Blog confidential: Silent whispers

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

April 8, 2010

This week: Silent whispers

There was a head of schools meeting last week to discuss a range of issues relating to "efficiencies" and "creative re-alignment". It was attended by most of the school heads, who gave the impression of being curious rather than concerned about all the latest headlines in the press and what the possible implications may be. The meeting was rather bleak and managerial.

We were all told to draw up a list of the most "expensive" academic and research staff who were expendable (namely those who weren't bringing in substantial grants). We were told the university was substantially in the red and that we had to consider weeding out staff on high-end principal lecturer grades who were "coasting" (their words) and push them towards early retirement.

I felt very uncomfortable about this. I have always been honest with staff in my school, and I like to think that I have high levels of transparency and respect. However, at this meeting we were told that there would be no minutes taken and we were not to document anything.

I have never experienced anything like this before, so I raised the issue of secrecy - would it not be best to just let everyone know what was going on but use more diplomatic words? There was a deathly hush. I felt I had exposed where my loyalties really lie.

Later that day I was called to the dean's office, and I was shocked to find the pro vice-chancellor there. I was told that concern had been expressed about my lack of loyalty to the institution, and they both made subtle suggestions that if I should find it difficult to implement strategic "re-balancing", then there were "opportunities" I may want to consider.

Needless to say, I got the "message". What they are saying is that I now have a terrible choice to make - identify as expendable a number of staff members who have given a vast amount of their working lives to the university, or go myself. Some choice!

Things are likely to get very difficult over the next 12 months but I think it's all a little dramatic to claim that there is something "underhanded" going on here.

I think you need to take all this in your stride and not panic: like it or not, this is part and parcel of being a manager. Job cuts are never pleasant, and you're discovering that the process can feel almost as painful for those who have to help wield the knife as it is for those who get the chop.

Of course the tough issues being discussed in meetings such as this will be unsettling to people who, like you, feel caught between scholarly colleagues and senior administration. What's more, you're going to have to face up to the fact that you may well be the object of recrimination from staff if cuts end up being made in accordance with whatever senior administration have planned.

These are tough times, and you've got a tough job. All you can hope is that senior staff really are fair and balanced people who, like you, have the institution's interests at heart.

What do the readers think?

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