Tag Archives: morality

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.


Normalising immorality

My last blog post was about the perverse incentives currently circulating in universities which lead good academics to do bad things. I cited studies which indicate academics may lie to get research grants, selectively present data confirming a hypothesis or exaggerate their findings to get published. This was read by one commentator as blaming academics for merely responding to the conditions which are necessary to keep their jobs. And she didn’t care for the appropriation of the Trump analogy either.

OK, time to get right back into the water. My point was that, primarily, it is the structures within which academics work that are to blame. Governments send down their edicts, and universities seek to maximize their opportunities within them. But there must also be some degree of agency which we can all exert in defiance of corrupting structures. I want to state why it is unacceptable for any of us to overlook dishonesty and the undermining of legitimate process, and why we need to act collectively to stop it.

I’m becoming quite a fan of Rowan Williams. For one thing he examines the dangers of tolerating hypocrisy and unethical behaviour. For another, he does not speak well of Donald Trump, so he’s my man. In March 2016 he spoke locally about ethics, morality and empathy. His argument was that when people behave unethically, it does not mean they are devoid of empathy; in fact, the reverse. Those who perpetrate causal cruelty achieve their result precisely because they recognise what they are doing, and understand the extent of their victims’ suffering. These are unusual people, but how do they manage to get away with this kind of evil? How do bad things happen in what seems like a good institution?

Edmund Burke wrote “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. This, says Williams, in a recent article in New Statesman, gives evil far too much credit and agency. He believes that evil creeps upon us in rather a different way, more like a perfect storm that a strategic plan. He outlines a slippery slope argument in which “we are at least half-consciously complicit”.

I am aware that some people find it offensive when others draw analogies between the Holocaust and more contemporary concerns in society. My own view is that it is irresponsible not to learn these lessons, and I imagine Rowan Williams would agree. Williams invites us to contemplate how complicity is constructed in a society, and he draws on the example of the Third Reich (which he calls “a masterclass in executive tyranny”) to illustrate his argument. In order to persuade a populace to collude in genocide, Hitler took advantage of some routine anti-semitism which had been normalised by the repetition of certain tropes and myths about Jews. In a re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, Williams blames an “erosion of a sense of the ridiculous”. We may recognise ourselves in this characterisation; we find the ridiculous in the times when we have complied with an inducement to game a system, inflate a finding, or we have watched silently as others struggle with disproportionate demands. We remember those occasions when we have failed to confront the exercise of excessive power, and told each other, ‘this is over the top’. That is the ridiculous, and that’s when we need to act, because immorality starts with small concessions and by dint of permissiveness, end up overwhelming us. And that leads us to Donald Trump and his evocations of external and internal threats, barriers necessitated, and birth rights revoked. Williams sees him as an exemplar of someone “divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity”. Ridiculous, in other words, and our antennae should be twitching.

Williams ends: “For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private”. Let me be clear. I’m not setting myself up as some moral arbiter. I’m as flawed as the next person. But I do agree with Rowan Williams that it is imperative to watch out for danger signs in our own environment, and to act according to our consciences. To recognise when governments, corporations, behaviours have become excessive and harmful. It is about trusting our instincts over the hypocrisies we are asked to absorb. It is about having a clear sense of purpose and legitimacy. It is recognizing when the demands of the imaginary and the dishonest displace the integrity of doing your job. And it is about refusing to be silent when ‘theatres of cruelty’ (Couldry 2008) invade your very humanity. Rowan Williams has certainly not restrained himself from denouncing a “new barbarity” in the de-humanising language and expectations circulating in UK universities.

Since reading Christabel Bielenberg’s powerful account of her family’s anti-Nazi resistance during the 2nd World War, I have been preoccupied with what Williams calls “moral luck” – “the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz”. Perhaps also the converse must be true – that people with the capacity to resist immorality and corruption are not called upon to do so. But that seems unlikely to me, given the moral forcing ground that surrounds us in contemporary academia. Most of us know when things are not right and we are being manipulated into unethical behaviours. But it is easy to lose our perspective when coerced by threats of losing our jobs or punitive consequences for not meeting ‘targets’. As Williams writes, all it takes is “the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society”. There are no accidents of immorality – there are choices. The choices may be unwilling, but please let’s start standing up to misuse of power, authority and expertise before we start accepting it as the new normal, and it empowers the next step towards dishonesty and corruption. Because if we let go of academic values of honesty, integrity and fearlessness, then along with them go academic freedom and a little bit more of our humanity.


Bielenberg, Christabel. 1968. The Past is Myself. London: Corgi Books. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Past-Myself-Christabel-Bielenberg/dp/0552990655

Couldry, Nick (2008) Reality TV, or the secret theater of neoliberalism. Review of education, pedagogy, and cultural studies, 30 (3), pp. 3-13. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/52405/1/Couldry_Reality_TV_secret_theater_2008.pdf

Morgan, John. 2015. Rowan Williams on higher education’s ‘inhuman and divisive’ jargon. Times Higher. January 29th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rowan-williams-on-higher-educations-inhuman-and-divisive-jargon/2018188.article

Williams, Rowan. 2016. A nervous breakdown in the body politic. New Statesman. 1st May. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/05/nervous-breakdown-body-politic