Published: 3rd March, 2021
As the University executive charges ahead with its ‘cases for change’, one of our professional services colleagues offers insights into how senior managers conduct the more unpalatable aspects of running what is essentially a business – and how they can be confronted. This colleague draws on the example of the School of Business (ULSB) – where 16 staff are threatened with redundancy – but the lessons apply across the institution.
I have been associated with the University of Leicester for almost 20 years. I studied for both my undergraduate and Masters degrees here and I have been a full time member of staff for almost ten years. I have seen first-hand how the University – or its leadership, in particular its Human Resources department – conducts business. The old adage divide and conquer is most apt. They obfuscate their processes behind bureaucracy and almost never share how they reach their conclusions. If forced to reveal their working by the constraints of a legally binding process, they will give themselves the maximum amount of time in which to do so, while at the same time limiting the time the respondent has to react to the information once it’s released to them. We are, to use a rather colourful phrase, treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed crap.
‘Confidentiality’ is one of their most potent tools for this obfuscation. I have seen first-hand how ‘confidentiality’ has been used to isolate members of staff from one another. The only effective way to circumvent such obfuscation is through common and public action. As a staunch trade unionist, I understand this pretty well. But as more important as organising a united defence is ensuring our antagonists are targeted correctly.
In the School of Business, the Dean and his deputy have been the public face of the threatened redundancies – though after leading the first few ‘individual consultations’ the Dean became hors de combat. A lot has been said about their role in determining the identities of those put at risk of redundancy. It appears that while they have stated they used a ‘basket of indicators’ to select individuals for redundancy, they have been less than clear in explaining how that ‘basket’ was selected and indeed what the ‘indicators’ actually indicate. They have provided no evidence or record of their decision-making process. Nor have they explained why particular staff members were selected for redundancy while others sharing similar, if not identical, fields of interest and research were not. There has been no input from any other members of staff. Even senior academics – division heads, committee chairs and those whose responsibilities include overseeing the School’s research output – have been sidelined. All requests for clarity, both private and public, have been refused – either outright or under that tricksy excuse of confidentiality.
I find all this suspicious to say the least. I find it very difficult to believe that the Dean and the Deputy Dean have been given this level of power. Don’t get me wrong, they have both acted poorly. Their actions, or the lack thereof, are entirely on their own heads, along with the inevitable fallout they will receive in terms of respect and reputation. However, I’m convinced this is just more obfuscation. The whole operation has HR, College leadership and Executive Board prints all over it. They understand all too well that, to paraphrase Mr. Nancy from American Gods: “Angry is good. Angry gets shit done!”
The widespread and justifiable anger about the timing and nature of this ‘Change’ process is a potential threat: it could swing public opinion after all. While the Senior Leadership don’t give a toss about their own staff, whether ancillary, professional services or academic, they do care about looking bad publicly. What they need is for that anger to be fragmented and directed at multiple lower ranked (and therefore expendable) managers, people who can soak up most of the aggro while they, the top dogs, get on with doing what they intended to do all along. Across the University, how many deans or heads of department, besides the ULSB Dean and his deputy, are currently the focus of their respective staff’s considerable ire? How long before that anger, wasted on departmental heads who themselves have been forced into unenviable positions, starts to fade into resignation (both figurative and literal) and acceptance that this is an unwinnable fight?
I suspect that the Dean and the Deputy Dean – along with many other heads across the institution – have been put in an untenable position. To use a rather evocative phrase, they have been given chicken shit and been told to make chicken salad. Should they step down from their roles, resign in protest, rather than become the poster children for unethical and arguably amoral acts? It’s easy to say they should. But the economic reality is not so simple, even less so in this last year. My sympathy for these characters is strictly limited: their choices are on their own heads, the consequences their own.
My point is that, if collective action – the united defence – is to be effective, then outrage and anger must be directed not at these departmental-level ‘decision-makers’, who are really only figureheads. Instead it must be focused more squarely on the senior leadership of the University – the executive board and its enablers on University Council.
There has been a lot of opposition to the plans. Most of ULSB’s divisions have now made a statement of support lambasting this process – as have other committees. It’s a start, but nowhere near enough to actually make an impact. It needs to be replicated on a grander scale. All the affected schools and departments – which is all of them across the University really –need to work together to fight the process as a whole. The University’s executive wants people under threat to focus on defending their own individual positions (and livelihoods), rather than contesting the underlying process. If this happens, they – the executive – may lose a few individual battles (i.e., fail to sack someone), but they will win the war. Our focus must be on undermining the entire ‘Change’ process itself, publicly if necessary – and we have all seen just how poorly the Vice Chancellor reacts to negative press.
The University’s monolithic and glacially paced bureaucratic processes are uniquely vulnerable to being attacked through social media. The COVID era may give them the ‘financial reasoning’ to go ahead with their cost cutting, but the truth is that with so many people losing their livelihoods such actions strike a raw nerve. In five years, in ten years, people – including the all-important prospective students – will ask of businesses and organisations, including universities: how did you behave during the Coronatimes? And they will make decisions based on the answers they receive.
Lockdown has forced people online in an unprecedented way. In such an environment a general campaign against the redundancies is likely to get far greater traction than it otherwise would. Anyone who has seen how topics can go viral (a poor term in the current circumstances but very much appropriate) understands how decision makers, and even governments, can be forced to make a U-turn. Imagine if our plight became public enough that the leaders of other universities (who themselves have not done anything so obviously draconian) suddenly start issuing public statements and claiming the moral high ground (whether justified or not)… Imagine what the vice-chancellor’s response would be. I am not suggesting that we fight dirty – I’m suggesting we fight to win.
Professional Services staff are in a position that is both simpler and more difficult than that of our academic colleagues. We are far more constrained in how we can express ourselves in a professional context – essentially, we are kept on a tighter leash. At the moment there are no redundancies threatened against ULSB professional services staff – such colleagues are unlikely to express public opposition to the executive’s plans.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that professional services staff do not support academics at risk, it is simply that dissent is strongly discouraged: ‘this doesn’t affect you so keep your head down!’ One of the first things I learned a decade ago, when I became a staff member at the University of Leicester, was the cardinal rule: ‘Cover thine own arse first!’ Basically, there is no confidence among many, if not the majority, of lower graded ancillary and professional service staff that our superiors will ever support our concerns, our wellbeing needs, and they certainly have no interest in us actually progressing to higher graded positions. Basically, you have to look out for yourself first and foremost and while you can assist your colleagues, it’s imperative you don’t get caught doing so – you might get branded a malcontent.
These are my long and rambling initial thoughts on the issue. As I have stated publicly, I am with you in solidarity. One reason the attack’s taking this form is to cripple the unions and undermine morale in preparation for something even more severe and draconian down the road. The line in the sand must be drawn and this is as good a hill to die on as any other – and all metaphors must be doubled!