Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Virtue, Vice-Chancellors and Management by Fear

It has been alleged (and denied) that the University of Aberystwyth has a problem with governance, as reported on the BBC today (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-23301526)
Since new vice chancellor April McMahon took over the role in August 2011, 11 members of staff have been suspended and 13 have had their employment terminated, it has been reported.
Martin Wilding, president of UCU at Aberystwyth, said staff were "literally looking over their shoulder," adding there was a sense they were under "constant surveillance".
Whilst the allegations may be unfounded, there are patterns to the story which look familiar to other stories from other Universities (I wrote about these here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/disappearances.html). What is alleged by the union is a "dictatorship". On the VC's side, this may be a mark of strong leadership in challenging times: it is not inconceivable that there is virtue not vice in the VC's actions. But the experience of  those on the receiving end is one of fear - or, perhaps as I suggested the other day (see  http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-reign-of-terror-in-universities.html), "terror" as they try to hold on to their jobs. It is this experience - the experience of ordinary staff - which matters in the end whether or not the allegations can be proved or disproved (the power relations involved make proof very hard to find!)

The alleged 'disappearances' sound shocking, but the disappearance of staff is quite common in the corporate world. There are famous examples, like Steve Ballmer's claim to sack one in 15 staff every year (see http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/29/05/2007/40816/should-hr-advise-managers-to-sack-poor-performers-or-help-them-improve.htm). Fear in corporations can work as a management tactic. Where the primary motive is profit above everything else, and hard work is the way to achieve it, fear can do the trick. But inevitably it will select a particular kind of employee: the ambitious grafters who dig deep for the corporate goals.

There's little doubt that many in government, and some in university management believe this same method of selection of staff through a regime of fear can work in universities. The 'lazy' academics should be rooted out. Only the top-performing research contract-winning, student-pleasing academics should survive. Unfortunately, few of the great academics of the past upon whose laurels the idea of the University rests fit this mould. It's often the 'lazy' ones who do the best work - maybe because they spend most of their time dreaming. Grafting often only get you so far.

What appears to be necessary is an ecological diversity of personality types and talents: dreamers and doers are needed in equal measure. I used to think it was the case that fear itself was inimical to the pursuit of truth and knowledge.  Ironically, however, it can sometimes be the case that oppression creates the conditions for creativity: the genius writers, composers and scientists of the Soviet Union are a classic example, as indeed is the flourishing of theatre in the police-state of England in the 16th century. It may be that the pursuit of truth, knowledge or creativity is driven by the desire to conquer fear, and that a heightened fear may in fact cause greater creativity. (Given this, one might expect some surprising things happening in some universities at the moment!). But whilst fear may stimulate creativity, it can become an "ecological disaster".

Management by fear is dangerous not in the sense that people become frightened, but in the fact that it can destroy the intellectual diversity in the institution. Intellectual life does not take place in individual heads: friendships and networks play a fundamental role in the development of ideas. Fear cuts into the network like a knife, excising inconvenient parts which "don't fit", oblivious to the consequential loss of diversity of communications and emerging lack of trust.

Another deep problem with management by fear is the fact that it inspires a revolutionary reaction by those subjected to it. Whispering campaigns for the downfall of the management team can be as destructive as the management actions themselves. Quickly things can get out-of-control - particularly if the communicative richness is removed. What might be hoped for is not revolution but enlightenment; not violent overthrow but gentle evolution. The reason (and the  hope) for this lies in the fact that management by fear is itself driven by fear in managers. Management under these circumstances simply acts as a mechanism for redistributing risks borne by managers onto the shoulders of ordinary academics. Evolution can occur through the gradual identification and acknowledgement of the root-fears in managers.

This can only be achieved through critical engagement and reasoned argument. This isn't easy because the sources of managerial fear are very complex. My hope is that greater awareness of the social ecology within institutions will eventually lead us to see that management by fear is rather like chopping down rain forests. Seeing this could lead to a re-evaluation of what drove the desire to chop down the "rain forests" of the university in the first place. Eventually the managerial narrative might be changed.

The ecology of institutions is both synchronic and diachronic. There are moments in its diachronic unfolding where the ground must be cleared so that new growth can begin. Such moments might feel very much like a "reign of terror" for those exposed to them. The key is to make sure it doesn't get out-of-control. That is the difference between a virtues of a gardener and a the vices of a vandal.


dkernohan said...

The "reign of terror" is external - most institutions mutilate themselevs to fit an idealised (and unhealthy) self-image manifest externally.

White Paper as fashion magazine, possibly?

Mark Johnson said...

Hi David,

I think the fear is systemic - but you are right that it's a bit like the fashion magazine's skinny models. The problem is one of causal attribution (or rather, the difference between cause and blame).

I worry that in being overly eager in apportioning blame, we become part of the deeper systemic problem.

The real challenge is a scientific one. But we have to shake ourselves out of the postmodern slumber that led us to believe naturalism in the social sciences wasn't possible (sociology is only good for awarding degrees and incomprehensible PhDs, isn't it??)