Monday, 9 August 2010

On the Workings of Groups

The supporters of the management of King’s College have been advancing the line that setting up a working group on Palaeography – which recommended a new post in “palaeography and manuscript studies” demonstrates the purity of the college’s motives over the eviction of the current incumbent, Professor David Ganz.

Under this reasoning, the removal of Professor Ganz is compensated for by the fact that King’s is willing to give house-room to a replacement as long as someone else picks up the tab. King’s commitment to palaeography is on the condition that it cost the college not a penny.

Left unexamined are the questions of how much time the College will devote to the matter of fund-raising, considering it already has some £200 million in debt that needs to be dealt with; why anyone would want to give money to a college that has acted in such an unusual way; and why palaeography cannot be subsidised while managers, sports facilities and palaces next door can be.

The argument in favour of King’s – most cogently and reasonably advanced by Mr Steven Rhodes, a former member of the King’s council, in comments to the THES – is that the question of Professor Ganz, and the question of Palaeography, are two entirely different matters. That is, getting rid of Professor Ganz has nothing to do with the issue of replacing him.

From an outsider’s point of view, it is difficult to see how anyone can think that Professor and Professorship can be separated, but that seems to be the line of argument. So let us look at the working group -- composed mainly of senior academics of some considerable distinction -- which accomplished this separation. It was set up by management after the storm of protest caused by the College’s announcement that the subject was going to be axed.

One of the most striking things about the report it produced is that, in 11 pages devoted to the subject of palaeography at King’s, Professor Ganz is mentioned by name only once, and then only in passing. The state and nature of palaeography as it currently exists at the College is scarcely mentioned; indeed the committee writes almost as though there were a blank slate, and that the subject was being called into existence for the first time. There is much on what courses might be offered; all but nothing on what courses currently are offered. There is no sense that they would be building on the efforts of the Professor – who, after 13 years in the post, must have had some impact on the subject.

The report (published on June 30th) says that "members agreed to serve on the understanding that the Group's work could proceed only when issues surrounding the current post-holder had been negotiated and resolved" – which presumably means when the fate of Professor Ganz was decided one way or another. This makes perfect sense, as there would have been no point worrying about his successor if the current Professor was, after all, going to stay put.

However, it then goes on to state that it proceeded -- with the first meeting of the group -- on 31 March 2010, (page 2 of the report) which suggests that at this point, presumably, the members considered that the issue of Professor Ganz had indeed been “negotiated and resolved.”

Except that it hadn't. Professor Ganz only signed his voluntary severance agreement shortly before June 7, two months later, and his letter of April 17, posted on Facebook, clearly suggests that he, at least, thought there was a possibility of keeping his job – the letter refers to axeing palaeography being still a proposal, albeit management policy. Even had he known that was how it was going to end, up until the moment he signed he could have decided to put up a fight and dig in his heels.

He may, as I am told, have been presented with a severance contract on March 31 -- coincidentally, no doubt, the same day as the first meeting -- but he had not signed or agreed to sign it: his position had been neither negotiated nor resolved, except, perhaps in the collective mind of management, which seems to have developed a sort of idee fixe on the subject of getting rid of him. But an argument that an issue is resolved when one side of a discussion decides it has been is scarcely tenable, not least because it would cast doubt over the nature of the consultation process which lasted until May 18th.

Even more strangely, the statement put out on May 18th to mark the end of the consultation said:

“The working group made its initial report to the Head of School on 31 March 2010 (my emphasis) and confirmed the continuing need for the study of Palaeography at King’s. The working group indicated that it would be recommending a re-defined Chair of Palaeography, incorporating Manuscript Studies, with a wide remit…”

Which is to say that -- if you compare report and press release -- the committee not only began work before the fate of Professor Ganz had been resolved, it effectively finished it the day it started -- for that was the major recommendation and everything else was merely filling in the details. March 31, it appears, was a busy day all round. This suggests -- the press release presumably means what it says -- either that the recommendations weren’t very deeply thought through, or that the groundwork had already been done elsewhere and in advance.

The final report defines the new post in a way which fits Professor Ganz’s skills to a tee (p.4) – languages, with latin as a core; a remit covering documentary and archival material (an odd distinction: what do archives contain except documents?) and medieval vernacular; meeting demands from a range of constituencies and “engaging with the digital environment” – (a rare lapse into gobblydegook) all of which Professor Ganz has been doing with great distinction, if little ostentatious fanfare.

The report never even considers the possibility that the current Professor might be the ideal person to do the job, even though he was actually doing it while the working party's meetings were taking place. Equally, the statement that palaeography cannot pay its way and must be endowed omits any discussion of why, in that case, the college needs to found a new chair at all, and could not merely seek an endowment for the existing one.

The periodic excursions into managerialese suggests two hands at work: when talking about Palaeography, the report appears to have been written by academics, as it is for the most part clear and straightforward. Elsewhere it lapses into puffery, unable to resist a boosterish adjective or two: thus scholarly traditions are of the highest, administrative departments are energetic. (p.6) And Vision makes its usual cameo appearance.

While the report finds space to praise managerial energy, it does not, however, trouble to define what “manuscript studies” actually are, although the implication on page 5 is that it is palaeography for people with no language skills and who cannot, therefore, read the manuscripts they are studying. Another hint comes from the mention of ivy league summer school students, which suggests that the new requirement will be for someone who can entertain high-paying preppies, a group university administrators in the UK now regard as the ultimate cash-cows. (p.5) If this is th case, then it may well be that Professor's Ganz's real sin was to be too serious a scholar, and the fact that there was no palaeographer on the committee would not have helped.

A further hint of the purpose behind all of this comes from the frequent references to computing – another area where the managerial style becomes dominant (“London offers a robust infrastructure …connections to Super JaNET…” and so on p.7). This connects to the current main squeeze of management, which is the idea that by changing from using computers as a tool, to seeing information processing as an end in itself (the digital humanities) King’s can not only seem cool, but also lay claim to the sort of hefty grants that normally go only to scientific subjects.

So how does leave this working party? Its achievements should properly be assessed by the choices it made; by what it did not do, as well as by what it did. Its schedule implied the assumption that Professor Ganz would leave long before he agreed to do so. It could have said – hey, why not keep Ganz? it’ll be cheaper – but didn’t. Individual members could have refused to serve unless they could shape the remit, but didn’t.

They could have protested at the treatment of a colleague, but chose not to do so. They could have acknowledged the Professor's contribution to college and discipline, but did not. They could have tried to link the cost of palaeography to other areas of expense at King's, but didn’t.

They advanced the notion that there is some difference between manuscript studies and palaeography without explaining the distinction between the two. They defined a new job, but skated over the task of saying where it differed from the old one. They turned their back on the fate of an individual to concentrate on the preservation of a position.

They dutifully answered the questions set by management, but chose not to wonder whether different questions should be posed. The course of events illustrates the thesis I have advanced over the past couple of months, which is that control of universities in effect lies the ability of managements to set the agenda, and the unwillingness of academics themselves to challenge it. This is a perfect example of the process in operation.

Either way, the working party allowed itself to be put in the position of providing a distraction – by concentrating attention on the resurrection of palaeography in the future, it served to divert attention away from its untimely death in the present. Its report permitted the "palaeography saved" headlines which obscured the fact of Professor Ganz's eviction. It separated professor and professorship in a way that the management on its own could not have achieved.

And it allowed King’s to pass in lofty silence over the question of why it cannot find £25,000 a year to fund the shortfall in palaeography, but can find the £62,000 required to fund the Principal’s pay rises over the last couple of years.

It is, after all, a question of priorities within the university: and this is something which, it appears, is now much too important to be the concern of academics, however senior or distingushed.

-- Iain Pears

Note -- This account derives from reading the report of the working party side-by-side with the various press releases put out by management in the past few months. That is to say, if there are any errors of dates, then these lie in the documents themselves. If there are any mistakes, however, then I will gladly correct them, as usual.

Dissident academics requiring anonymity, by the way, generally go via Facebook. So, indeed, do recalcitrant managers.


  1. Thank you for this.
    I'd really like to hear a few ideas on how academics can really set the agenda and take control of what is discussed at meetings.
    Since the early 1980's academics over coffee or at departmental meetings have been discussing only one thing: money - how to make it, how to save it. Also each discipline has been set against every other one by the same thing; money. Universities are corporate bodies. If one part of a body aggressively attacks another part, instead of working in harmony, the result is usually terminal decline.
    I suppose academics are too afraid of losing their jobs to really try to take control of the decision making. But surely there are retired academics who can remember a time when over coffee and at departmental meetings they discussed e.g. astrophysics or medieval theology, and their chief concern was to meet the aspirations and needs of their students.

  2. The Modern Languages Department at Swansea University is just beginning its fight against draconian cuts. On August 6, management announced proposals to cut over 50% of academic staff, a move that would decimate teaching and research expertise built up over 20 years.

    Cuts are proposed across the university, but ML is by far the worst hit (22 posts 'deleted'; staff having to reapply for 8 jobs). There's no doubt that management will be watching very carefully to see what level of protest there will be. If they succeed in slashing a department whose subject area is designated a 'national strategic priority' by the Welsh Assembly Government, then there is nothing to stop them picking off other arts and humanities subjects such as History and English more easily at a later date.

    The ML staff are determined to fight as hard as they can. National and international support from academics and language institutions has been fantastic thus far.

    The department has set up a blog here - - where details of the proposals, press coverage and ways to help are detailed.

  3. I hope than Professor Jan Palmowski, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Mr Ian Creagh, Mr Chris Motteshead, or Mr Brett Dempster may find the integrity to answer this blog and explain their actions. In the words of Professor Dominic Rathbone, of the King's College Classics Department 'Under the present regime I cannot see why anyone would want to apply to King's to do a higher degree, or why any King's Faculty members would want to stay there.'