Monday, 19 April 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

After several weeks' silence and (I gather) frenzied activity below the surface, the nature of the King’s College management response to its self-imposed debacle is finally becoming clear.

It had two obvious choices: either to press ahead with redundancies in the humanities and elsewhere, brushing aside the hit to its international reputation, or to roll them back and start over from first principles. It could go for a furtive fix, or a genuinely open consultation.

In essence, it appears to have chosen the first option, in the belief that a public relations fix will repair the damage. It seems that it will countenance no alternative to its desire to get rid of people, and the fundamental assault on academic freedom – the new principle that academic research is to be the plaything of managerial whim -- looks as though it will remain in place. It is, after all, a prize worth fighting for.

The only change is that, rather than the compulsary redundancies, it picks off its targets one by one, in a way that will allow it to present departures as a voluntary decision.

Forcing people to re-apply for their own jobs – one of the more contentious issues --appears to have been ditched, which will have the effect of driving a wedge between those targetted for removal and those now safe, who may be so relieved that they will be disinclined to mount further protests. With luck, this will neutralise the union.

This will, no doubt, cost more with all the assorted sweeties that will need to be loaded on, but saving money has long since become a secondary (although no doubt still important) motive.

Since the protests erupted, the important thing has been to save the plan – not because it is a good one, but because the most vital concern is to preserve the aura of management authority. Better a dreadful scheme that comes from management and is imposed, than a superior one that originates elsewhere.

So, despite the formation of semi-secret committees to review the options, despite public display of the Principal being booed and heckled, despite the protests from across the world, it appears that there will be no meaningful new options to review.

There will be no option to cut administrative costs, no discussion of across-the-board pay cuts, no slowing of development spending to save money, no real consultation, no cast-iron guarantees about academic freedom. Nor will there be any openness in the way the policy is pursued: everything is to be confidential.

The often eminent and well-meaning academics drafted in to fill the working parties trying to triangulate a solution risk being used like Lenin’s useful idiots, accomplishing little more than putting a civilised and urbane face on a continued management drive forward.

So, no changes. Instead the original proposals will be repackaged; the only thing that will alter will be the style.

In that sense, all the protests from the UK and abroad have so far been to no avail. Even though they were primarily designed to save the reputation of one of the world’s great academic institutions, it appears that the management has decided to interpret the protests as impudent trouble-making by people whose opinions must be neutralised, rather than as a useful warning of errors being made.

With such an outlook, it was inevitable that the question of cuts would become a trial of strength, with the administration interpreting victory not as the emergence of a workable, effective and agreed policy, but rather as salvaging as much of their original scheme as possible. As is often the case, macho effectiveness at getting your own way is being confused with good management.

The desire will be to get the job done speedily; the longer the protests last, the worse it gets. The object will be to close the issue down before term starts and more protests attract attention.

So the people targetted will be subject to intense pressure – a standard technique of interrogators and managers alike. Entirely arbitrary deadlines will be set up with unspecified, but unpleasant consequences if they are not met. Individuals will be told their colleagues will suffer if the timetable is derailed, so that any hesitation becomes selfishness. All the high-pressure tactics of the encyclopaedia salesman will be brought to bear to get a decision fast. Sign now, or the opportunity will be lost forever; look, here’s a pen….

Following on from that, the accompanying public relations fix is consequently predictable: pay-offs will be linked to gagging orders preventing any criticism of anything that management has said or done, and there will be a blizzard of press releases announcing the College’s commitment to whatever they think necessary to get the protestors to back off.

In all probability, these will be so full of get-outs and vagueness that it will commit it to nothing whatsoever. When the protests do die down – and the management knows it will be hard for supporters to defend people who go voluntarily, even if they have little real choice -- it will have the room to do as it pleases.

It will be prepared to put up with a few “King’s forced to retreat…” headlines, as long as it gets its way in all essentials.

From a managerial point of view all of this is standard practice; as with politicians, when you make a mistake the last thing you should do is admit it. It is, generally, much better to proceed, however disastrous the result, than to risk undermining your own position by admitting the possibility of error.

What can be said? Not much; the distribution of power in British universities is now so heftily tilted in favour of management that there is little that can be done if it digs its heels in.

But it will be a pyrrhic victory; managers may end up toasting each other’s adroitness and skill, but I suspect they will convince no-one but themselves. A manipulative fix will be seen for what it is; only in management circles is such a device regarded with anything but contempt.

The damage to academic freedom, King’s reputation, its ability to attract high-level foreign scholars, the British University system as a whole, will remain – possibly in more muted form, but it will not be reversed and will not go away.

Those in charge of King’s had an opportunity to repair the damage they so gratuitously inflicted on the organisation they are supposed to serve.

It is increasingly clear that they do not have the slightest real desire to do so; their horizons are limited solely to the problem of getting themselves out of a mess.

It will be up to the academic world in general to decide how much respect an institution deserves when it is under the control of such people.

-- Iain Pears

Note: I see from David Ganz's post this afternoon that the management of King's is still going on about orchestrated campaigns to vilify the College. I have discussed this before and suggested that they are doing such a good job of it themselves they hardly need help from outsiders.

But in view of the seriousness of matters now it is worth revisiting. I have not talked about this article, or any others I have written, with either Professor Ganz, or any of the other people targetted for removal. They have quite enough on their plates already.

I have, however, talked to several people at King's, inside and outside the administration, to get information. I even asked for half an hour with Professor Trainor, so I might better understand management thinking -- answer, alas, came there none.

If King's does want to continue with this tired musical metaphor, then I suggest myself a lone busker, banging away on the pavement outside in the hope that someone will listen...

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