4 May 2007
'Truth: lies open to all'
All editorial correspondence to: subtext-editors [at] lancaster.ac.uk
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CONTENTS: editorial, news in brief, school of health and medicine, alumnus reunion, more on managerialism, catering, urban myths, letters.
Recent attempts by Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) and Tim O'Reilly to produce a set of guidelines to which bloggers would sign up in order to engender a more civil tone amongst users of the blogosphere has produced some interesting debate.
To some this may seem a slightly quaint attempt to govern the ungovernable. However, it does have relevance to those who live and work at the University. Politeness makes life more pleasant, and makes any institution a better place in which to live and work. More directly, civility and mutual respect are the oil which smooth the wheels of the exchange of ideas. The culture of the blogosphere, on the other hand, encourages a very different sort of debate; the 'talk to the hand' attitude that debases so many daytime talk shows. There are indications that this is filtering through to our own institution.
There have, of course, always been those who have expressed themselves forcefully, and it has always been the case that some of them have been well-informed whereas others have merely had strong opinions. Indeed, there have always been those who are keener on talking than they are on listening, and there will always be discourteous and ill-mannered people. However, it does seem that the momentum is now more than ever tending towards opinion over knowledge, towards attack rather than reason, towards abuse rather than argument, towards Big Brother rather than Question Time. A recent unscientific subtext poll in a coffee bar revealed several academics who had been accused of 'censorship' when they corrected a mistaken viewpoint. Straws in the wind, yes, but consider: does anyone seriously think that we are moving towards a golden age of civility and openness to unfamiliar ideas?
NEWS IN BRIEF
Honorary University Fellows
The second installation of honorary university fellows took place in the Leadership Centre on Monday 16 April. Eulogies were addressed towards Christopher Audland, the end of whose period as Pro-Chancellor coincided with the 1996 cash flow crisis, Eric Evans, historian extraordinary (and wearing a natty blue suit), Terry Mansfield, who was reminded of his contributions to cricket as well as to research on the environment, and Claire Hensman, current High Sheriff of Cumbria and former Deputy Pro-Chancellor, who also responded on behalf of all four fellows. Amongst the seventy-five people present were five of the six fellows admitted last year, and both Chancellors, former and present.
We understand that Princess Alexandra had earlier reviewed her own Chancellor's robe, now on display in the Library Reading Room, and seen some of the Hesketh collection of rare books. The sun shone, the new entrance to University House had opened that very morning, and the students continued their revision in the Reading Room, untroubled by the presence of this visitor in their midst.
It may have gone quiet but at least progress is now being made regarding
the issues surrounding the arrival of Study Group (SG) and its international
students onto campus. We understand that a service agreement has been
drawn up regarding access to and use of university welfare facilities
such as Counselling and the Nurse Unit, and that more general pastoral
support will lie with SG staff and tutors, though how this will work outside
of the teaching day is not clear. Apparently, the University has said
SG students will be 'members of the university community', whatever that
means. Sensibly, the Students' Union has accorded them associate status
so that at least they will be able to advise and support them where necessary.
Accommodation for the staff and teaching space for the students may yet
prove more difficult to resolve. Meanwhile, on the national front concerns
about the growth of privatisation within higher education remain with
the University and College Union continuing to campaign on this. subtext
readers interested in the broader issues such collaborations raise may
wish to consult a recent Education Guardian article. Follow the link:
subtext notes that Statute 20 has now come under the gaze of UMAG. This lengthy Statute has six parts focusing on the 'good cause' dismissal of academic staff, including for reasons of redundancy, capability and medical incapacity. It also details disciplinary and grievance procedures and appeal mechanisms. In addition, there is a useful annex which outlines how Council may request the Pro-Chancellor to remove the Vice-Chancellor from office for good cause. As it presently stands the wording of the statute may require revision, if only to ensure it reflects current employment law. However, what appears to be a simplifying and tidying up exercise has far greater significance. It undoubtedly will make it easier to dismiss staff, especially for reason of redundancy. The proposal from the University Secretary (UMAG/07/076) will move important procedures out of the remit of the statute and into policies and ordinances, as appropriate. Once there they can be changed much more easily and without recourse to the Privy Council. Hardly surprising, in keeping with the drive for firmer, more effective University management, the proposal was agreed. It and the various policies and procedures have now to be negotiated with the campus unions, though UMAG seem to believe that consultation will be sufficient. It is understood that campus union representatives believe the proposed timetable is completely unrealistic – the management hope was for a definite proposal to go to the Human Resources Committee on the 25th May. Detailed discussions have yet to begin on any of the draft policies, indeed, it is understood that some of them are only now being nodded through by UMAG. Last Monday it was rumoured to be the turn of the redundancy and redeployment policies.
THE SCHOOL OF HEALTH AND MEDICINE
What was flagged up in the last issue of subtext as a significant if nascent development has now started to loom very large, particularly for staff in Biological Sciences. Over the last few weeks things seem to have moved on apace. The proposal as endorsed by UMAG is to create a new School of Health and Medicine situated outside the three current faculties, and consisting of the Institute of Health Research, the Department of Medicine (newly formed it seems), and the biomedical part of Biological Sciences. The proposal is available to download at: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/sci-tech/docs/health_and_medicine_report.pdf.
The majority of UMAG apparently believed this development would give health and medicine at Lancaster a distinct identity and would send a clear signal to external audiences that the University was serious in its long-term strategic objectives in these areas. Interestingly, for once the UMAG minute is unusually candid in that it indicates a dissenting voice was heard, if not listened to (UMAG/07/075). The Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology (FaST) presented a paper outlining alternative proposals for the development of health research and medicine within one single group, with Biomedicine remaining within Biological Sciences. As the minute records, in her view this would be a means of achieving the same objectives whilst creating a more coherent and viable research unit, and avoiding a potentially damaging split between biomedicine and the rest of biological sciences. Following the UMAG discussion, an extensive consultation exercise on this key development was launched within FaST. An online forum was created on the faculty website so that discussion of the proposal could involve a wider range of people.
It is intended to put an updated paper to the May Senate, which will be the first opportunity the wider academic community has had to comment on this key proposal, but in the meantime some members of the UMAG working group have continued their efforts to persuade those heads of departments most affected by the proposal of its intrinsic merits. The approach until recently was characterized as 'divide and rule', as people were seen individually and without the Dean. Allegedly, resources have been promised in some areas if moves take place but where they would come from is not clear. Perhaps other areas of the University should beware. What has become known as the 'Bob and Trevor Roadshow' finally met up with the FaST Policy and Resources Committee on the 23rd April. Sources have told us that, like the proposal itself, their performance lacked detailed thought and cohesion and was said to be unconvincing. One of the issues raised was the rationale for the UMAG view that the new School should sit outside of the three current faculties. It is reported that few, if any, arguments were offered by way of reply. It seems that what the Faculty got was a presentation of a decision already made rather than an opportunity for discussion. Moreover, it appears that there are no plans in place at all for resourcing the school. So where will the funding for administration, marketing, publicity etc come from? As yet a deafening silence. It might also be recalled that only three years ago our senior management team were insistent that the University could only run economically if it was based on three faculties. Times change, of course, those claiming to see the 'bigger picture' remark, and so it appears that this argument no longer holds. Is it really likely that no resources will be put into the school? If so, would anyone want to be in it?
It seems that we are evidently launching into the unknown. As the PVC for Research was heard to say more than once 'this is a chicken-and-egg situation.' Apparently, we don't know how many students we will get, nor what the costs are likely to be, nor what Liverpool University will do, etc. Worrying indeed, all the more so given that public policy on medical school places is subject to the usual stop and go, and there are signs that stop is in the ascendant at present, making Lancaster even more vulnerable to high risk ventures of this kind. It is clear to many that to achieve sufficient size (and a pretty small size at that), it will be necessary to pull half of Biological Sciences out of FaST and into this new 'school' with the consequent dislocation to undergraduate degrees, space, research equipment etc. without it seems a plan as to how to do it.
Most astonishing of all, it seems to have been readily admitted there is no business plan. As one observer remarked 'no proposal of any magnitude which comes before the Faculty has a chance of being approved without a business plan'. Not only this, no one seems to know yet what the impact on the Faculty's finances will be if half of Biology is excised from it. The UMAG minute does indicate this aspect has been taken on board, in that one action on the Director of Finance and Resources is to undertake a comparison study of the current budget structure for the units concerned and the structure that might apply if the new School was established. Another might be for detailed consideration to be given to the teaching implications of any expansion in biomedical demands. Presumably, at least one new laboratory will be required?
Seem from one perspective this is an exciting academic development; seen from another it is very high risk which could have serious implications for the university as a whole. One might have more confidence if there was not the impression that our senior managers are making it up as they go along. One would hope that Senate in May would not commit to a major development in this area, even in principle, unless a convincing academic and financial case is there. Whatever happened to cost-benefit analysis of such proposals? Why is there only one option on the table and why is critical evaluation of it seemingly discouraged? There might be other more appropriate possibilities that would make far more financial, administrative, reputational and research sense and avoid the disruption.
UMAG Cabinet responsibility may prevent the Dean of FaST from speaking out, but it is to be hoped that others will be prepared to ask the difficult questions and not be put off by the likely obfuscation and cheap jibes in reply. A taste of the latter came at the FaST meeting when we understand the Deputy Vice-Chancellor dismissed the faculties as mere 'plumbing and wiring', while schools are 'intellectual endeavours'. Given the efforts made by Deans at the behest of the Vice-Chancellor to establish a clear intellectual vision for faculties, this was bordering on an insult. It also would seem to demonstrate a serious short-term memory problem on his part.
ALUMNUS REUNION: LONDON
[subtext is pleased to welcome this contribution from Warren Nettleford who during his time at Lancaster was JCR President of the County College and also LUSU President (2003/04). He is now based in London and working for BBC London. Writing in a personal capacity, he offers a flavour of a recent reunion event.]
As I walked down the steps, it was obvious that the passage of time had been kinder to some than others. It was less of a time-warp, more of a sense of déjà vu, and this feeling was aided by the posters dotted about the place from what I'm happy to call my misspent student nights in the Sugar House. The familiar font: 'Drinks £1' - that price, for a drink in London, was evidence enough that the poster was misplaced, misprinted or severely out of date.
The seamless organisation of the 'Lancaster in London' reunion event meant that my name was ticked off on a list, my profession was noted and then a note was made in a third column as to how much of my future income I could possibly donate to Lancaster University in the future.
The third column was actually invisible, and the alumni officer didn't note anything in it, but I'm sure that in years to come it will be used more often. I was given a red Lancaster University logo sticker for my trouble.
And so the small talk. Familiar faces. Faces that I vaguely remembered but who seem happy to recount my University experience back to me just in case I had forgotten. And ah! the one that got away; and who still wants to get away from me, and still very quickly.
But then, the real reason why I'm here; the old faces whom I meant to keep in touch with and the memories that they bring with them. Priceless. Dissertations completed in ten days, the excellent graffiti in the second floor library toilets, Half Parisians from Spar, Lancaster summers with former lovers, the Vice Chancellor's warm welcome to the University ...
Bankers, civil servants, aid workers, publishers - some had clearly done well - and as to be expected at these events they're keen to tell me and everyone else all about it.
And the big question; had a Lancaster degree made all the difference in them getting their London jobs? Well, it seemed an awful lot of the people had gone on to do postgraduate qualifications elsewhere - an indictment perhaps on the changing view in industry of the worth of a degree more than on Lancaster's league table position. Perhaps.
But student satisfaction surveys were bottom of the list of priorities on that night. There was no doom and gloom though, more a sense of hope apart from when the conversation skipped to the number one topic of twenty something's; unaffordable house prices in London. Although sharing a kitchen of ten seemed like good fun five years previously, and would still be preferred to paying the almost London-like rents on campus now, the idea of repeating that with commitments and families on the way had lost a lot of its lustre.
We could all move back to Lancaster and buy houses there I suppose.
THE INEXORABLE MARCH OF MANAGERIALISM?
In recent weeks more instances have come to light of the determination of University Council and senior management to be seen to be managing the institution and with it its members. One of the most recent and insidious proposals was to be found in the papers of University Council which met last Friday, 27th April. Hidden away in a short report on Council's effectiveness was the following:
'Council members have not formally been involved in the appointment of key senior managers, such as Pro-Vice-Chancellors and Deans, although these are appointments made by Council on the recommendation of Senate, and Council has a responsibility in ensuring that there is effective management of the university. It is proposed that in future these appointments should be made by Council, with Council members forming the majority of the appointing panel, which should also include Senate members'.
If the proposal is accepted in principle by Council – a very likely outcome given the recent restructuring of that body to enhance lay membership – it will be referred to Senate for consideration. Is it too much to hope that Senate will treat it with the contempt it deserves and send it back to Council with a polite but firm refusal?
Until recently, Faculties elected or appointed their Deans in ways which reflected their particular constitutions and preferences. It usually ensured a degree of accountability. It is also the case that a lay member of the Council has been involved in recent Pro-Vice-Chancellor appointments, ostensibly in attendance, but in practice given as much weight as any other member. Moreover, it is also worth recalling that as recently as 2000 Pro-Vice-Chancellor posts were subject to election, albeit by Senate members only. Many regretted the change to an appointments panel for such senior posts, which allowed the Vice-Chancellor far greater flexibility and influence over who sat on the panel as well as who applied for the post. It should be said, though, that the previous Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ritchie, is not thought to have used it in this way in order to ensure his preferred candidate was successful.
Coincidentally, university governance is the subject of a new book, Managing Good Governance in Higher Education (Open University Press, 2006) by Michael Shattock, (the one-time Registrar and Secretary of Warwick University). It was reviewed in the Times Higher last week (26 April). The reviewer, Gordon Johnson of Wolfson College, Cambridge, commenting on recent trends towards powerful external boards, notes: 'So power is exercised at two levels: the board controls strategy, but the executive is given the authority to implement it. If this trend is pushed too far, it is incompatible with the key purposes of a university. . . As the registrary of Cambridge University has argued, the crucial part of running a lively and creative university is to bring into balance the academic core . . . with a sparse top-down engagement, as represented by senior management and highly professional supporting staff'. It is a comment which seems to have some resonance for Lancaster's current position. Now, if only we had an equivalent senior officer with the same level of perception and commitment!
Readers will know that subtext has long been critical of the growth of a top down, centralised, management structure and culture within the University. Further evidence that our concerns are shared can be seen in recent events in the Management School where it seems that unease has surfaced regarding proposals to revise their constitution. These were circulated at short notice by the Dean's Office in March, for approval at the forthcoming Plenary meeting. The new constitution among other things would have considerably strengthened the powers of the Dean. The prospect of this, it seems, started alarm bells ringing amongst some academic staff. Concerns were raised regarding the possible future composition of their Policy and Resources Committee and particularly the degree to which it would be able to examine effectively and critically proposals coming from the Dean and the Dean's Steering Group. It was also argued that the proposed changes would undermine the democratic process and debate that is characteristic of and valued in the institution. The draft was not voted on at the Plenary meeting. Instead, a sub-committee was established to re-draft the constitution and quite sensibly and properly it is seeking to consult with relevant stakeholders and obtaining advice and guidance from elsewhere in the University. Importantly, it is communicating with staff and actively seeking feedback on a range of principles and issues, including what are seen as 'Foundational' principles: accountability, transparency and enablement. There is a published process and schedule for developing the final constitution, which culminates in a Faculty Plenary on 6th June. The contrast with what seems to be the current practice of our senior management team, as evidenced in recent developments such as the School of Health and Medicine and Study Group, could not be starker. Sadly, few believe most of UMAG even appreciate there might be a problem with their approach to managing the University.
CATERING FOR ALL?
It was with much joy that we recently saw a flyer doing the rounds that invited us to 'Have Your Say On University Catering'. We picked up our pens and sharpened our minds, only to discover that the flyer is actually an attempt to gather information on catering in Universities generally rather than one about Lancaster catering in particular. We put our pens down again, and we wondered. If we had a survey – a proper one, not just a questionnaire left lying around in coffee bars for people to use when they need something to mop up the tea that the pot seems expressly designed to deposit onto the table rather than into the cup - what would it reveal? It is, of course, easy to snipe and complain, and the Catering Dept operates under constraints and difficulties, as do we all. Perhaps a survey would reveal that it's actually doing a great job. Putting the question broadly, are we happy with the standard and style of catering provided at the university?
MORE URBAN MYTHS
One correspondent has suggested that there is a story going around that the University was closed for 18 months in the 1970's. We hadn't heard this one, and it certainly isn't true. We woz 'ere, we know.
A myth that does do the rounds is the one that some University Colleges have secret wine cellars full of fabulous vintages upon which the academic staff feast at year end. We suspect that people have confused Lancaster with Oxford and Cambridge, or have been reading Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue and Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. It is true that down the years some colleges have had reasonable wine cellars – Ralph Gibson had a fair one in County a couple of decades ago, and Janet Clements' Furness was quite serious about it for a while – but sadly this sort of thing has, like so much of the social fabric of the University, fallen into disrepair. It is only fair to mention that the idea of college members staging an annual Bacchanal is also ill-founded. These were chaste affairs indeed. The subtext campaign to bring back College Wine Societies starts here!
And then there's the story about the wedding ceremony involving the sheep in Alexandra Square. This one is true. It was a Revue Group stunt (whatever happened to the Revue Group?) in the summer of 1977. The sheep was kidnapped from a field which was then situated where the large green building beyond Grizedale now sits. The sheep was dressed in a rather fetching lace hat and a short civil ceremony between the sheep and the President of the Group took place in the Square. No sacrilege was intended or performed; the ceremony was entirely composed of bits of half-remembered quotations all mashed together, 'Honi soit qui mal y pense, Semper fidelis, Caesar ad sum iam forte' and so on. A member of the Law department agreed that such vows would probably not stand up in court, the sheep was returned safely to the field, and everyone lived happily ever after. Adolescent stuff, undoubtedly, but something to tell the grandchildren when they ask what university was like back in the good old days.
I thought perhaps University House had been redesigned by Feng Shui, so I looked up the significance of the various colours:
Colleges and Residences: yellow
Student Support: orange
Finance (cashiers) and Careers: red
The Registry: green
So in summary, I wonder, how do our Chinese undergraduates cope?
[Heavily editorialised from: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/9/story_948_1.html]
Barry Rowlingson, Maths and Stats
Regarding the various articles and letters about harassment in recent subtexts, I feel that it's important to mention that whilst the University's harassment mechanisms look, on the face of it like they would largely be used to protect junior staff from bullying by senior ones, they can be used instead to protect senior staff who are misusing University resources from junior staff who speak out, thereby countering the dissent. In my experience the harassment rules are used in the second way and not the first.
I think that the harassment rules are a sort of local version of the
With reference to your report on the new court in Bowland North, I too would like to congratulate the 'architects' for their commitment to green space (and symmetry). It is especially heartening to see that they have put in huge windows from which the court can be admired by those waiting outside the new seminar rooms on the ground floor of Bowland North. There are even some sofas for that extra-comfortable court-appreciation experience.
For those students and staff unfortunate enough to actually have to be inside the seminar rooms, the situation is somewhat less aesthetically pleasing. None of the seminar rooms have windows facing the court - instead, most of the rooms have tiny strips of windows at ceiling level which may as well not be there at all, for all the difference they make to the harsh fluorescent lighting which must be permanently on when the rooms are in use. In the three or four rooms which do have larger windows, these look out onto the spine, and consequently let in no direct sunlight due to the tall buildings opposite. They also let the hundreds of passers-by likely to be walking past during seminars gawk at what is taking place, unless the blinds (already broken in at least one room) are pulled down, which defeats the main purpose of having a window. If the blinds are left open, perhaps the onlookers will learn something, even if those inside remain 'in the dark'. I will be based in one of these rooms from August to October, so I would encourage all subtext readers to give me a secret subtext wave if they are passing (if they can see me in the murky interior of the room, that is)!
Perhaps there was some unavoidable structural reason for designing the rooms this way... but I doubt it. I'm sure there is a significant amount of research on the beneficial effects of natural light on the working and learning environment. However, as has already been pointed out in a previous issue of subtext, the needs and well-being of the primary users of these rooms, i.e. tutors and students, were completely ignored. On the 'bright' side, at least students will no longer have an excuse for being late for classes because they have had trouble finding these gloomy dungeons, given the giant numbers painted outside each room, which are said to be visible from space.
Johnny Unger, Linguistics and English Language.
Editorial Note: Thanks for the suggestion of a secret subtext wave. The usual subtext prize is offered for the best suggestion as to what this signal might look like.
The editorial collective of subtext currently consists (in alphabetical order) of: Lenny Baer, George Green, Gavin Hyman, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Alan Whitaker.