Friday, 25 June 2010

Symbols and Scholars

My last post seems to have caused annoyance in some quarters, with people thinking I was unfair to those who had worked to oppose the cuts being imposed by the management of King’s College London. If so, then my profound apologies; I do not wish to undermine those who have gone into battle, nor do I want to minimise their achievements.

My concern, however, was a deep worry that an essential point was being missed – or at least it has not been aired in any forum I know of. That is that the effective expulsion of the Professor of Palaeography was not merely one sad defeat in an otherwise on-going campaign, but the symbolic heart of the matter. It was, after all, the issue which came to represent the crisis to the outside world.

It is, of course, good that threats of compulsary redundancies have been lifted. But it would be unwise to conclude that their removal is consequently permanent. You do not need to be an economist or an avid reader of the Financial Times to realise that the cuts imposed so far have only been an aperitif. Force Majeure is a powerfully useful concept in business; changed circumstances can be invoked to justify all sorts of things, and circumstances are on the brink of changing radically.

The entire public sector is going to be cut; universities will be cut harder and the humanities will be hit harder still. This much is clear. The numbers are uncertain, but the outlines can be estimated. If Higher Education as a whole is cut by 25 per cent (which seems to be a minimum figure) this will mean a real cut to universities of about 12 per cent, as much of their income currently comes from non-governmental sources.

But the sciences get the lion’s share of external grants and, in addition, the government is busily skewing the funding structure to put more public money into the STEM subjects, and less into the humanities.

This could very easily translate into an overall cut for the humanities of more than 30 per cent over the next five years, with the only help on the horizon (assuming government disdain for the humanities is not reversed) being higher tuition fees – which coalition politics means may be less useful than they might have been. Having given away VAT increases, it is quite possible that the Liberal Democrats will decide to take a stand on the issue, even though doing so would devastate university finances. Conservative cuts plus Liberal distaste for fees would be a potent combination.

It is unnecessary for me to spell out quite how nasty such an outcome would be. But such circumstances would give any management the justification needed to reintroduce forced redundancies – and to postpone indefinitely (or simply forget) any plans to, say, appoint a new chair of palaeography. Indeed, they may have no choice.

Nor is there much chance of building an effective coalition to oppose the cuts; the outcome of the last election was irrelevant, as all parties in effect have the same policies.

The cuts were formulated under the Labour government, the Conservatives have intensified them and the Liberals have gone along with it. There is a general consensus at the moment that they will happen and must happen. That will take several years to shift. And a public faced with falling benefits, increasing taxes and declining services is not going to be easily roused about universities.

You cannot easily reverse direction once you have started sliding down a mountain. All you can do is try to control the descent, and try to ensure you are in one piece when you come to the bottom. And this is where the fate of palaeography becomes important, because I fear it has tightened the hold of management on the implementation of future cuts.

At one level, it is a question of symbolism, which is as critical in management as it is in literature or art, even though its power is generally ignored. Public relations delivers the message; underlying symbolism shapes what that message is and how it is received. Many of the travails of the Chief Executive of BP come because he failed to grasp the symbolic aspect of the oil spill, his company and of his responses to the disaster. Bankers’ bonuses and the pay of Vice Chancellors have a significance far beyond the actual financial cost: it is a major reason why they get people so agitated.

The departure of David Ganz only makes sense when linked to the fact that none of the people responsible for the cock ups of the past few months has left their job. The management of King’s employed methods that were inappropriate and counter-productive. It made their institution into an international short-hand for a crisis of the British University. It alienated its own faculty members when unity was essential, and brought savage criticism from across the scholarly community. In many areas it then rolled back to a policy it could easily have adopted to begin with. None of this was necessary.

Had King’s truly wanted to repair the damage, then one of those responsible could have been invited to go. It would have saved more money than getting rid of palaeography and drawn a line under the matter. If that was unfair, then it would have been no more so than getting rid of faculty members. Managements are, after all, supposed to be quite enthusiastic about rewarding success and failure appropriately.

Instead, the situation evolved in a way which in essence protected those who had made the mistakes, by focussing attention on those who had made none. A committee was set up to “explore the future of Palaeography at King’s.” Broader issues were excluded from discussion and, although King’s management leaks like a sieve, I have heard no whisper that such an enquiry is under way elsewhere.

Cutting administrative costs, getting rid of inadequate managers and transferring the resources to scholarship seem not to have been on the table; the technique concentrated attention on palaeography alone as the urgent issue which needed to be resolved. The resolution was to redefine the incumbent out of the job, promise a new position at some unspecified date in the future and present this as the subject being saved.

Thus constituted, this solution tackled a very real need to repair the college’s reputation, but tried to do so by focussing on the symptom of the crisis, not the cause. It was not allowed to deal with the central reason why such repair work was necessary. It had a remit which excluded the one thing that urgently needed examining, the way in which the College management came to make such a series of mistakes. Palaeography was not, in fact, such an urgent question: whether or not it should go or stay or be redefined could have been postponed for some considerable time; the costs were fairly marginal. The urgency about settling the matter was essentially political, not academic or financial.

The methods used, of course, are common practice, one of the most fundamental of administrative techniques. In the long term, real power in any institution lies in controlling the agenda, in deciding what is discussed and how it is discussed – and in determining what is not discussed.

The matter of palaeography and its eventual resolution reified the administration’s grip on that agenda. It became an object lesson in who is still truly in control, and those who opposed the management never found a way of either challenging or changing the terms of the debate.

Which brings back the subject of future cuts. Bitter experience in the private sector long ago taught me that assurances count for little in a crisis, however genuinely they may have been given, and how solid they seem. Managements will, and must, operate within the realm of the possible, and a return to draconian methods will remain an option as long as they are not absolutely impossible.

The only way to ensure that any future job losses come in an orderly, agreed and constructive fashion will come if the management has no other choice but to proceed in such a way. That will only happen if the academics insert themselves into a truly meaningful and determining role in the design and implementation or any changes. The fate of palaeography suggests it is a battle that has yet to be won.

-- Iain Pears

Monday, 14 June 2010

Strange Defeat

So, it is over, more or less. King’s College has issued a few statements, backtracked on a few trivialities, and everyone is happy, judging by the posts. The union seems pleased, and all is at peace.

Except, of course that it isn’t. The management of King’s has got its way in all essentials. It has won the right to reshape departments at its pleasure. It has adopted the shoddy tactic of forcing people out of their jobs at will and got away with it. The only difference now is that it operates through a committee with helpful academics who are prepared to “redefine” a post in order to force incumbents out. So much for academic solidarity.

So the stage is now set for the next round, for the real cuts, the ones that really hurt. The next time a head of department wishes to transfer resources from mainstream subjects into modish and unproven initiatives like the “digital humanities,” there will be a precedent and a model.

The next time a colleague of distinction doesn't quite fit in, the way will be open for his job to be redefined -- History of France changed, perhaps, to History of the French. That is all that is required, and then the job can be readvertised in a way which forces the offending clerk into voluntary redundancy.

Or perhaps, rather like Sussex, the management will decide that all of European history is of no importance and axe it. Or like Middlesex get rid of philosophy in its entirety. They can do so, now, whenever they want. And there won’t be an international outcry next time. Such a chance comes only once.

It is a pity. The Academics of King’s had a opportunity to defend more than themselves, more than their own jobs. Not enough wanted to. Some saw advantage for themselves. Some did not care. Some senior academics whose opinion counted preferred to make life easy for the management. Others felt that there was no point in carrying on, and gave up.

I fear they will regret it, senior and junior, not least because the management now has the measure of them, and knows how to get its way.

But all is well. No-one responsible for making King’s a laughing stock has been fired; indeed they will probably be rewarded for taking tough decisions.

The last Professor of Palaeography in Britain will lose his job.

Professor Trainor gets a knighthood for services to higher education.

No further comment is necessary.

-- Iain Pears