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November 20th, 2017:

A torrid time

The Penguins of Solidarity have a message for you. Join UCU.

It’s a torrid time at the University of Southampton.  I think we can all agree on that.

The all-staff address on Monday 13 November was not the beginning – we know that the ‘proposals’ for both the restructuring of our university and for the reductions in staffing (proposal OED: ‘A plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration by others’) were being formulated many months ago. What makes them feel less like proposals are the timescales allowed for our community to consider them – collectively in Senate and as departments, and individually as staff ‘targeted’ by the Voluntary Severance (qua redundancy) Scheme. The clock is ticking, and decisions will be made in days and weeks that will affect or undo whole careers.

We have a problem on our hands, and it has to do with rhetoric, emphasis, partial or conflicting information, distortions of reality, power, privilege, and perception. Once upon a time, in our innocence, we called this ‘spin’. We understood that on either side of a debate, there would be a tendency to embellish the argument, talking up positives and playing down negatives. We recognised ‘spin’ for what it was, because our democratic structures, academic freedom, healthy scepticism, and a buoyant economy allowed us the luxury of feeling empowered to ignore inflated rhetoric. The general security of academic freedom meant that as long as we obeyed the law and did our job well, we were empowered to offer critique.

The shift in power balances, in broader society and within our university community, has made ‘spin’ into something more insidious.  When one side of the debate loses its voice or its power to intervene – for instance, when decision-making committees become advisory, and when those advisors lose economic power – then the distortions and omissions become what we now know as ‘gaslighting’.

We saw a variety of messages delivered by senior management to various constituencies in the university last week.  Early on Monday morning, six areas of academic activity were emailed by their Deans, and staff were asked to attend a late afternoon meeting.  Just after lunch, the all-staff address underlined an intention to ‘minimise adverse impact on staff and students’ and ‘improve structure, clarity, productivity and collegiality’, but it also said the university needed to reduce its staff costs by a further £15m, and a voluntary severance scheme would be opened to ‘targeted’ areas.  In those meetings, staff were told that senior management were aiming to lose 50-75 members of staff.  We don’t need to be expert mathematicians to work out that the only way dismissing 75 members of staff could save £15m is if they all earned £200K.  Last time we looked, there weren’t that many members of the academic community who earned that much, certainly not in the areas that have been targeted by the VS.  Perhaps in other parts of the campus…

We are looking at significant losses of staff across the University, probably from all areas, to meet this savings target, but you wouldn’t know it from the communications sent to Professional Services staff (our non-academic colleagues). Granted, they were warned that eventually administrative staff costs would have to be ‘addressed’, but the discourse centered on having compassion for the poor academics who would be ‘facing uncertainty’ (i.e. losing their jobs) not on potential impacts (job losses) in Professional Services.  If there are going to be only five faculties in August 2018, this requires just five faculty administrative structures.  Look past the ‘poor academics’ gaslighting and the bigger picture of wider cuts emerges.

Students were told ‘all the subjects you are familiar with will continue in the new faculties and there will be no disruption to your studies’.  This is probably the most insidious message of all. The ‘proposals’ for staff reductions mask the decimation of departments and teams, leaving staff with little or no time to consider how to reshape the curricular offer for 2018 and beyond.  Senior management seem not to have understood that a three-year undergraduate curriculum is a delicately balanced and intricately managed structure, that postgraduate supervision is often based on the expertise of a single individual. The ever-changing, ever-demanding quality assurance processes might even make it impossible to reshape a viable curriculum around remaining staff – recognising, of course, that staff will not only leave through severance/dismissal, but also through resignation and retirement because of low morale, and disillusionment with the direction of the so-called strategy. And those of us who were around during the last restructure will remember the chaos that ensued when the administration of degree programmes delivered by Student Services was shunted from pillar to post.  If anything is going to affect student satisfaction, this is.

We have stated before, and we will continue to state, that the problems facing the university – some of which (Brexit, austerity, student fees) are undeniably external – have been exacerbated by senior management’s refusal to engage openly with our community about anything, including the restructure, the jobs savings, and also the capital investment plans. Even though we have adopted a motion calling for Voluntary Severance to be truly voluntary across the university, we need to be clear that we are not legitimising a false dichotomy of buildings/estate versus job cuts. It may also be the case that the building programme is far too ambitious given the prevailing political, social and economic uncertainty within the UK and further afield.

If the unions and all staff had been genuinely consulted, it is probable that we could have found an alternative and more sustainable solution to our problems. We have expertise and institutional knowledge that would certainly have been valuable in the formative stages of this plan, and the trust engendered by an open approach would have stood us all in good stead. Making hard decisions collectively rather than having this ‘vision’ imposed could have made better decisions.  They might not have been ‘simply better’ in the jargon of the current plan, but they would have been better: better for students, better for staff, better for the community.

We see in the marketing self-help book Simply Better (which we have been told underlies the strategy adopted by senior management) a section called ‘How Hierarchy Can Improve Performance’, which describes the management style in an insurance company, Swiss Re Life and Health America Inc.  Its CEO, Jacques Dubois, is described as observing that ‘managers often see themselves as delegators, which he believes is dysfunctional since delegating puts decisions in the hands of potentially inadequately qualified people. Dubois goes further: “By raising decision making to the highest level possible, we get to see our people in action.  It motivates them. They deal with the top.” There were few standing committees, but meetings happen as needed.  Decisions get made’ (p. 159).

However, Simply Better makes no reference to the Dunning-Kreuger effect.  What if decisions are being made by people who have no concept of the consequences, who are not possessed of enough information or the right information, and have no notion that they are, or even could be, lacking in that capacity? Nor does it heed the advice of Cromwell, in his letter to the General Assembly of Scotland, 5 August 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

We are meeting with staff in affected departments, but we would urge all departments, all areas, to have some open and honest conversations, to demand transparency from senior management about their short-, medium-, and long-term intentions for their activities.  For the sake of current and future students, for the sake of staff, we need information so that we can negotiate, plan, and continue to educate and research at the standard of which we are all capable.

 

Why I’m a UCU representative – a personal account

Dear colleagues

I should start by explaining that you probably don’t know me, and if you do it’s because either you work with me, or I’ve met you over the last year as a UCU rep. All of what follows is drawn from my own experiences in that role.

 As a UCU rep, I have only one task, and that’s to represent members.  UCU has given me training, support and most importantly the voice to do this. When you meet me as your rep, for whatever reason you are probably not going to be in the best situation.

 I might have met you before a tense meeting with your line manager, who has been bullying you for the last year. After the meeting you thanked me for my actions and realised you don’t have to suffer alone.

 Alternatively, I am walking in with you to a meeting to discuss your future in a restructure, and I’ll make sure your voice is heard, adding my own if needed. If the worse happens and you find out you are leaving UOS, I’ll walk out with you and sit down to talk over your options.

 Since my volunteering to act as rep at UoS, I have sometimes seen working relationships broken, and have comforted people in tears at how they have been treated. I’ve also had a number of 1-1 meetings with HR where I’ve fed back on those experiences and offered to try and work together to stop this happening. I felt we were making progress, and I genuinely want things to be simply better, for everyone.

 Not everyone falls back to a confrontational style. Sometimes, I sit down together with the HR representative over a coffee.  We talk about our children, Netflix, Brexit and then we open our notebooks and try to navigate a solution together. I wish this happened more often.

 In all of these interactions, I’ve never knowingly misrepresented the truth, been offensive or breached trust. I try to keep to high professional standards, and I’ve even sought feedback from the senior managers I’ve sat across from. One Dean wrote to my HoAU telling them how impressed they had been with my actions in formal 1-1’s. I’ve been told the University needs more concerned citizens like me. Maybe that is true.

 For me UCU is about support for its members. If I think UoS isn’t meeting its own procedures or legislation it’s my role to tell them this, and I will continue to do so as long as members ask me to.

 So if you do meet me as a UCU rep, I’m sorry we have to meet like that. But I promise to help.

 If you think you can help as well, contact UCU. We need more concerned citizens.

Mark Dover, Southampton UCU Honorary Secretary and Caseworker