UK Universities and the Clash of (Organizational) Cultures

Ah, just in time for the meeting of the university council.
Ah, just in time for the meeting of the university council.
A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian published a short profile of Syriza, Greece’s new government party. This profile focused on Syriza’s “Essex connection,” as a number of the party’s leaders are graduates of the University of Essex. This includes, for example, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s minister of finance, who obtained his PhD at Essex in 1987. The Guardian explains Syriza’s Essex connection through the university’s longstanding tradition of critical and radical scholarship in the social sciences. Somewhat worryingly, though, it concludes:

With exquisite timing, however, Essex’s new dominance in Greek radical politics coincides with the reign of a hierarchical new Essex university regime under the soldier turned vice-chancellor Anthony Forster which smacks more of the Greek colonels than Athenian democracy. First Greece, then Spain, they chant. But there may be a job to do in Colchester too.

The Guardian here provides a link to a piece in the London Review of Books, in which Marina Warner discusses her experiences while teaching at Essex and, in mid-2014, resigning in response to a controversy with the university’s administration. She compares the university’s model of non-hierarchical, co-operative, interdisciplinary education in its early years with its current organizational structures and concludes that the university is now run in an authoritarian, top-down manner:

I could go on, about the cases of colleagues and their experience of managers’ ‘instructions’, arrogance and ignorance, and the devices they adopt to impose their will, but individuals like Anthony Forster and the executive dean for humanities are not single spies. They’re minor but willing operatives in a larger mechanics of power. Within this structure, they have been allowed to wrest authority for themselves, and neither literary scholars nor long-serving teachers have a say; individual students, once enrolled and committed, are not much attended to either.

Warner explains her experiences through the commercialization of academic life and the shifts in organizational structures required to turn universities into for-profit operations. Having spent eight years at Essex myself in the early and mid-2002, I still encountered much of the radical and critical scholarship and institutional practices that were foundational to the university’s reputation in times now seemingly long gone. I was also saddened to see the university’s management likened to the Greek military junta in a major national newspaper, and I still wonder what might explain the apparently quite acrimonious conflicts Marina Warner describes.

In this regard, it does not seem very helpful to liken academic management to a military regime. Likewise, changes in organizational structures, in this case towards more pronounced hierarchies between students, academics, and management and a greater emphasis on commercial objectives, do not necessarily entail serious conflicts of the sort Warner describes. In fact, most universities in the UK seem to have absorbed the commercialization and hierarchical re-organization of academic life with relatively little open conflict and disagreement. This seems rather surprising, given the speed with which these transformations have taken root, profoundly transforming the academic landscape in little more than two decades. However, underneath the façade of apparently smooth change that universities are often keen to maintain, there are often profound differences in the ways in which academics and academic managers understand the organizations in which they work and define their key objectives. Marina Warner’s account of her experiences is quite telling in this regard.

Consider, for instance, her description of a meeting with a senior manager:

Suddenly, the watchword from management was ‘Teaching, Teaching, Teaching.’ […] A Tariff of Expectations would be imposed across the university, with 17 targets to be met, and success in doing so assessed twice a year. I received mine from the executive dean for humanities. (I met her only once. She was appointed last year, a young lawyer specialising in housing. When I tried to talk to her about the history of the university, its hopes, its ‘radical innovation’, she didn’t want to know. I told her why I admired the place, why I felt in tune with Essex and its founding ideas. ‘That is all changing now,’ she said quickly. ‘That is over.’) My ‘workload allocation’, which she would ‘instruct’ my head of department to implement, was impossible to reconcile with the commitments which I had been encouraged – urged – to accept.

The image Warner conjures here is one of two academics talking past each other and unable to communicate due to their profoundly different visions of academic labor. She and the dean barely even seem to be speaking the same language. Warner speaks of ‘hopes’ and ‘radical innovation,’ while the dean invokes the bureaucratic language of ‘workload allocation’ and ‘tariffs of expectations.’ In the end, the conflict Warner describes seems to be less about the consequences of top-down management than about the unresolved implications of multiple visions and languages of academic life co-inhabiting one same university.

This contradiction between two very different ways of imagining academic life might be a result of the rapid pace at which British universities have transformed themselves over the past two decades, in response to equally swift shifts in government policy.

In this sense, the controversy surrounding Marina Warner’s resignation is emblematic of far-reaching problems in academic at large, and it is misleading to single the University of Essex out for criticism. In the span of much less than any academic’s career, ‘academia’ has become an ‘industry’, run according to new and different objectives by a class of managers who are with increasing frequency recruited from non-academic backgrounds, e.g. from the business world. Debates about this sudden adoption of the organizational principles and bureaucratic language of the business world, both in public and within universities, have been astonishingly limited. In some cases, academics simply seem to just ‘go with the flow’ and adapt to the changing nature of their workplace. In some cases, grievances remain private and hidden, as there are fewer and fewer outlets for their public discussions in universities that operate on the basis of hierarchical chains of command. In some cases, finally, high-profile public controversies erupt and then fade away without being truly resolved, as was the case with Marina Warner’s resignation last year.

All this points to a need for sustained, open and public debate about the changing nature of academic labor. Polemics of the sort that liken academic managers to military dictators are unhelpful, and fundamentalist assertions of particular visions of academic life are unlikely to achieve much. What is sorely missing and urgently necessary is genuine dialogue about the ways in which the different members of academic communities work together in a changing world.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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While the swift change in HE as described by the author is true, it is still true that there is something fundamentally wrong at Essex, beyond the general problems present at HE. Let’s start with the basics: Essex University – on several occasions – have breached the Employment Law with an astonishing level of arrogance and ignorance. This is evidenced by Employment Tribunal cases lost recently by the University of Essex. Unfortunately, it also seems that at least partially, these breaches of the Law were encouraged by the senior management of the University. Besides, as I experienced while working at… Read more »

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