Imperial College London: Why has no one resigned? Possibly because we are all culpable?

9 Dec

There has been a lot of coverage of the suicide of Professor Stefan Grimm of Imperial College London and the pressure he was under to fulfil the expectations of being a professor. These expectations were NOT about publishing, teaching, mentoring, invention, creativity or new intellectual frontiers. Instead they were about raising money for the University. In fact, they seemed to have very little to do with what a traditional understanding of a professorial role might involve.

Although there is quite a lot of published correspondence on this case (from and to Professor Grimm, and about him), it is unlikely that we will ever know the full story. Corridor conversations and backroom chats leave a scant evidential trail.

If a member of staff commits suicide because of pressure of work one would expect that workplace to ask serious questions about its practices and culture. One might even, from the point of view of human decency, expect a few resignations. After all, a human life has been finished and the suicide victim makes a direct link between his impending suicide and pressure from work. But, to the best of my knowledge, no one has resigned. A human being is dead. The blame lies at the door of the University. The University … well … continues as normal. So how can this be the case?

The primary answer lies in the fiction that Universities manage to create that they are systems rather than amalgams of people. Universities, through the prioritisation of a set of bureaucratic norms and officer-holders, have normalised the view that they are top-down corporate entities. A managerial class has always played a role in modern universities, but this class has grown in size and influence as universities have been forced to compete in a series of markets. By competing for students, research income, high achieving staff, and ‘impact stories’ a series of pernicious political economies have been created. Rather than collegiate environments based on scholarship, learning and creating space for innovation and thinking, many universities are being reduced to sales offices with academics serving as clerks for a new managerial class who wield coercive metrics.

The complex structure of universities – multiple committees and chains of command – means that very many of us are implicated in a coercive bureaucracy that is based on incentives and threats (that are often veiled but nonetheless real). By complying with very basic activities (such as uploading lists of our publications on University databases) we are fuelling the metrics that are then used to govern us. That is the pernicious thing about the system – we are all part of it. In the case of Stefan Grimm, it is convenient to look for individuals to blame (and I still hold out hope that human decency might spark a few resignations) but the real aggressor here is a system that we have all contributed to. We probably have bitched about it and groaned, but we have contributed to its construction and maintenance. We have been far too meek in pointing out the irrelevance of committees, metrics and placeholders to the real business of teaching, research and sharing creativity.
I have heard a few horror stories in recent weeks (from other universities) about how younger members of staff have been shouted at for not bringing in research income, and about how some staff members’ time has been bought out by 250% (surely illegal!). In cases like this, we can point to shoddy practice by individual managers – and hopefully they can be faced down as bullies. But the wider problem seems to be the system. We may not like the system, but we maintain it.

So what to do? I do not have a grand manifesto (but am all ears if anyone has one). Instead, I look at my own practice and the very small acts of resistance that I carry out. The first is not to take too seriously the managerial class and the narrative they perpetuate. Yes, we all have responsibilities in a collegiate environment, but my primary responsibility is to students and research – not necessarily to corporate goals. I will avoid listing the precise everyday resistance strategies that I use with the bureaucracy (I don’t want to get into trouble) but the general approach of not taking bureaucracy and bureaucrats too seriously seems to work. The second very small act of resistance is to try to encourage younger scholars to follow their own intellectual curiosity. Grants and publications will follow more readily than if they try to game the system by mechanistically targeting grants and ‘prestige’ journals. The third is to call undue pressure by one colleague on another what it is: bullying.

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