Don’t feel obliged to have a clue

Like many academics, I occasionally see journalistic comment on something I know about, and wonder how such nonsense gets published. In the interests of impact, or informing the public, we sometimes try to set things straight.

So, here is some of what is wrong with Will Hutton’s article blaming Donald Trump for the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes, not that I want to be seen as defending Trump. Hutton lays a fair bit of the blame at the door of Boeing, contrasting its approach to that of Airbus, and the approach of the US aviation regulator to that of its European counterpart. Begin here:

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Bath? Campus protest in Bath?

Later today, 30 November, there will be a protest on the University of Bath campus against the terms of departure of the current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, demanding that she go now, and that she be accompanied out the door by the Chair of Council, the university’s governing body, by the Remuneration Committee, and by select individuals who would already have gone if they had any wit.

Bath has a well-deserved reputation for quiescence. It has never been one of the great rebel campuses; its disciplinary mix does not lend itself to political ferment; it’s in Bawth, for God’s sake. In less than ten days, a HEFCE report on governance has led to hundreds of staff raising their hands to vote no-confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and the Chair of Council, to a vote of no-confidence nearly being carried in the university’s Senate, and to the rushed resignation of the boss.

How did it come to this?

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Origins of the present crisis: The strife of Bath

Over the summer, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath has brought the university she leads to a hitherto unthinkable prominence. Her pay and perks, and the tin-eared response of the university to public concerns, have made Bath notorious for extravagance and gross inequity. Indeed, reporting on the story has made the Bath Chronicle the only local newspaper to be nominated for the Scoop of the Year Award. 

Like many such stories, however, this one goes back a long way, with a decade or more of mismanagement and poor governance to blame for the crisis in which the university now finds itself. Indeed, if the governing body had done its job properly, and not indulged the greed of the Vice-Chancellor, it might have been possible to save what she is pleased to call her soul. Can any of us say that we would behave any better if we spent our days surrounded by sycophants giving us hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, and telling us we’re worth every penny.

So, some highlights from the public record of the governance of the University of Bath. Today, how the University of Bath fired someone who had done nothing at all wrong on no grounds whatsoever and decided to back up the friend of the Vice-Chancellor who had done it, rather than the member of staff they had wronged.

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University of Bath: when did the rot start?

Robert McKie was a member of staff fired by the University of Bath in 2008. For reasons explained below, he sued Swindon College over his sacking, and won. The judge, in finding against Swindon College, had some hard words for the University of Bath. When these concerns were raised within the university, the response of the governing body was to ignore them.

The case of Robert McKie raised a number of serious questions about management processes at the University of Bath, and about the operation of disciplinary and grievance procedures. An account of the actions taken by University of Bath management follows. The questions which arise from these actions are at the end of this paper. These questions have not been satisfactorily answered and there is no reason to believe that appropriate action has been taken to ensure that no member of staff will ever be treated in this manner again.

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How might we run universities?

In the last week or so, there has been a lot of talk about universities, much of it, directly or indirectly, around governance. The high pay of Vice-Chancellors, and the obscure workings of university remuneration committees, have shocked people outside higher education, though they come as no surprise to those of us in the sector. Clearly, university governance has failed to run universities in a way which the public accepts as reasonable, and university “leaders” have failed to defend the autonomy and values of the sector. What might decent university governance look like?

  1. Universities to be run day-to-day by an executive committee with collective responsibility
  2. All executive posts to be held by staff on secondment from a substantive academic role, to which it is expected they will return
  3. Vice-Chancellors and Deans to be elected by appropriate constituencies
  4. Executive staff to be paid their normal academic pay, plus a supplement for increased responsibility
  5. Chairs of governing bodies to be elected
  6. Meetings of governing bodies to be public

The rationale for these suggestions comes from the idea of a university as a self-governing autonomous body of scholars (staff and students) where the governance arrangements should reflect the objective of disinterested inquiry.

At present authority for day-to-day running of a university lies with one person, the Vice-Chancellor, who is in principle accountable to a governing body, called Council in most universities. The Vice-Chancellor will then advised by people who form a de-facto executive committee, but who have no formal responsibility or accountability for what they say: this can lead to senior staff having little independence of action, especially in universities (such as Bath) where the Vice-Chancellor sits on the remuneration committee which decides the pay of those managers. Having the university run by a committee with explicit collective responsibility would change the system of governance from a highly centralized elective dictatorship (such as the French presidency) to a collective structure (such as the UK’s cabinet system).

The committee should be made up of people on secondment from academic roles, and some proportion of them should be elected. The first reason for secondment is that it sets the expectation that senior managers will return to the conditions they are creating, aligning their interests with the interests of the university community. It would also impose a social pressure if managers knew they would have return to working in a department where staff had cause to remember what they had done as managers. Secondly, it gives those managers an important measure of freedom if they can simply walk away from the executive committee (on the cabinet analogy, like a minister who steps down rather than support a particular measure) and return to teaching and research. The reason for electing Vice-Chancellors and Deans to the executive committee (though the elected members need not necessarily be a majority) is to give democratic legitimacy to the post-holders and, especially in the case of Deans, to give them the confidence to argue for their faculty at executive level, knowing that they have the support of their constituency.

Executive pay should also be based on the principle that managers’ interests should be aligned with the university’s. By linking managers’ pay to general staff pay, the managers remain “one of us” rather than being absorbed into a culture of high pay and higher demands.

The last two ideas come from the Scottish government’s review of higher education governance. If the governing body is to function properly, it must work transparently. This could most easily be done by holding meetings in public (i.e. with a live webcast) with any genuinely confidential issues dealt with separately, and by electing the chair of the body.


Some translations from Belli

Since somebody seems to think Belli is due a revival, I dragged up some translations of his work I did years ago. Somebody might like them.

The Lord’s Circumcision

About seven days later in the birthing room,

Wrapped up for warmth in a pile of old hay,

Lay Mary the virgin, undefiled ’til this day,

With the beasts of the field and her blessed son.

Joseph, who to her assistance had come,

When she’d found herself in the family way,

said “Chop, chop, now, we’re off. Today is the day

When we throw a small scrap to the synagogue doves.”

John the Baptist presided in thirty years time.

In the Jordan His soul was washed bright and clean.

Swept away were original sin and earth’s grime.

Some shout “Hosanna”—they make me quite sick—

That He became Christian. I can’t toe the line.

He was a turncoat. I rate Him a prick.

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What is to be done?

This is a response to Liz Morrish’s article on whether universities “are meaningful to the academics who work within them“. You should read the whole article, but the crux of it is here:

In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research.  Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.

While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism  because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.

This is a quick response, following the engineering practice that good enough today is better than perfect tomorrow.

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