Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Reign of Terror in Universities

There is a serious problem in the governance of Universities. In many institutions, there have been fundamental changes to expectations of employees. Consequently, many employees find themselves in established roles on high salaries in a ‘market’ where they do not possess the newly-redefined requisite accomplishments and skills that would make them employable in other institutions in the ‘market’. Typically, new accomplishments and skills involve PhDs, ‘REF-able’ publications, project funding, membership of research networks, etc. Such lack does not necessarily reflect a deficiency in their intellectual qualities (the PhD is a very poor indicator of this!!), their ability as teachers or their value to the institution. But these people find themselves trapped – despite the fact that they have always been good at the jobs they were employed to do (e.g. teaching) and the job still needs doing. It’s not just lecturers who are trapped; even Vice-Chancellors can find their careers ‘stalled’ in institutions where they’d rather not be!

But more serious are the social dynamics that are set in motion by these changes. People who are trapped are easy to terrorise by senior managers who are themselves trapped. Bad Vice Chancellors or other senior managers can, if they wish, act like little ‘Robespierres’ instituting a kind of “reign of terror” over the staff – increasingly without fear of being held to account by governors, senate or the unions (I'm grateful to a friend for 'nailing' the French Revolution analogy!). This can be particularly acute when the determinant of managerial success is the production of financial surpluses which can drive draconian downsizing measures. Increasingly a despotic message is given: “I can do what I want with you”. I have heard of incidents where trapped staff are gathered for meetings to be told: “You’re either with me or you can get your coat!” But why is this not a good way to run a University?

The fundamental character of any terror is the flattening of a society to conform to the ideal of an individual. As the process of culling runs its course, and the emergent terrified society fails to meet the expectations of that individual, then further assassinations and draconian interventions take place ultimately emerging from and manifesting themselves as power struggles at the top of the organisation and atrophy in the body of the institution.

This is happening in many Universities – particularly those where there is a high proportion of staff who don’t fit the new market for academics (so are trapped), where resources are squeazed by student recruitment and retention shortfalls and where mechanisms of accountability have been compromised through VC-friendly appointments.

Of course, some might say that an institution of academics who don’t fit the market demand, or whose students couldn’t get anywhere near the requirement for entry to a ‘top’ university shouldn’t be a University. But this is another aspect of the flattening process. Institutions have started to believe the mystical power of their own certification processes, bolstered by an overly close relationship to publishers and cosy peer-review procedures which tend towards to intellectual conservatism. Bill Amos’s recent complaint about ‘big science’ in the Times Higher last week is one example of where problems of conservatism manifest: His citing of James Watson’s remark that “If you are not in a big research group, think about packing your bags to leave science” ought to ring alarm bells.

The idea of the University is increasingly driven by a market-orientated desire for academic celebrity which can attract students, create ‘impact’ and keep the institution high in the league tables. I was asked in a recent job interview “What are you the ‘go-to’ person for in educational technology?” – in other words “how are you famous?”. I was tempted to respond “Had you heard of me before the interview?” to which the answer would have been emphatically “No!” One might then reasonably say “Clearly I'm not that famous then - why should I pretend I am?" What’s this demand for self-aggrandisement about? It’s all very silly.

These things are all symptoms of terror. Deep down it is about what people worry about – Vice Chancellors particularly – and what people do to deal with their fears. The most sensible thing one can do with any fear is to talk to other people about it; the most pathological thing one can do is to act according to it. Even small fears like “we don’t have enough famous academics!” can entail systemic consequences which are potentially disastrous – in the case of “famous” academics, it is to encourage charlatanism. (The charlatan is another kind of pathologically fearful individual).  

What is really needed is critical inquiry. Dealing with fear lies at the heart of this. I think that critical inquiry entails social diversity in institutions. It’s not a popular view – partly because psychology has presented a dominant ‘mentalist’ model of cognition and rational decision which focuses on the individual. But the current terror is an indicator of something bad. It is very real and is clearly accompanying the destruction of social diversity within institutions.

To me this suggests the need for a deep rethink about what we think University is for, the priorities for its constitution, the necessity for maintaining its internal ecology, and its systemic role in the production of wider healthy social ecologies.

No comments: