‘Managed out’ email whips up Birmingham storm

Claim to have ‘managed out’ underperformers infuriates Birmingham staff. Paul Jump reports

September 12, 2013

Controversy about “aggressive” management at the University of Birmingham has been further stoked after a senior manager sent an email that boasted of having “managed out” underperformers.

The remarks – now withdrawn – were made in a document emailed in June to all academics in Birmingham’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences by its then head, Malcolm Press.

The document, entitled “Strategic Priorities for 2013/14 and beyond”, read: “Since its inception, and taking [research assessment exercise] 2008 as a starting point, the college has worked to advance further the internationally leading Schools of Psychology and Sport and Exercise Sciences. At the same time, we have managed out under-performing staff in [the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences] and Biosciences. We have then refocused around areas of research strength, and made new appointments in these areas.”

Times Higher Education understands that the use of the phrase “managed out” provoked disquiet, with some academics interpreting it as an implication that undue pressure had been put on academics to resign.

The controversy came against a background of unrest at Birmingham about what the University and College Union has previously described as aggressive management tactics. The union claimed that a toughened performance management regime had been introduced without consultation and was being used by some managers to target academics with whom they had clashed or whose research they did not value.

The unrest culminated in a successful strike ballot in February, although industrial action was later called off following negotiations.

Under pressure from the UCU, Professor Press, who recently became Birmingham’s pro vice-chancellor for research and know-ledge transfer, last month sent another email to College of Life and Environmental Sciences academics acknowledging that his original language had been “open to misinterpretation” and that “what I described as ‘managing out’ could have been more clearly and sensitively articulated. I wish therefore to withdraw those words and to explain what I meant by them,” he said. “You will know that our approach to enhancing performance is characterised by a commitment to supporting staff to give of their best.

“My aim is to help [people] get back on track to satisfactory performance, and there are examples of success to point to in this regard. Sometimes, going through this process, the individual may come to realise that his/her best interests might lie in pursuing other opportunities outside the university, and a small number of these staff have agreed to terms of voluntary redundancy…[but] the final decision is rightly theirs.”

He added that in “a very small number of cases”, disciplinary action had been taken “to signal our concern about an individual’s continued and serious underperformance”. But he said that “even in these cases we are continuing to support them through a process of setting reasonable objectives, monitoring and feedback on performance”.

The UCU said it was satisfied with the statement and regarded the matter as closed.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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