Not Doing a Thomas Cook

The phrase “doing a Ratner” has its origin in the famous address given by Gerald Ratner, at the time, Chief Executive of the Ratners Group of jewellers, to the Institute of Directors, when he said this about his company’s product: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, ‘because it’s total crap'”.

Since that incident, companies have sharpened their sensitivities to reputational damage, either deliberate or inadvertent. This concern has only deepened with the growth of social media. In fact, absolutely the quickest way to get a reply from any customer service outlet is to call them out on Twitter.

This week, a sad and complex case came to a close. Thomas Cook travel agents had spent nine years avoiding taking responsibility for what a recent inquest has found to be a breach of their duty of care to a family whose children lost their lives due to a badly-maintained heating appliance in a holiday hotel in Crete in 2006. Finally, in May 2015, the chief executive took responsibility, but only after a large insurance payout to the firm had attracted further negative coverage in the media.

By contrast, after a recent Amtrak train derailment in the US (Tuesday 12th May) on the line from Philadelphia to New York in which eight people were killed, the president and CEO, Joe Boardman, sent all passengers (including me) an email on Saturday 16th May which included this:

“With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event”.

If my confidence in Amtrak had ever wavered, this response restored it immediately. This is a company which recognizes failure, apologizes and intends to address the problems. Everything is acknowledged publicly. Bereaved families were not having their grief aggravated by being treated to secrecy and silence.

These are both great tragedies for all affected by them, and I do not wish to diminish them by making inappropriate comparisons.  However, universities could learn something from this. In the UK and the US, university managers increasingly view their institutions in terms of business and markets. No slur is allowed to attach itself to the university’s name. Social media policies, and behaviour codes on ‘civility’ have emerged, which in some cases threaten academic freedom and academic careers.

Civility initiatives have been defended by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of Warwick University, in 2012 in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, so his reaction to apparent insubordination from Professor Thomas Docherty in 2014 was not surprising. Docherty’s offense was reported to be nothing more than sighing and making ironic comments in meetings. What the academic community suspected, was that his views on managerialism and audit culture in universities had attracted the rage of the university’s senior management. Professor Docherty spent an uncomfortable nine months suspended from his position, unable to use campus facilities or correspond with students and colleagues. All charges were later dismissed, and Professor Docherty returned to work. Like footballers mobbing a referee after a controversial decision, Warwick management’s strategy was not intended to change a result, but to exact more cautious behaviour from him and others in future. Beware the next time you appear to be critical of your university, or even the state of higher education, especially if you cannot draw on prominent academic standing, and support from the Times Higher, among many others. But reputational damage has been done to the Warwick ‘brand’; many in the academic community now question their commitment to academic freedom, and freedom of speech.

This mistrust was heightened when, in July 2014,  a lawyer in the firm acting for the university, SGH Martineau, posted a blog piece which seemed to validate macho management techniques ‘pour encourager les autres’.  Titled ‘getting your teeth into high performer misconduct’, it was offensive for many reasons, not least because it made an explicit analogy between the conduct of star footballer Luis Suarez, who had recently bitten an opponent during a game, and academics who ‘damage their employer’s brand’ by their outspoken opinions. It is worth quoting from the piece in full:

“Universities and colleges may, equally, encounter high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand. This could be through outspoken opinions (where these fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom or freedom of speech more widely) or general insubordination, e.g. a failure to comply with the reasonable requests of an employer, or other behaviour such as bullying or harassment of colleagues. Irrespective of how potentially valuable these employees may be to their institutions, the reality is that, in consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour, institutions may be setting dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated. From a risk perspective, it is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before”. []

I may be mistaken, but I recall that the piece was edited, and the clause in brackets added, after a Twitter flame fest broke out between an outraged academic community, and SGH Martineau. The amendments just cemented the impression that academic freedom was merely an inconvenient afterthought.

Another current controversy drawing press attention is the climate of sexual harassment on many UK and US university campuses. In the US, President Obama and Vice President Biden have made personal commitments to ending the rape culture on campus. Even in the face of presidential support, it is still not uncommon for universities to try and block attempts to research the issue, as recently happened at the University of Oregon.

Here in Britain, ‘laddism’ is seen as part of a campus culture which emerges in a climate of hyper-masculinity, sports teams and alcohol use (Phipps and Young 2015). It is almost always pack behaviour and characterised by sexism, misogyny and homophobia. There is no doubt that it forms a hostile environment for women students. A 2010 report funded by the National Union of Students, Hidden Marks, found that one in seven women had experienced sexual assault, and 68% had been verbally harassed. The National Union of Students conducted another survey in 2015 which found one in three students had been sexually assaulted or abused while at university

This issue has made the news consistently in the intervening five years, however, a report which featured on the front page of The Guardian on 25th May 2015 revealed that fewer than half of the Russell Group universities systematically record rapes, sexual assaults or sexual harassment.

Despite this accumulation of evidence, Dr Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group, is quoted in the article as saying: “Russell Group universities take the issue of any kind of harassment, abuse or violence against women extremely seriously indeed. Our institutions have robust policies and procedures in place to deal with these matters, because ensuring student safety and wellbeing is extremely important to us.” []

It might be more accurate to say that universities have robust procedures to make sure that instances of sexual assault and harassment are kept well buried. Even bystander intervention campaigns can make senior managers nervous in case their university is seen as a ‘rape campus.’ It is ironic, given the emphasis we are all supposed to place on the much-vaunted ‘student experience,’ that this is subordinated to reputational concerns whenever there is a conflict.

Universities are on morally shaky ground in persisting with a stance of denial and negligence, but increasingly they are legally vulnerable as well. In the US, some women students are filing discrimination suits under Title IX legislation (the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at colleges that receive US federal funds) claiming that universities do not provide them with a safe learning environment. Students at Xavier University of Ohio and  Harvard University Law School are the most recent to have successfully pursued claims to force universities to institute training and response to sexual assault.

In my own work as a lecturer in linguistics, I read projects and dissertations every year that draw on recordings of actual conversations among students. I am only too aware of male students’ discourses of rape and sexism, as well as racism. This year, I have learned a lot from being part of a ‘respect and consent’ group at my university as we move to create culture change and a better environment for all students, bolstered by an explicit code of behaviour and campaign of education. All UK universities would do well to take the issue seriously and follow the example of those universities who take women’s safety seriously.

As a general point, I hope university managers are learning something about brand management that they won’t find in business school leadership courses. Universities are charged with defending academic freedom, freedom to challenge authority, and the responsibility to provide a safe environment. The cases I have outlined have shown that an over-concern with reputation is, paradoxically, more than likely to lead to damaging your reputation. The lesson is – do an Amtrak, not a Thomas Cook.


McVeigh, Karen. 2015 Top universities fail to record sexual violence against women. The Guardian. Accessed May 24th 2015.

NUS report: That’s what she said: women students’ experience of ‘lad culture’ in higher education. 2015.

Phipps, Alison and Young Isabel. 2015. Lad culture in higher education: agency in the sexualisation debates. Sexualities. ISSN 1363-4607


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