Friday, 26 March 2010

On the Dark Arts

After labouring mightily, the powers at King’s London have finally spoken, and launched a mouse onto the world. As part of an article in the Guardian on 23rd March, an unnamed spokesman announced that

“The college management deplores the reckless campaign orchestrated to upset the consultation process by undermining the college's reputation. The college has conducted the consultation processes in good faith and believes that the procedures applied in each instance are fair and transparent.”

I had expected something much better than that. It is a half-hearted response, which sounds more like a manager stamping his foot than a remark crafted by someone who truly understands Public Relations.

Certainly, it is not indicative of a serious fight back. rather it seems more like a holding statement, designed to maintain the line without upping the stakes. this, curiously, is quite hopeful.

You do not win hearts and minds by sounding self-righteously hurt, you do not use the conspiracy gambit (the orchestrated campaign part) unless you are really running out of ammunition, not when it is so patently untrue.

Nor do you lay yourself open with remarks like “the college believes the procedures are fair and transparent,” when it is clear that the college does nothing of the sort; only the management does, and that is not the same thing.

And after years of politicians and bankers and governments cheerfully acquitting themselves of any wrong-doing no matter what the circumstances, declarations of management happiness with management policies carry little weight with the public. Such statements instantly raise suspicions; the wise PR man now avoids them like the plague.

"Transparent" is also a no-no, as overuse has changed its meaning in recent years from "clear" to "deliberately opaque." Only would-be technocrats now use the term, and the object of PR is to get the targets to identify with your side, not to alienate them.

Exaggeration and hyperbole are all very well, indeed PR could scarcely exist without them, but they have to be used cautiously and effectively. Referring to “reckless campaigns” is poor stuff indeed.

It is a bit like saying Northern Rock would have been perfectly fine if only people hadn’t tried to get their money back. But the run on the bank was caused by its weakness, not the other way round. It is the same with King’s: the damage was caused by the policies, not the criticism.

Finally there is the laziness of “orchestrated.” I think not. Orchestras are organised groups playing the same tune with a conductor. Trying to conjure up images of the hidden hand manipulating in the darkness, in a manner reminiscent of a 1950s spy film, is fumbling. Is King's now suggesting the nine MPs who have signed a motion urging a rethink are being orchestrated? That the reach of the humanities is so great it can stretch into the house of Commons and bend politicians to its will?

Would that academics were capable of such organisation. Anyone who knows such people at all are well aware that trying to get them to stick to a common line on anything is a bit like herding sheep. That is why academia is such fun, and why the current methods of the King’s management will only work by strangling the life force out of the profession.

-- Iain Pears

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Of Colleges and Colleagues

One of the interesting, (though no doubt trivial) aspects of the Principal of King’s response to the vote on strike action is his ambiguous use of language. He writes “the College has stated…” “We believe…” and addresses the recipients of the letter as “colleagues.”

This is very curious, and the way the use of the terms evolves illuminates a certain haziness of definition which is a contributory cause of the current problems.

The word colleague, after all, derives from the latin collega, partner in office, one chosen to work with another -- not for another. By addressing the would-be strikers as colleagues, Professor Trainor is appealing to the bond that exists between equals. It is a reference to the spirit of the confraternity which stresses that he also is a member of that body. It is not a term of address used between master and servant, or between employer and employee.

Similarly the letter uses the word “college” on several occasions but in different ways. the term derives from collegium, meaning a community, society or guild, an “an endowed, self-governing association of scholars incorporated within a university or a similar corporation outside a university.” Again, at one point the reference is to an organic whole, a collection of equals, not to an hierarchical body.

But the use of both words is ambiguous: the letter slips from using college in a general sense, to using it to mean the management: “the college has stated that…” In the proper sense of the term, of course, the college has done nothing of the sort: the “association of scholars,” if it has spoken at all, has spoken to go on strike, not to condemn a strike as premature.

The usage here is a stealthy act of appropriation. The shifting definitions, which also show up in the use of “we” to identify management as the college itself, mean that the management becomes by implication a sort of rousseauian expression of the general will: a peculiarly Leninist touch in the circumstances.

Those who disagree, therefore, do not merely have a dispute with management, they expel themselves from the college as a whole by going against its wishes: “the college does not accept...” Indeed, at that point he stops addressing them as colleagues: those who even contemplate going on strike suddenly become “staff” -- "a group of assistants to a manager, executive, or other person in authority."

Such people, of course, are not considered members of the college, and cannot expect the consideration due to equals…

-- Iain Pears

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

What is King’s to do?

A thoughtful commentator has replied to one of my earlier posts putting up courteous objections to some of the things I have said recently, and as some of the points he (or she) makes are perfectly good ones, I thought it would be useful to reply.

The first point is that humanities is making a loss, which is unsustainable, so something must be done. But does such an argument make much sense? Certainly more figures need to be made available – what exactly does a loss mean here? Is it just teaching plus research income minus the cost of academics? How are the costs of libraries, buildings factored in? How, indeed, are the costs of administration and other general functions divided up? I suspect that, given all the accounts, I could quite easily make any department make a loss, or a profit, as required, simply by juggling costs until the right result came out at the end.

A bigger question is why such accounting is being used at all. This technique of slicing and dicing departmental costs is, after all, fairly new. Universities used, once upon a time, to have a general commitment to fields of knowledge and tried to maintain them. They attributed funds according to scholarly need and balance, not according to notional profit-making capabilities. They would find the money for areas they wanted to support or which they felt were important. Some subjects have never been profitable and never can be. They were once valued for other reasons.

The current line – we know this is important but it makes a loss so it’s out – sounds rigorous but in fact is lazy, as it abandons academic judgement – an assessment of what is important, and a willingness to defend it -- in favour of allowing a print-out from a spreadsheet to dictate policy. Such an approach means that no subject has any importance beyond the financial – is this truly what a place like King’s believes?

So why should a institution of learning with income of near half a billion pounds a year not support the country’s only Professor of Palaeography? The expense is chicken-feed, after all, and that miniscule cost would turn King’s to be a haven of scholarly values in an increasingly hostile climate.

More than that, divisional costing gives those in charge of the figures an opportunity to divide and rule – the figures can be, and are, used to stir resentment amongst medics, for example, that “their” money is being used to “subsidise” historians. It breaks down collegiality and a sense of institutional identity which is, ultimately, corrosive in its effects.

My friendly commentator also goes on to suggest that admin costs might be caused by bringing IT systems up to scratch. This I doubt, or if it is the case, then it suggests the programme wasn’t done very well. Firstly, staff costs have risen rapidly as well in the admin sector, which cannot be attributed to IT; secondly the costs have risen steadily over a decade, so cannot be written off as a short-term blip caused by a particular programme. Besides, aren’t IT programmes meant to lower costs, not increase them? I know they never do and always end up making administration far more complex and expensive, but I still retain the fond idea that computers were meant to make things better, cheaper and more efficient, not the opposite.

His next point is that “cuts in admin staff across the College have actually been made, though it may not appear so because obviously the College does not want to advertise the fact.” This, if true, is just plain weird. Or at least it suggests that management’s grip on reality is bizarre. What sort of people would advertise killing off palaeography, but try to hide the fact that they are cutting unnecessary administrative costs? It is not at all obvious to me why anyone should behave in a way which is guaranteed to maximise criticism.

Finally, he asks, what is King’s to do? Stand alone against the might and muscle of Hefce?

Well, yes. That is exactly what it should do. How would Hefce respond, after all? Cut King’s off without a penny? It wouldn’t make much difference, I have no doubt, although I suspect many elsewhere would rally to the standard if it were to be unfurled. But unless people like those at the head of King’s start raising their voices against the way universities have been brutalised by heavy-handed government in recent years, then nothing will ever change.

Someone like Professor Trainor calling for a better, more rational, less onerous system would make a difference, if only he would speak out. And even if his protest fell on deaf ears, it would place him at the head of his college as its leader and protector, not merely as its master and a government enforcer. That would make a very big difference indeed.

-- Iain Pears

Sunday, 21 March 2010

In Praise of Management

Some of the objections to proposed cuts at King’s College London and elsewhere take the line of opposing all managers in all ways. This is too simple: there is a world of difference between good and bad management, and between appropriate and inappropriate management.

It is important to separate the strands, not least because one of the main lines of argument deployed in recent years to control universities has been the “aspic” gambit, claiming that academics only oppose efficient management as practised by the private sector for selfish reasons. They therefore need to be taught a lesson and modern managers are ideal for the job of dragging them into the 21st century.

I would like to suggest here that many British universities diverge from the private sector in key ways which invalidates that argument: the current problems are arising not because university management is efficient, but because it is not.

To be precise: to identify university management with business is something of a slander on the private sector, to which real businessmen should object strongly. This does not mean universities should be run more like businesses, but rather that the conceit of pretending that the business model must be emulated should be abandoned as impractical and irrelevant.

Running any organisation well requires the utmost skill. I have written elsewhere in fulsome praise of the truly effective manager, and about how constructing and controlling a large organisation deserves to rank as one of the most difficult tasks the human mind can take on.

It requires an ability to look at detail and at the larger picture; being able to adjust to circumstance rather than sticking to a predetermined method. It requires an understanding of money and people and structures. It means knowing when to delegate, how far to delegate and when to intervene. It requires understanding the difference between consent and coercion. It means tailoring your methods and style to the particular nature of the organisation you are running. It is a subtle art as well as a demanding science.

Few people have the skills and temperament to do it well; those who do not only deserve high rewards, they will inevitably get them. There are not enough of such people around.

Alas, there seem to be few in UK universities.

Even in the corporate sector, such people are not trusted, however good they may be. Companies work within a system of checks and balances to monitor management performance and correct mistakes: it is not perfect by any means, but it works, enough of the time.

The Chief Executive answers to the board, which is led by a Chairman. The board, in turn, answers to the shareholders, who are (literally) invested in the health of the company but are distant from it. Share prices rise and fall to indicate esteem, and serve as an early warning of something going awry.

And if something does go wrong, punishment follows: the company shrinks in value, and becomes vulnerable to a takeover. Competitors grab market share. Profit dwindles. The chief executive can be thrown out; there may, in extreme circumstances, be a shareholder revolt. Even the possibility of such things keeps the management on their toes.

Few of these factors apply to universities. They do not make profits, so their performance cannot be easily monitored. There is a board, but no “invested outsiders” to keep an eye on things. There are no competitors in any real sense. And there is little scope for external rebellion to enforce a change if management proves inadequate.

The problem with importing managerial techniques into universities – and into the public sector generally – is that it has centralised authority along business lines, but has not at the same time imported the checks which monitor performance and the balances to control managerial power. The result has been conditions which are a gift to the mediocre.

Administrators in universities (and elsewhere in the public sphere) have exploited this, even when they are well-meaning. They have adopted the style, the language, the pay, but not the external disciplines, of the private sector.

This is, I believe, a source of the current problems at King’s College London, although it is far from being unique. King’s has attracted attention because of its efforts to dismiss academics, but many other institutions in the Higher Education sector show the same weaknesses, and some are worse.

Instead of the cautious approach, there seems to have been very little provision for the unexpected in the last few years: rather like the government itself, King’s seems to have been working on the belief that the uniquely favourable conditions of the past decade were both normal and permanent. As we now know, this was an unfortunate assumption to make.

In four areas specifically, King’s has adopted policies which call into question the quality of its management.

Firstly, there are the ballooning administrative costs. Normally, businesses expand in order to cut the ratio of fixed to variable costs and so become more efficient. Ordinarily you would expect administrative costs to fall in proportion to revenue as an organisation gets bigger.

Such things are carefully watched: every unnecessary pound spent on administration is a pound off profits at the end of the year. Private sector managers have a vested interest in keeping administration under control.

Universities do not, as they make no profit and are in a position to transfer money out of “core functions” (teaching and research) without making themselves vulnerable to more efficient competitors.

The result, at King’s and elsewhere, is that expansion in the last decade has been accompanied by a remarkable drop in administrative efficiency. This suggests weak cost controls, and a failure due to inadequate external sanctions.

As a rule of thumb, administration costs should rise at about half the rate of revenue increase; at King’s it has gone up twice as fast. Had it been more “businesslike,” rather than less, then administration costs in the past decade would have risen to around £22 million from about £16 million, rather than to the actual figure of £33.5 million, and the college would have had a safety net of around £11 million a year.

Secondly, there has been a heavy expansion of debt to fund an ambitious development programme. This is where “strategic vision” should be a reality rather than mere words designed to sound good. Expansion should be cautious, sustainable and do no damage to the overall health of the institution. Otherwise it is not a vision, it is a grandiose delusion.

According to the latest figures analysed by the THES, King’s now has total debts of £202.7 million, the second highest in the country. Relatively speaking it is not the worst: at debt-to-revenue of 41.7% there are a fair number of universities in a more parlous position.

King's is not going bust: it is in a position to transfer resources away from teaching and research to cover debt payments for ever, if it wishes. (A positive note: the debt was secured at fixed interest rates, which will be good if interest rates start to rise next year).

But debt is now higher than cash reserves, is high, and that is not at all good in a period of declining revenue and more uncertainty over government block grants. This is especially as an extra £60 million was taken on in 2008, when the outlines of the recession were already clear and cuts were becoming likely. This was the time to be paying down debt, not adding to it.

Were the development programme an investment in the commercial sense, it might be justifiable: spending more on plant and machinery (if done properly) shows up in lower unit costs, higher profits and increased revenue. It gives an advantage over competitors and so helps a company survive.

This is not the case with much of the King’s programme. While it is no doubt desirable to move into Somerset House, or build a sports centre for students, these do not increase revenue in the slightest.

Some programmes are intended to generate increased revenue by attractig more students or more research income, but this is now problematic: there is going to be less money for research in years to come, and the government has switched from encouraging universities to take on more students to fining those that do.

And if they do not generate extra revenue (the difference between a new corporate headquarters and a new factory) such programmes can only be justified if they cut overheads by more than their cost. Buying and fitting out Somerset House will probably cost up to £40 million; it would have to reduce net running costs (utilities and so on) by a minimum of least £3 million a year to be worth it financially. This is ambitious, to say the least.

Such programmes are more likely to be a burden on the balance sheet, transfer money to debt payments away from core functions, without offering matching efficiency gains. They are precisely the sort of expenditure which should be put on hold at the first sign of trouble, becasue whatever their long-term benefits, in the short term they squeeze the money available for teaching and research.

Had King’s not taken out extra loans in 2008, its debt payments would now be some £2.5 million lower. Had it been cautious and mothballed part of its development programme, permitting it to pay off some debt, they would be lower still.

More careful control over administration and a less expnasionist attitude together, in other words, could have resulted in fixed non-academic costs very much lower than they are at present, enough to cover a substantial portion of the cuts currently demanded by the government.

Of course reducing these areas to a more appropriate size now would be painful and unpleasant: there are now no easy solutions. An administrator or a construction worker losing his job is a sadness, as much as it is when an academic does.

But if they are to be compared to the private sector, they cannot be regarded as job creation schemes as well. The main duty of a private company is to protect its core activities – in this case teaching and research – not to sacrifice these to maintain an administrative structure.

The final elements of good business management are the way it handles personnel, and the way it guards its reputation. Both are intangible assets, but of vital importance in the service sector where there is no physical product to serve as the main point of comparison, and where there is a highly educated workforce, the best of which can move elsewhere.

In both of these areas, the management at King’s has made large and unnecessary errors. It is not always true that threats of strikes are ultimately the result of management failure (although it is frequently: people really do not like walking out of their jobs) but it is clearly the case here.

To present the proposed cuts without a parallel programme to trim unnecessary costs, and without giving reassurance that redundancies were the last resort, and without taking account of fears about academic freedom, was a serious error of judgement.

The management has proceeded in a way which was breath-takingly flat-footed. Either no-one saw the protests coming, which would be bad enough, or they thought they could be brushed aside, which would be worse. The effect has been disaffection within, protest without, and severe damage to reputation.

Add that to the other factors listed above, and the overall picture of management performance is not impressive.

The situation could be recovered, not least by the powers-that-be deciding to act as leaders, rather than masters. But that would take more acumen than they have shown up to now. The shareholders would be restless, if there were any.

-- Iain Pears

Thursday, 18 March 2010

More on Debt

The THES reports today that king's total debts stand at £202.7 million, representing 41.7% of income. This makes it the university with the second highest debts in the country: Manchester comes first with £206.7 million, but it is more able to cope, as this represents only 27% of income.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Public Relations Disasters: A How-To guide.

Creating a truly unnecessary PR disaster requires skill and work. It is not a task which should be undertaken by the mere amateur, or those unprepared to labour long and hard to achieve their aims.

Some people have a natural gift and are hit by moments of genius: Gerald Ratner all but destroyed his own company with a few well-chosen words describing his products as crap.

Others have to plan. King’s College London is an example of best practice in this regard. In the spirit of the business school case study, I have boiled down their campaign to its essentials.

1) Assemble a small team to identify clearly what you do – teaching and research – and then work out a careful programme to undermine it. Firing people who are regarded as the height of excellence in their field makes for a good start.

2) Make sure your efforts have as wide an effect as possible. Getting rid of a historian or a philosopher shows willing, but is half-hearted and inefficient. The true professional will choose people whose work crosses disciplines, to guarantee the maximum impact.

An ideal choice here is (say) a palaeographer, whose labours are important for historians, people in literature, foreign languages, classics, theology and archaeology. If your choice effectively abolishes a 500-year-old discipline for the sake of a small efficiency saving, so much the better.

Equally useful would be a computational linguist, whose work affects others in software, philosophy, robotics, neurology, engineering and cognitive psychology.

3) Make sure the people you choose are some of the most eminent in their field and, wherever possible, foreigners. 2) and 3) in combination will guarantee protests from around the world in a wide range of disciplines.

4) Be careful not to show sensitivity or remorse about the fact that you are throwing people out of a job. In the policy document you issue to accompany the decision, make sure there is no believable expression of regret. This might make you seem human or caring, which is something to be avoided at all costs. Emphasise that you are motiviated primarily by money, not scholarship.

5) Remember also that you are talking to people whose business is words, and who value a well-turned sentence. They have spent years learning how to use language, and to communicate clearly. So ensure you address them in the worst and most inappropriate sort of language you can manage, written by people who are scarcely literate.

The dexterous use of corporate managerialese here will get across the idea that you really do not give a damn about them, or about what they do. This will successfully add insult to injury, and invite ridicule from the outside world.

6) Try and come up with a simple catch-phrase which instantly sums up all you stand for: “subcritical strategic disinvestment” was a stroke of pure inspiration, so much so that it instantly replaced King's official motto and is now the phrase by which it is known throughout the world.

7) Mark the document “confidential.” You know it will leak onto the internet in a matter of hours, and it is a brilliantly easy way of making yourself seem secretive, insular and afraid of scrutiny.

8) Do your best to ensure that people think that any consultation and appeals process is unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference. Governments developed the fake consultation as a way of eroding public respect and trust. Learn from their insights.

If you follow all of these stages, you are well under way to achieving your aims. The true adept, however, will now add a few delicate flourishes, like a painter adding that final touch of the brush. This is what distinguishes a real artist from a simple amateur.

9) Time your announcement to coincide with the publication of your annual accounts, so that the contrast between the amount of money you are trying to save, and the amount you spend on administration, comes across clearly. Better still, buy part of a palace as well. This will underline where your priorities lie.

10) Get one of your number to sign a collective letter bemoaning the assault on the subjects that you yourself are attacking. There is nothing quite like adding a hint of hypocrisy to the mixture.

11) Sit back in total silence. If you must say something, do so in the comments section of some on-line magazine to emphasise you are not taking objections seriously. If possible, include some dismissive remarks about protesters based in other countries to stress that you do not care for anyone else’s opinion.

12) Above all, do not listen to anyone -- inside or outside your organisation -- who wants you to change course. If you feel like calling in experienced PR people to help out, resist the temptation. You have a plan: stick to it. A reputation for arrogant rigidity will be the icing on the cake.

-- Iain Pears

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

LRB -- correction

A letter to be published in the London Review of Books this week goes out with slightly misleading figures, so I would like to amend them. (all my fault, as I did not get the last changes in on time)

In the letter on Hefce, I quote figures for administrative and academic costs and for the Vice-Chancellors’ remuneration at the University of Bristol and University College London.

They are askew because the comparison dates do not match. For the record, the figures for Bristol should be for the period 1999/2000 and 2008/9.

these are (2000. 2009, percentage change)

Vice chancellor £145,000 £309,000 +113%
Academic departments £78 million £144 million +84.6%
Administration £8.5 million 30.7 million +261.2%

Sorry about that. ip 16.3.10

Monday, 15 March 2010

On Computational linguistics

King’s College, London is proposing to get rid of, among others, three people who do computational linguistics after deciding that they are surplus to requirements. Their methods have been a little shabby and coercive, their thinking has been muddled. I attempt here to explain why this is a remarkably dumb decision.

There is no denying that computational linguistics is a slightly weird discipline which is difficult to pigeon-hole.

The people who work in the field frequently speak and think geek and are not given to explaining themselves in ways others can easily understand. Many are irascible, impatient and obsessive. They are frequently difficult to integrate into a well-oiled and controlled organisation of the sort beloved by modern professional managers. (I speak generally here; I have not talked to any of the people at King’s, only to colleagues and associates abroad).

Of the three, two (Shalom Lappin and Wilfried Meyer-Viol) are in the King’s philosophy department, one (Jonathan Ginzburg) in a Computer Science now turned into Informatics department, which makes it easy to target them as useless.

Such a conclusion, however, misses the way such undertakings are dissolving the traditional barriers not only between disciplines, but also between the arts and the sciences. The result is one of the most exciting and innovative undertakings going on in academia today, something to be encouraged rather than eliminated.

The influence of such work spreads far – which is one of the reasons protests about their removal has aroused such wide condemnation. Theirs is one of the key areas of research that will fuel not only the next generation of advance in computer technology, but the generation after that as well.

This will be artificial intelligence, which after many years of promising wonderful things but not delivering much, is finally beginning to turn into a field which is making real advances.

To do this has required drafting in people from many different disciplines. To teach a computer how to tell the difference between reality and a reflection, for example, can and does call on the insights of software designers, engineers, neurologists, cognitive psychologists, specialists in robotics, linguistics and philosophy. The spin-off is not only smarter machines, but also a better understanding of brain function.

These collaborations are often informal, unfunded and (crucially given the state of British university management) happen without the knowledge of administrators who like to count these things up so they can reward people for “impact.”

The same goes for verbal understanding. Teaching a computer not only to analyse and understand words, but grasp meaning of speech and writing, the implicit and explicit texts and sub-texts to human utterance, cannot be done by someone who simply writes software. It needs input from people who understand the structure of language and how the human mind interprets those structures. This is why computational linguistics is of central importance.

Out of it, you get three main lines of advance: firstly in the field of human cognition, how we understand and process language, which has application for the treatment of brain malfunction. Secondly, in pure linguistics itself, the more philosophical understanding of how language works. And finally in computer technology. In the last field the goal is instant computerised transliteration, accurate translation between languages, and machines that can understand and respond in ever more subtle and sophisticated ways, rather than being glorified speak-your-weight machines. Machines that can read, speak and, most importantly of all, understand.

That’s their impact, even if they are only in a philosophy department. Computational linguistics is at the heart of research with the potential to become one of the great – and most profitable – technological leaps forward of the next few decades.

King’s has some of the acknowledged experts in the field. An organisation which thought in the long-term would take away their passports, lock them in a room to get on with their work undisturbed and, if they were threatened, beg in the streets to get the money to keep them.

Alas, it thinks differently. A strange letter which appears to have been sent from one King’s administrator to another, and which went astray, sums up the problem: “[Ginzburg’s] work is at the periphery of computer science.”

This misunderstanding typifies an attitude which has meant that, while the United States can produce companies like Google, which harness advanced mathematics to dominate the world (and make a lot of money), Britain’s most famous innovation in the last couple of decades has been the bagless vacuum cleaner.

As Talleyrand put it, this is worse than wrong. It is a blunder.

-- Iain Pears

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Deathly silence.

The complete lack of response by the administration of King’s to protests about its proposed cuts in the humanities is deeply interesting. It suggests that they had not the slightest idea that the proposals would cause such a furore and do not know what to do. They seem to have been anticipating imposing their will under cover of financial necessity with only internal grumbling.

They got that one badly wrong and seem now to be hunkering down, trying to salvage what they can without actually giving up the ultimate goal of reshaping departments in their own image. The likely response will be to toss a bone to the protestors(oh, look, we've found some money...) while preserving the essence of the scheme to impose central direction on what research is done. This, at least, is standard practice.

But the outcry has been impressive, and very hopeful for the future when even more cuts are proposed in even more universities. Palaeography, after all, is not the only victim; the rallying of support for Dr Meyer-Viol and Professor Lappin has also been widespread.

Letters sent to the King’s managers about computational linguistics are on and make good reading. There are so many signatories that I do not reproduce them: suffice it to say that they come from pretty much every major university and academic organisation in the world.

The vitriol poured onto the head of Professor Trainor is in eloquent contrast to the obscure managerialist garbage that comes from the king’s administration. Some extracts are here:

“Dismissing senior researchers held in such high esteem by their peers will be disastrous for KCL's international reputation. In addition, all the reports we have received indicate that the people targeted were misled before these events and that some have been treated dishonorably since. We are aghast…”

“…To give the boot to a scholar like Lappin is an act of madness for an institution that, according to your website, aims to be a “prestigious university” offering “an intellectually rigorous environment supported by welcoming and caring traditions.” I hope that you will reconsider this rash and self‐damaging action.”

“With the retention policies you are introducing what sort of faculty will you attract? I'm betting just those that can't find jobs elsewhere, and they will be a bit of a laughing stock”

“From what I have been told, the above or similar scenarios are being played out with respect to some 22 posts in the Humanities at King's, in order to save money. I am sure that I need not explain that there are other ways to balance budgets than by sacking Professors... Who would take a job in Britain if such dismissals are possible? And who would not seek to leave Britain for a place (like the USA, but not only there) where they are off the table if not downright illegal?”

“In particular, the treatment meted out to Professor Shalom Lappin and Dr Wilfried Meyer-Viol of the Philosophy Department, on the grounds that "Computational Linguistics would cease as an activity in the School", seems to be shabby, high-handed and unethical. As senior managers at a Russell Group University, charged with upholding standards of educational excellence and with a responsibility to support senior academics in their teaching and research, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“The recent decisions… reflect so badly on King's College that, if they are carried out, it will take many years to restore your credibility and make King's College an attractive option for academics and students.”

“But the extreme and targeted nature of the cuts proposed is hardly with precedents. It would be met with sustained protests in the U.S. Academic rights and minimal professional commitments to honesty, fair treatment, respect for contractual duties, collegiality, and civilities have been violated or their violation is in the works. The damage to the deservedly high reputation of KCL is severe and it will be far worse if the plan is realized.”

“Silence encourages the belief that the College was deliberately violating its own procedures, deliberately acting with no concern for academic excellence, and that the supposed consultation document was a sham, registering a fait accompli. This belief, growing more widespread every day, is highly detrimental to the College’s reputation. I am speaking of its reputation well beyond philosophy and closely linked disciplines, and well beyond the UK.”

“I urge you to think again: not only for all the reasons that others have already pointed out, but so that you may in future be able to look in the mirror without shame.The issue is being watched all over the world by students and academics with a wide range of different interests.”

“.. if these measures are carried through, they will taint the reputation of KCL for many years to come, in view of its apparent disregard not only for excellence but also for a decent treatment of its academic staff.”

“...difficulties should not be used by management as cover for the imposition of central direction on research in the humanities. If you really need to make staff savings amongst the front line teaching staff (rather than within the College's administrative apparatus) you should do so in the way that elite institutions in the USA have recently done. No respectable institution in the USA has proposed sacking staff who are found not to be pursuing research goals determined by management. Were management at Sheffield to attempt this, I am confident my colleagues and I would refuse to cooperate with such a procedure. Nor would I consider applying for a position at KCL again until these proposals are permanently set aside.”

-- Iain Pears

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Notes to the accounts

Academics really should read the accounts of their institutions; They can be wonderfully illuminating. In the case of King’s College London, they are particularly so.

The question which hovers over its decision to go ahead with cuts is – why so quickly? A few other institutions have made moves to cut back already, but these are, for the most part, small and particularly vulnerable to the way the government is targetting its reductions. King’s is not – or should not be – in this category.

Except, that is, for its debts, which seem to be surprisingly high. Footnote 16 on page 38 of the notes to the 2008/9 accounts helps out here. Long-term debts total £173 million. A note to the note explains that the bulk of this was borrowed in two tranches -- £60 million at 6.22% in 2001, and a further £60 million in May 2008 at 4.855%. A further £42.2 million is repayable in installments between 2010 and 2027. Until it is repaid, this attracts interest payments of between 6.75% and 9.60%. The debt is secured on property which is now sinking in value.

For comparison UCL has debts of £81.5 million, on an income 50% higher. Imperial’s long-term debts are comparable, but again its income is much greater.

Interest payable on this is now £12.665 million a year (up from £10.866 million the year before). In addition, there is repayment of principal of £2.87 million and repayment of the capital element of finance leases of a further £2.43 million – a total of £17.955 million.

What this all means is that in 2008, when it was already clear that a recession was coming and a squeeze was near certain, King’s took on new debts requiring annual payments of £2.91 million a year, in anticipation of government grants and donations – it wanted to spend the money now, not wait until it actually had it. (For comparison, it wants to save £2.4 million from the humanities). A cautious management might have put this entire programme on hold at this point, but King’s did not.

The problem is that these anticipated grants and donations to pay off the debt may no longer be forthcoming. Essentially, to meet the cost of its development programme, King’s is now cutting back on teaching and research to make ends meet. A bit like the government itself, the management of King’s bet that the good times would roll on forever. They didn’t.

-- Iain Pears