Friday 19 June 2015

You're Fired. Enjoy your summer.

Hi all. It's Friday afternoon and it's been a mixed week, to put it politely.

Last weekend was rather glorious: a trip to The Globe for a matinee performance of As You Like It with my students (and ex-students, and their kids) and colleagues. I have to confess to having a heart of stone when it comes to Shakespearian comedy, despite being well aware (before you all write in) that comedy = happy endings in those days. However, this performance was a triumph. It was already ahead of last year's Antony and Cleopatra because lightning and thunder were conspicuously absent. All the coincidences and unconvincing doubling were played up and the knob gags and so on were done like panto, which I thought really worked. The actors from star to bit part were seriously impressive, doing everything from saucy bits to tenderness so well: I could even see a few people wiping away tears as the couples got hitched and Rosalind was reunited with her father (sorry to ruin the ending for you). I definitely wasn't one of them. Not at all.

So that was good: fine theatre, Greek food with friends, catching up with our graduates and then driving home past Walsall Stadium in the rain where – I found out later – Elton John was performing to the more tasteless of some other friends. I wasn't sure whom to feel sorriest for: them for preferring Elton John to – for example – rolling around in shattered glass, or Elton John for going from private jets and global fame to standing in the rain next to a motorway in the shabbiest, tiniest football stadia for miles. It's no dignified way to end a career.

After that, the week nosedived quite significantly. There were high points - presenting a preliminary version of the politicians' novels project to our staff conference and seeing other colleagues' research (one paper on Victorian prisoners was called Pros and Cons: I do love a good pun), and meeting our external examiners, who think we do a marvellous job. If only our management would say the same. Sadly, however, and with some truly wonderful exceptions, it's beginning to feel like there's nothing we can say or do which would persuade them not to treat us as some kind of incomprehensible enemy. There's an awful lot I can't say in public, but it's been one of those weeks in which has been refreshed constantly.

My own worries aside, most of the week was taken up by preparing for and representing my professorial colleagues, 19 of whom have been shortlisted for redundancy. Why 19? Because 20 triggers a range of legal responsibilities which might impede management's (ahem) 'determined' style. It's been a long time since this institution felt or behaved like a collegiate body united by a set of educational values. Instead we get corporate platitudes and a 'leadership' (they love that word, and attend seminars on what it means) which derives its tactics and sense of self-worth from episodes of The Apprentice.

This time some of the professors are in line for the sack and others are up for bonus payments (as are lots of the senior management team, who consume lots of carrots but never catch sight of a stick). I have bored a lot of them with my views on this, and intend to carry on (what's the point of being a governor otherwise?) but I may as well rehearse the arguments here. Why stop at boring those around me when I can do it to The Internet?

In the corporate world, ordinary employees receive a salary for doing their jobs well, and get sacked for not doing them well (or, thanks to the Tories, for pretty much any non-existent infringement). The senior executives get massive salaries but can't be expected to do their jobs well without even more massive bonus payments. These are supposedly performance-linked, which has led to – inter alia – the banking crash. If you're offered a bonus for hitting targets, you're going to suggest short-term ones which are easy to fix rather than ones which are good for the organisation. Nor, if you're a bonus recipient, should you ever mention your sneaking suspicion that success is rarely attributable to individuals.

However, if you temporarily forget that corporate stupidity affects the wider economy and society, you might just about justify this on free-market capitalist grounds. My problem is that academia has been invaded by these corporate blackmailers, in person or in spirit. Fewer and fewer senior educational managers are academics, and those who are have sold out to the discourse of leadership and reward. It's below-inflation pay settlements for the workforce, and retainers and performance bonuses for themselves. These are, of course, in case they take their talent elsewhere. Personally I would invite anyone making such veiled threats to try their luck, but I'm heavily outnumbered on the board and the decisions are made in private sub-committees by people who speak the same language.

What is success in relation to a Higher Education institution? Is it increased recruitment? We could pack them in - but we might not be able to serve their needs successfully. Is is 'student satisfaction'? We have the National Student Survey, invoked in hushed terms at every meeting. We could ace that: just give everyone high grades and replace the library with a corporately-branded coffee area (this is why in the US the American Football coach is more highly-paid than the vice-chancellor). Is it attainment? We can fiddle with the grading algorithm like all the other universities. For every Key Performance Indicator, there's a way to fiddle the result so that someone gets a fat cheque at the end, as though any achievement – meaningful or not – is the result of one go-getting Leader.

So far, so seedily familiar. That boat has sailed. We all expect academic executives to behave (dress, speak) like those they see as their peers in the private sector. Whenever I say anything like this to them you can see the eyes roll as they wonder if I've just arrived from a WEA class circa 1937. But even though I'm not and never expect to be a professor, I want to weep at this extension of corporate amorality from administration to education (and oh yes, my appraisal includes the category 'appearance' but not 'intellect'):

In fact it's worse: the executives find ways to blame everybody for failure, while jealously guarding the rewards of success. With the professors, they're getting both carrot and stick. Nobody here doubts that some the profs may be exhausted, burned out or distracted (some might even just be plain lazy), but the management's decision to arbitrarily select a couple of appraisal points without any critical judgement smacks of contempt. It implies that professors are educational colossi, striding across the pedagogical landscape without any involvement with the rest of the place. It suggests that their achievements are the result of heroic solo labour, and their failures are purely personal. Never mind that the benchmarks are artificial, that research funding is not distributed fairly either here or in the sector as a whole, that other duties other than grant income or REF-able research is valuable and essential. Never mind that giving a Prof all the time needed for those papers requires everyone else to do their teaching and pastoral work, and diverts resources from collective effort to the Heroic model.

No: let's treat them as isolated demigods, masters of their own fates, regardless of local or wider conditions: educational, financial or emotional.

I'm reminded of a cheap TV show from some years back: Pets Win Prizes. This is what bothers me most about the Night of the Long Professorial Knives. Despite the protestations of fair play and impartial criteria, it seems to me that the twin approaches of the sack for some and cash rewards for others is the final power-play by an administration (not just here) that has got above itself. In theory – very much in theory, sadly – the Professors are the academic conscience of a university, particular one that isn't run by the academic staff. Their reputations and body of work enables them to contribute to the fundamental values and direction of the institution, informed by long experience and critical abilities. The title of 'professor' contains within itself a statement that what they do is more than a job: they profess a set of beliefs or values which transcend their formal terms of employment.

All this goes out of the window once the professor is left wondering whether the next phone call is to had her the price of a good holiday or summon her to an exit interview. Who will challenge (constructively or not) anything that happens when their are such serious consequences? You'd have to be hard as nails to resist the tide in this way or – like me – resigned to finding fulfilment in my small but steady academic niche rather than in the warm glow of management's regard. It's not good enough. My colleagues and I are summarily dismissed as union hacks: we would say this, wouldn't we? We no longer have any impact because the academic staff, like all the others, are no longer colleagues of the executive but work for it and should just shut up. This is why some of the executive refers to 'the university' when they mean themselves. I was always under the impression that 'the university' includes students, academics, support staff, the executive and all sorts of other people. The point of having a confident, self-critical and autonomous professoriate is that they can keep a check on the executive's schemes without being dismissed – as I and my UCU colleagues are – of being the 'usual suspects'. They might not always live up to this role, but they never will if they can be fired at will or be handed tips by an avuncular VC.

Last night, I went to Symphony Hall to see Andris Nelsons' last performance as conductor or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Between the pieces, members of the orchestra spoke movingly of their relationship with him, and afterwards Nelsons gave a lovely speech about them, and the value of music and the arts to society. It was blindingly obvious that to him, the old model of the conductor as some sort of musical Mussolini bending the orchestral peons to his will was completely outdated. Instead, Nelsons built on the existing skills of the orchestra and introduced them to new ways of seeing music, to new repertoires, to new horizons. With collective goodwill, both he and the members of the CBSO part company improved by the experience.

I think it's time university executives shook off the embarrassing management models of Enron and Lehman Brothers. Universities have been around a hell of a lot longer than these corporate monsters, and contain enough collective wisdom to succeed on their own terms. These fads come and go, and we should rise above them. Let's learn from the orchestra, the convent, the commune rather than fall for every airport self-help huckster breezing through.

Last night was a transcendent experience. This morning I sat next to a dignified and professional man as he begged for his job, his livelihood and his personal and professional pride, watched across the table by a man in a suit who kept saying that he didn't have time for this. For all the abstract points I've outlined above, this is what it comes down too: sleek bonus-seeking sharks forcing honest people to justify their existence in the most reductive terms.

Progress, eh? Anyway, I'm off to a funeral, which in this context seems about the right way to end the week.


Phil said...

Disgraceful. But I'm afraid it won't go away unless there's a lot more resistance than we've seen so far.

Incandescent Llama said...

So which snake was it in the suit? These 'professionals' will never see your point PV. They live in a different world. They are simply not interested in values which academics share. You may as well be check-out people in a budget supermarket or a tourist in troubled times in Tunisia. To them you and your colleagues are simply resources with which they may serve their own interests, advance their pathetic 'careers'. Of all the professors in your institution, how many are worthy of the title, academically. Most of them too are time-servers, self-interested and self-serving brown-nosers who will not upset the managerialist apple-cart lest their pension prospects be jeopardised. Off with many of their heads too in the name of collegiality! Get out while you can.

Incandescent Llama said...

I suspect your Chief Executive has all the charm of a bottle of Harpic and is excellent at driving his minions clean 'round the bend. In addition he may well have all the appearance of an underemployed toilet attendant. Make no mistake, his DTS (Heathrow Organization Theory speak for Discretionary Time Span) is nearing its end and he too will be looking for the exit door. However in the meantime he has to BIG UP the institution's profile so that he can say what a brilliant job he has done before being handed the loot he has been eyeing covetously for some time time. So when the institution's investment programme was described as not just being about new buildings this was in some ways accurate. It's also about expanding the capacity of the new executive golden parachutes which will appear overhead one day in the not too distant future. Watch out!