Tag Archives: civility codes

A reply to Sally Feldman and the ‘forever professors’

This issue has been on my mind for two weeks or so, so I thought I’d better blog about it. On 13th August, Sally Feldman, Senior Fellow in Creative Industries at the University of Westminster, wrote an opinion piece for the Times Higher entitled “It’s not fair to go on forever”. As the title suggests, Feldman is concerned that since the relaxing of compulsory retirement rules in the UK, some academics may wish to prolong their careers after the age of sixty-five. This has been the case in the US since 1994, and Feldman identifies several cases of ‘forever professors’ bonded to their faculty offices because of fear of retirement, or lack of space at home to store books. Feldman claims that one third of academics in the US are now over the age of sixty, and I don’t doubt it – I’m married to one. Meanwhile, she points to a logjam of newly-minted PhDs clamoring for those jobs that the tenured seniors are unwilling to relinquish. This is increasingly likely to be the situation in the UK, she predicts.

I have to say, I don’t believe this will be the case, and even if it were to happen, I don’t support the same kind of cull that Feldman seems to wish for. I outline some humane alternatives at the end of this piece.

In the US, college life has been, until recently, far more comfortable than it has been in the UK for quite some time. Academics probably have more autonomy over what they teach, how they teach it, and at what times they prefer to teach. Expectations of research and scholarship echo more congenial times, and it is assumed that these endeavours primarily serve the needs of the scholar, rather than the financial and league table ambitions of the university. There is no REF (Research Excellence Framework), or TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). There is no QAA, though most US colleges and universities are taking baby steps towards what they call “assessment”. Significantly, there is little in the way of ‘performance management’, as academics are considered to be self-managing professionals. Furthermore, as my spouse has just reminded me, some of those over-60s are still working because there is no forgiveness of student loans, which continue to be deducted, even from the state pension. Just wait until BIS gets hold of that idea.

But in the UK, it is, of course, precisely the constant conveyor belt of audit, accountability, ranking and standardization which is driving older workers out of university posts. I see no signs of ‘forever professors’, but I am, instead, saddened by the loss of ‘forgotten professors’. This is a lament for friends whose careers have been foreshortened and uncelebrated – victims of what Ros Gill calls the ‘hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’.

I’m appalled that so many of my retired friends in the UK have left without the courtesy of a leaving party or gift. Sometimes their departure is not even announced at all, and colleagues are left wondering why they haven’t seen so-and-so in a while. To university management, they are expendable ex-employees who are ‘no longer adding value’. One former colleague who wished to extend his service, was asked to put forward a ‘business plan’. One assumes that grant income was a pre-requisite, in an era where professors are expected to earn their own salaries. This incident represents a refusal to acknowledge that an academic is more than an employee of X or Y university; they are members of a community of scholars which ranges beyond that institution. We count our colleagues over continents, not cubicles. Feldman is right to note that our identities are rooted in our contributions to a discipline, as well as to a university, but let’s recognize that to be ejected from that entails a severing of collegial bonds and personal esteem. This is not helped by an unsympathetic HR machine which rescinds your email account and parking privileges the day you retire. One retiree, returning to clear out his office, found himself unable to drive onto campus at all, as his swipe card had already been cancelled. It is ironic, that university administrators who often view themselves as defenders of ‘civility codes’ can fail to recognize when they fall short in this area.

Feldman foregrounds the plight of the next generation of scholars, apparently kept out of careers by the tenacious and tenured. However, her assumption that vacated posts will be replaced by new full time academics is not a well-founded one. Those retirees who opt to take up offers of casual teaching roles will often meet the same young PhDs they thought they had stepped aside for. In the US, 50-75% of faculty are ‘adjuncts’, part-timers, often with PhDs. University managers know that there is a steady supply of hopeful scholars who form a convenient, flexible, acquiescent workforce.

And then there’s the issue of legacy. Many older scholars spend their entire careers building up courses, modules, degree and research programs, only to see these eviscerated without a senior academic protector. Some only stay on to fight the administration in defence of their academic endowments. You will indeed hear these people venting their spleen about universities which seem to be at war with the more critical disciplines in the humanities. It is not, Dr Feldman, because they hate their jobs, rather the opposite. They may, though, hate the finacialized and marketized context in which they are currently asked to perform them, and wish for better conditions to hand down to those young PhDs. This is a noble aspiration, and there should be more room for these repositories of institutional memory and combative example.

Feldman does make some suggestions for a more humane way forward for academics after retirement. Here are some more:

  • Hold a retirement party and make sure someone makes a speech celebrating the person’s career. And get HR to cough up a decent amount for the gift pot.
  • Don’t cancel their email account, unless they request that. It helps to stay in touch, at least for a few years.
  • Invite retirees to talks and events within their area of interest, and to retirements and inaugurals in the department.
  • Invite retirees to speak on their research, or deliver one-off lectures to undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Invite retirees to continue PhD supervisions.

Most importantly, I would like to see universities – managers and academics – re-cast retirees as an asset, not a liability. Please let us treat older workers as we ourselves one day would hope to be treated.


Gender and performance in the neoliberal academy

In my previous blog post, for ‘A feminist leaves NeoLiberal U’ I was responding to some of the concerns that a colleague had raised, in her letter of resignation, about her gendered experience of the neoliberal, competitive, speeded up academy. My colleague is the mother of young children, and has found the multiple demands of teaching, research and administration overwhelming, especially in a context of institutional panic about the REF and league tables, and escalating expectations of ‘excellence’. Below I offer more thoughts on the particular impact of the culture of restlessness on women in universities, as this seems to have touched a nerve among readers on the blog and on Twitter.

In the UK, performance review and REF submission loom large as ‘drivers’ of academic anxieties. In the US, tenure and promotion take their toll, especially on women, who may face domestic as well as professional expectations. This is a reflection written by a female US academic about her upcoming mid-tenure review:

For some of us, it’s not that we are afraid to lean in. It’s that we have jumped in head first and are barely treading water even when we are considered “successful.” It’s not that my success has come at the expense of family or that my career advancement has been stifled by raising a family. It’s that my success in academe is simply not the kind of success that I envisioned myself. Success should feel good, make you beam with pride, feel as if all your hard work was worthy of something bigger. I envisioned, and frankly deserve, a type of success in which the next panic attack isn’t just around the corner and in which supportive spouses don’t feel like they must resort to ultimatums to cultivate a meaningful family life. (Sangaramoorthy, 2015)

As this example shows, it is important to recognize the differently gendered effects of the neoliberal preoccupations with competitiveness, efficiency and increasing productivity. Without wanting to appear essentialist about the particularities of the effects, we need to take into account the realities of many women’s lives. Lynch (2010) and Evans (2010) both refer to the ‘careless’ university which only rewards ‘careless’ employees. It is your bad luck if you have caring responsibilities which limit the time you can devote to ‘productive’ work.  Shame on you if you wish to mentor a younger colleague, and overlook a publication deadline. Capability procedures for you, if you happen to lose the lottery of research grant ‘capture’. Women, writes Evans, must be prepared to perform according to the metrics of success that have been derived according to norms of masculine lives.

So far, I haven’t even addressed the extent of the extra imposition faced by women of color. As well as acting as role models and sources of counselling and affirmation for students of color, institutions often burden such faculty members with promoting and building diversity. These assignments soak up time, and expectations of published outputs are rarely adjusted accordingly.

And these are the good institutions that claim to care about diversity. For the most part, it is barely acknowledged except in the form of an Equality and Diversity department, there to ensure legal compliance and statistical monitoring. There is no intervention against the compulsory conformity, the inscriptions applied by racist structures on bodies seen as different – these all belie institutional claims and commitments to diversity. I have borne witness to the exclusion of several black women colleagues: their careers casually thwarted by neglect; their unique contribution to the student body forestalled.

For all of us there is a common theme. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to provide discursive evidence that we are compliant with the managerial regime in the form of performance management reviews, teaching evaluations, student satisfactions surveys, research excellence frameworks. Failure to enter into the discourse results in illocutionary silencing, since one has become literally unintelligible to the managerial mind.  By locating critique outside the range of the sayable, our resistance is blunted (Davies and Bendix-Petersen, 2005: 85). The discourse of audit, as Strathern (2000) explains, is often about ‘helping’ people to monitor themselves, and indeed, Gay Tuchmann (2009) has said that we do this as reflexively as a diabetic pricks her finger.

What I found so rare in my colleague’s letter of resignation is that, even at a point of desperation, she has somehow found the reserves of self-worth to think her way outside of this. There is a peculiar force field to audit culture and the rituals of verification (Power 1999) that go with it. Regimes of performance management formalize these to the extent that our whole academic identity has been re-shaped by a series of managerially-imposed criteria, which for many of us, are simply incongruous with academic values and aspirations.

The response to my blog post on Twitter was heartwarming. I feel encouraged. I have no idea how my colleague is feeling, but I’m guessing there is a poignant sense of a supportive community, though intangible, invisible and located somehow out of reach. This is the clandestine academy that Thomas Docherty has written about. There is an urgency, as I will argue in my next piece, for making our views known to management – to resist the discourse one performance indicator, driver and dashboard at a time.


Davies, B. & Bendix Peterson, E. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Docherty, T. 2011. The unseen academy. Times Higher. 10th November 2011. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/418076.article

Evans, M. 2010. Coercion and consensus in higher education. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 39-54.

Lynch, K. 2010. Neoliberalism and marketization: the implications for higher education. European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17.

Misra, J. and Lundquist, J. 2015. Diversity and the ivory ceiling. Inside Higher Ed, June 26th.  https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/06/26/essay-diversity-issues-and-midcareer-faculty-members  Accessed 3rd July 2015.

Sangaramoorthy, T. 2015. A hockey mom seeks tenure. Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Hockey-Mom-Seeks-Tenure/229193/

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Tuchman, G. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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”. [http://blog.sghmartineau.com/archive/2014/07/03/getting-your-teeth-stuck-into-high-performer-misconduct.aspx]

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.” [http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/24/top-universities-fail-record-sexual-violence-against-students-russell-group]

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. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/24/top-universities-fail-record-sexual-violence-against-students-russell-group Accessed May 24th 2015.

NUS report: That’s what she said: women students’ experience of ‘lad culture’ in higher education. 2015. http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/Campaigns/That%27s%20what%20she%20said%20full%20report%20Final%20web.pdf

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