Dragged from the plane in academia…time for a culture hack

I’m sure this incident recorded by a passenger on United Airlines will be remembered long after 10th April 2017.

Watching this poor man being violated and treated so inhumanely disturbed me in a very profound way. It stayed with me as a reminder of what seems like an increasingly uncivil, uncaring and ruthless society. There is a massive amount wrong with being dragged off the plane when you have paid for a seat, and settled in for take-off. Sitting with your family and looking forward to getting home. And then two men charge at you and break your face and humiliate you as if nothing about you was valuable, and as if you didn’t matter to anyone, least of all the company. As if you were a criminal.

We all know that the CEO’s first instinct was to defend the actions of the Chicago ground crew and security. He was forced to backtrack within days in the face of viral bad publicity on social and news media. Then on 28th April 2017 there arrived in my inbox an email from United CEO Oscar Munoz which fulfilled all the criteria for a sincere and abject apology. Most significant was this section:

“It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right”.

Right there, that sounds like a major change of corporate direction. A kinder, humbler more intelligent United Airlines which places trust in the wisdom and experience of its employees. Things may be looking up for United. My rage and fear softened. I dared to think I could bestow the trust they are so anxious to earn. I hope I’m right. They had clearly taken a leaf out of Amtrak’s book when the company emailed customers immediately after the last derailment in Pennsylvania. In that letter, the Amtrak CEO expressed sympathy with bereaved families, and unequivocally took responsibility.

Kate Bowles evidently received the same email from Oscar Munoz as I did. In her recent blog piece, she made the connection between the brutality and carelessness the passenger faced, and some of the behaviour we and our colleagues have been witnessing in universities. At one extreme, we remember the professor slammed to the ground by police for allegedly jaywalking on the campus of Arizona State University. More typically in universities the harm is psychological and involves demoralizing or victimizing colleagues. Kate has now activated ‘dragged off the plane’ as a metaphor for those violations. I found it staggeringly powerful when she placed it in an academic context because this is, after all, what drove me out – watching one after another of my colleagues being dragged off the plane. And Kate points out, it is no easier for those in positions of leadership.

“Workplace leaders, on the other hand, have more on the line; they’re watching the rising tides of redundancy and job casualisation around them, and hoping that by clambering to higher ground they can stay one step ahead of what’s coming. On top of this, they’re increasingly seeing colleagues being dragged from the plane, and responding with helplessness and loss. And this is the climate in which they have to lead”.

It certainly is a tough climate for university leaders, especially middle managers. Many feel pressured by those above them in then hierarchy, and distrusted by those they manage. I often read appeals on Twitter from this constituency – why don’t more academics come forward for leadership roles?

In post-92 UK universities particularly, positions such as Head of Department or Dean are not rotating, they are substantive. This means that if you decide the job isn’t for you, there is no faculty position to step down to. Consequently, the middle manager must learn to align their displays of loyalty towards their masters in the university senior management team, rather than their former academic colleagues. This puts in place structures which exact obedience. An example: a new vice-chancellor arrives and demands a restructuring of faculties and departments. Four departments are collapsed into three, which means somebody loses their Head of Department position. Or another scenario is when the job is redesigned with new criteria and the incumbent has to apply for their own job, or endure a demeaning ‘mapping exercise’ which has less to do with competence than with compliance. As one PVC put it to me, ‘you keep getting shafted’. Dragged from the plane, bruised, humiliated. Your loyalty and willingness to accept leadership and responsibility can swiftly become your downfall. This can lead individuals to shelve those widely-held values of democracy, shared decision making and collegiality that have usually held sway in universities. I have previously blogged about the disgraceful treatment of professors and other senior scholars in universities here and here.

In another blog, Jana Bacevic wonders why, when there are so many critiques of the neoliberal, managerial university, is there so little resistance? I think there may not be so much mystery in this. All academics have been made to feel precarious and unworthy and it has led to a focus on meeting the metrics and staying ahead of the escalating demands of the university’s performance expectations. Raising a voice or organising with colleagues to change these absurd conditions seems too much like a risk when there is a mortgage to pay and children to feed. Managers know this, which is why they build structures to feed on academic insecurities – ‘imposter syndrome’- and incorporate employees into an anxiety machine (Hall and Bowles, 2016). So it is as much as academics dare, to reflect and write about their experiences in a rather dispassionate analytic way. Even this leads to a Catch 22 situation whereby academics find themselves required to publish, but publish to satisfy an urge to rebel by tilting at the REF windmill with their (published and peer-reviewed) critique.

Somehow, over the years, like United Airlines, the scale of perversity has driven a stake through any pretence of shared values within universities. We have forgotten how to use any initiative outside of the policies, procedures and line management which directs our work. And like United, there have been instances of brutality and inhumane treatment, just nobody has yet caught it on video. We know that systems and institutions which place rigid and impersonal procedures ahead of ethics and humanity will fail, and fail publically. They will experience the humiliation they have meted out to their employees and other ‘partners’.

So for me, the question is not why there is so little resistance – clearly bullying and repression account for that, but how can resistance take shape? Kate Bowles offers a way forward.  In order to reclaim our shared values – the values of all those who work within universities – not just those who claim the highest salaries – we must tell our stories and make space to listen to others. This is known as values-centered narrative practice, and university managers would do well to ditch the mindfulness seminars and the aromatherapy rooms and get training on this. In this way, we would enable the co-creation of values narratives which could inform the institution from the ground upwards. It would certainly win more support than the banalities of the strategic plan. We need to do this because the repressive, authoritarian atmosphere of many universities just isn’t us. Hardly a week has gone by since the Times Higher printed my piece on quitting academia that someone hasn’t posted it on Twitter with the news that they too are leaving. A few days ago, I received this email:

“You articulate so well the problems of contemporary academia.  It is important that this issue is public and I thank you for being a voice of reason amongst the madness. Yes, I have made this difficult decision as every day was becoming more and more a battle with my values. I could no longer be proud of what I do, which now feels like exploitation of staff and students for profit to oil the corporate machine.  Dedicated colleagues are so ground down and demoralised that it makes the workplace a grim environment”.  (quoted with permission)

I have had many emails like this and my Twitter timeline is testament to the many voices who feel it is time for academia to do better than this. Whether management or employee, we are well equipped with skills of articulating problems and listening to alternative answers. As Oscar Munoz put it, meaningful actions speak louder than words. It is time for a culture hack. My next post will offer some suggestions for those actions.

 

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2 thoughts on “Dragged from the plane in academia…time for a culture hack”

  1. Got a link to your material from Bethan Benwell. Great to see you writing about it. As you may have guessed, one day a week at your Uni followed by part-time Chairs at two others were my attempts to reduce the demands that academia was exacting. Consultancy work was my way out, and I’m now full time and not academic at all, running a company instead. Much easier, and the hit rate on pitches is about 1 in 4, not the ridiculous odds on research funding. When the work is finished, I can stop until the next bit comes in. That was never the case in academia. Best regards to you and it would be good to be in touch!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank for getting in touch ! Great to hear from you. I think it is important that people know that there are other possibilities outside of academia. I think that it is now not going to be possible to sustain an academic career for more than about 10 years. The demands are too ridiculous. I’m glad consultancy is working out well.

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