Removing the heads won't stem the rot

April 23, 2009

Universities - bastions of truth - should be speaking out and challenging the practices that are contributing to the moral bankruptcy of our society. Their role should be one of critics of society speaking truth to power. Instead, they are silent because their leaders too abuse power. When their practices are challenged - they respond with silence and denial.

Within the academic world, the recent unexpected exits of vice-chancellors from two universities has raised eyebrows. In the feature "Where power lies" (16 April), we are presented with a short summary of life in our universities. It does not make pleasant reading. We learn that academics make letters available to Times Higher Education. "In a letter seen by Times Higher Education", in which he rejected an offer of a payment to leave the University of East London before he was suspended over questions about his leadership, vice-chancellor Martin Everett told chairman of the board of governors Jim McKenna: "There have clearly been serious failings of process and governance ... I do not believe that the governing body of an institution can simply buy its way out of compliance with required lawful and proper behaviour in this way."

The article ends by suggesting that power is "in the hands of those whose interests are driven not by the pursuit of knowledge but by the pursuit of wealth".

So my prestigious research university is not unusual then. The power in my university is in the hands of those whom I believe are driven by their own egos and their own glory. In this, I believe they are supported by an obedient board of governors and a sycophantic union.

I have spent a number of years challenging the practices at my university in relation to Dignity at Work issues. Several grievances later, I have got nowhere. In my experience, the university, with the support of its governors, uses its power to prevent effective investigation. When that tactic fails it resorts to buying its way out of trouble. The union does nothing - at best, like the Financial Services Authority, it is reactive rather than proactive. Often there is a feeling of collusion between the union and the university management.

The leader in the same issue ("Sweep in the same direction") says that in universities it is often the staff "who have asked the awkward questions that expose governance problems". I have been asking awkward questions for years at my university. I am met with a wall of silence from those who wield the power.

Maybe it is time for me to disclose some documents to Times Higher Education as others have done. We need the support of the editor and her team and the editorial board. Maybe together they can put more pressure on our universities to force them to carry out effective investigations into the practices of their staff.

The rot has set in and is spreading across institutions. It will take more than the removal of heads to stem the rot. It will require a change of culture. We look to Times Higher Education to lead the way.

Name and address withheld.

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