A cabinet reshuffle

September 30, 2005

As Helen Taylor hands over her files to a new head of school, she reflects on life, death and wedlock

It's that time of year when the headships of schools revolve and so, after five years, I am jumping off. This necessitates locking the official filing cabinets that will be wheeled along the corridor to my successor's office. Before Istagger away to write a book on New Orleans' fin de siècle red-light district Storyville - weirdly timed to coincide with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina - I glance through the cabinets' contents in a last moment of self-indulgent nostalgia and an attempt to recall what I've been doing all this time.

Most significant are the staff files containing five years of application forms and offer letters (relating to the 40-plus staff I've appointed), probation and promotion reports, the grant applications I helped edit and sign off, disciplinary reports, congratulatory and warning letters, and trails of triumphal, anguished and angry memos and e-mails.

At least all of these still exude the scent of lifeblood. It's the other documents that offer a chilling reminder of the nuts and bolts of the job: five years of files with acronyms relating to many an appraisal, monitoring and other bureaucratic exercise. From national (AHRC, RAE, ILT, TRAC, CCUE) to regional (SWS, ACESW, RALP) to home front (TQSA, SMG, APC, PDR, CBR), how many of these undertakings with which I have so womanfully wrestled will I be able to identify and explicate in six months' time?

The habit of circulating the headship of academic departments is regarded with amazement by non-academic family and friends, who probably suspect I've been gently booted out. The drawbacks to such a system are certainly legion. In an increasingly complex and fast-moving educational context, an experienced head is more likely than a new appointment to anticipate problems and avoid pitfalls. A time-limited appointment means a first year learning the ropes, a second getting up to speed, a third of relative competence and a final year of demob happiness as heads cunningly avoid dealing with major problems when they can instead be handed on.

Yet it's still worth defending the democratic sharing of a burdensome job, the reinvigoration of the role with new blood and the welcome return to the research and teaching careers that such managers have to put on temporary hold.

But are academics the best people to lead one another? Administrators and managers are increasingly running devolved budgets and organising space, time and other departmental operations. Financial fleet-footedness does not often come with scholarly prowess, and academic leaders can tend to treat budgets with cavalier disdain and creative licence.

Here, too, the system is worth defending. New managers can always be bludgeoned into conservatism: finance directors smile on the "cautious" business plan and offer dire warnings against the deficit-producing grand scheme. Yet the "vision thing", however inchoate and uncosted, needs to come from a strong academic base. For this reason it is vital that academics - who empathise with the neuroses of and conflicting demands on their colleagues and students - continue to lead them and set the intellectual agenda.

So what of my own tenure? As a literary critic, I can't help seeing the five years as a Bildungsroman - I embarked with naive hopes and dreams, made drastic mistakes and had several rude awakenings, and concluded my journey as an older, wiser woman ready to pass on her experiences - and filing cabinets - to Another.

Almost inevitably, revolving headships go to academics in middle life, a time when many face creaking marriages, problematic children, dying parents and/or uncertain health.

In my case, these five years saw the sudden death of a fellow professor; the succumbing of three close women friends to fatal breast cancer; the deaths of my own and my partner's mothers and my spine literally and metaphorically stiffening up. In all cases, the pressures of the job meant I had too little time and space to care for the dying or fully to mourn their passing, and precious little to attend to my own physical and emotional needs.

Not that there weren't lighter moments. For instance, after decades of cohabitation, with an eye to tax advantages and a great party, I got married. Isent a larky e-mail to my colleagues boasting that Stella McCartney had designed me a gorgeous wedding dress with a 40ft train. To this day, it has unnerved me that quite a few of them believed me.

So, as I slam my official filing cabinets shut for the last time and think of all that I shall miss after bowing out, I reflect that my five years as a head have taught me at least one important lesson - never send a flippant e-mail.

Helen Taylor is professor of English, Exeter University.

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