Friction at Queen Mary

August 21, 2014

For someone of his seniority, the manner of John Allen’s ejection from Queen Mary University of London was unprecedented (“Queen Mary dismissal”, Letters, 14 August). After notice of dismissal was served, he was given only a few hours to clear his office before the locks were changed.

Allen and Simon Gaskell [Queen Mary’s principal] are outstanding scientists who, in fact (and in my hearing), could agree amicably about how a successful academic community should function, as well as the role of internal disagreement in institutional life. However, it is clear that while both are highly principled, each is affiliated to a quite different doctrine of how to achieve what is essentially the same goal.

Allen, an outspoken purist, advocates development from the grass roots by the encouragement of research without overt direction from overlying managers and with an attendant mitigation of excessive teaching. Gaskell, evidently now a doctrinarian leader with an admirable but ambitious target of raising the university into the top decile of UK universities, subscribes to a rigorous version of the currently fashionable managerialism involving departmental restructures (sic), performance assessments, targets, workload models and highly selective investment in research.

It is the bottom-up versus top-down argument that rages everywhere, but in the particular context of Queen Mary it has proved difficult both to back the policies with the necessary investment and to reduce the teaching and administrative burdens that hamstring those departments most in need of improvement. The result has been stress, with a large staff turnover and an uncertain outcome.

Such disagreements should not lead to public humiliation on one side or the other. However, between Gaskell and Allen is an array of vice-principals, deans and department heads most of whom who are, by now, appointees of the current regime and implement its policies.

Concerning tribunals, I have said previously that they seem to exist to assess due process, not to second-guess management decisions or to resolve academic disputes. Hence resort to courts of law indicates a failure of internal compromises that one always thought were the sine qua non of civilised university life.

David Bignell

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