Tag Archives: universities

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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Bullying in Academia

17 Mar

If you get it right, a career in academia offers all sorts of advantages:
– immense autonomy on how you manage your time;
– the opportunity to work on precisely the topics that stimulate you intellectually;
– the opportunity to travel to weird and wonderful places, and to work collaboratively with scholars and others from fascinating backgrounds;
– the opportunity to work with students who stretch your mind and inspire you.
Put simply, if your luck is in, you can be paid to read and talk about the things that interest you. There are, of course, many drawbacks to an academic career. The salaries are not always appealing. A recent Financial Times article called academics ‘cling ons’ – desperately trying to cling onto their middle class status as their salaries are eroded in comparison with other professions. There is also the drudgery associated with work (namely marking) and the creeping and insidious way in which bureaucrats and spreadsheets have taken over universities to the detriment of teaching, research, and ideas. In general though, it can be an enviable career.
One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.
The key to the whole issue is power. Usually, junior academics are in highly dependent positions. They need to stay ‘on side’ with their senior colleagues in order to remain in a job, or to progress in terms of promotion or access to resources. I can talk with some experience on this subject because I was worked in a department where bullying was rife (I am happy to say that it was not St Andrews or the University of Ulster). Some senior academics in the department had their own fiefdoms and academic staff who they saw not as colleagues, but as chattel. The University management saw the senior academics as ‘successful’ as they variously brought in money or were prominent in their research fields. So the University had little incentive to rock the boat by investigating claims of bullying. The Head of Department was weak. And, most of all, the victims of the bullying were reliant on the senior academics to stay in a job, earn promotion or avoid being ‘punished’ by teaching and administrative loads that would render them research inactive.
The bullying was abetted by a culture of secrecy in which decisions were taken among cliques. Discussion, even at Departmental meetings, was frowned upon. The bullies usually had been at the University for well over a decade and so knew everyone in the senior administration. As a result, the bullied felt that their chances of successfully taking a formal case against the bullies were slim. The bullies also had a technique of presenting themselves as the voice of the University, implying that their outlook was in accordance with that of the University. The cards were heavily stacked against the bullied.
The single biggest regret in my career (so far) is that I did not directly take on the bullies. I was not the direct victim of bullying but I saw it go on to colleagues. The psychological and self-esteem costs to the bullied were enormous. Everyone knew about it, and it was discussed in hushed tones. To my shame, I did not intervene. I too was trapped in a situation in which I wanted promotion and other ‘favours’ – crumbs that would be dropped from the table of the bullies. As I look back, I see that the bullies were incredibly vain and insecure individuals who used the bullying as a way of feeling in control. Often they were single dimension people, with little going on their lives apart from work.
There are three things that we can do about workplace bullying in universities. Firstly, we should call bullying by its name. It is not ‘mentorship’, ‘leadership’, ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the way it is’, or ‘that’s just the way XXXX operates, you gotta go with it’. It is bullying. There are plenty of excellent mentors out there who do not resort to silly mind games and who are generous enough to encourage rather than thwart more junior colleagues. Second, we should talk about bullying much more often. Weirdly, there is a stigma attached to being bullied. A chief aim in academia is to maximize one’s own autonomy over research agendas, time and budgets. To be seen as bullied is to be seen as being ‘a loser’ – as someone incapable of maximizing autonomy. Thirdly, we need to think seriously about the working cultures that are being developed. Whether it is the tenure-track system in the US or the research census in the UK, we are creating and validating systems that allow powerholders to flex power over junior colleagues. Often these are deeply flawed individuals who are in positions of power not because of their people skills, but because they were good at playing the game. Universities need to seriously look at their management processes that reward managers of budgets or stewards of arcane university rules but penalize good managers of people.
Bullying often occurs at a key moment of the junior academic’s career. It is precisely the post-PhD time that they should be flourishing, pursuing their own ideas and cutting a path through innovative publication and research. Instead, bullying (whether directly towards them or indirectly occurring to others) encourages conformity, silence, obedience and a lack of creativity.