Ensure seal is intact before use

April 21, 1995

Not for the first time, I have been musing ruefully on the apparently unavoidable tension that exists between seeking to inform colleagues about what is happening to their institution and why, and avoiding unhelpful, premature or inaccurate media coverage, with its possible negative effects on staff morale.

It has always seemed to me that in a collegial organisation whose principal asset is its talented and committed staff, senior management have a paramount duty to share with those who are interested all the information which is to hand, and to outline the likely effects of various options over the years ahead. To do this in a large and complex organisation is of course not easy, given that regular face-to-face contact with everyone is unfortunately not a feasible possibility. The traditional representative bodies, faculties and senate, however well informed, can no longer be relied on to ensure the transmission of accurate information to large numbers of colleagues, and heads of department sometimes feel, very properly, that they have a dual loyalty, not just to the university as a whole but also to their more immediate area of responsibility.

And therein lies the paradox. The entirely reasonable demand to be told what is going on can only in reality be met by direct communication to all involved, whether via house journals or by personal letters or by email. The presentation of information in an accurate but concise, though not always palatable, form takes a while to prepare, whereas those outside the university looking for a story want instant reaction - which someone, somewhere is always ready to provide. I hold the perhaps old-fashioned view that members of an institution are entitled to learn what is going on from colleagues before they read a version of events in the press.

But even the circulation of internally written information has its downside. It will never be possible to anticipate all the questions of those who read it, and there is no satisfactory means of elucidation except for those - a small minority - who seek this on a personal basis. And such written material itself inevitably reaches outsiders, who promptly use it for their own purposes. "If you will write and tell your colleagues of the issues facing the university," a journalist I respect said to me recently, "you must expect media coverage, which will obviously focus on any problems you identify." And headlines in particular may create such an oversimplified view of events that needless damage is done to morale, the very thing that communication with colleagues is intended to avoid or at least to minimise.

So there is an apparently insoluble dilemma. The sharing of information with all members of the community, to my mind essential to the cohesion of a large group of individuals committed to similar goals and to institutional success, can seemingly only be achieved in large and complex organisations in ways which are inherently flawed and thus of limited benefit. Such efforts attract attention from outside which are almost never advantageous to an institution and may, through prematurity or oversimplification, be positively harmful. As a nationally known education correspondent told me last week, there is only one solution - to tell no one anything. But perhaps that statement is itself a headline which oversimplifies the correspondent's views.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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