What about Me?: the struggle for identity in a market-based society by Paul Verhaeghe:

Enron, an American multinational, introduced this practice at the end of the previous century, dubbing it the ‘Rank and Yank appraisal system’. The individual performances of its staff members were continually monitored and contrasted. On the basis of the results, one-fifth of its employees were sacked each year, but not before they had first been publicly humiliated by having their name, photo, and failure posted on the company website. It wasn’t long before total paranoia reigned and almost everyone was falsifying their figures. The widespread fraud led to a court case and the bankruptcy of the corporation. Despite that failure and the criminal practices associated with it, the Enron model is still in wide use. HR managers at multinationals are expected to apply the 20/70/10 rule. Twenty out of every hundred employees are the high flyers, seventy provide the critical mass, and ten should be given the boot, even if sufficient profit and growth has been achieved. Five minutes of Googling the search terms ‘Rank and Yank’ and ‘20/70/10 rule’ throws up hundreds of hits of company documents praising this approach, invariably referring to Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’.

Within the span of a single generation, however, this situation changed dramatically, with the result that, nowadays, university staff, especially if they are young, feel that they have very little influence over their careers. Instead, they are compelled to dance to the music of an invisible administration. They work flat out, but don’t find their jobs satisfying. They no longer identify at all with the organisation, and solidarity among colleagues has largely disappeared. This is the academic version of the Rank and Yank system, and the consequences are the same: production continues to increase on paper; an atmosphere of personal frustration, envy, fear, and paranoia is created; and creativity is effectively stifled. Anything that doesn’t fit within rigid parameters doesn’t count anymore. Thinking out of the box — that precondition for innovation and discovery — has become impossible.

Paradoxically enough, this quality-monitoring system fosters fraud, just as in the case of Enron, ranging from the Stapel affair in the Netherlands to the fraud with PhDs at German universities. (Not so long ago, a Dutch professor of social psychology, Diederik Stapel, was an authority in his field, renowned for his extensive empirical research and numerous publications in top journals. But his career came to an abrupt end when it turned out that he had fabricated and manipulated data on a massive scale. Nearly every newspaper found an explanation for such practices in the enormous pressure to publish, and the hyper-intense competition for jobs and promotion. In Germany in August 2009, mass fraud with doctoral titles came to light, in which various universities and hundreds of professors were involved.)

My first thought when reading this was that this system hasn’t yet come to higher education and that it might still be avoided. However this evening I found myself thinking back to this case, in which David Browne, Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, suggested that even “academically brilliant” staff who damage the brand through “outspoken opinion” should be disciplined in order to set an example for the rest. For ‘Rank and Yank’ in Higher Education, perhaps even the “high flyers”, those who are valuable to the institution, aren’t safe unless they conform to a narrow range of behaviour consistent with the ‘brand’.

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