Sussex rebels pray for coup

June 30, 2006

The small, leafy campus of Sussex University looked remarkably serene in the sunshine last Friday. But behind closed office doors the mood was mutinous.

The boldest members of staff were adding their signatures to a formal letter attacking the senior management team. Across the campus in the student union, large posters read: "Students stay, vice-chancellor go. It's him or us."

Alasdair Smith is battling to balance the books, with Sussex's debt topping £38 million. In the process, he has sparked a rebellion that has united staff and students against the senior management team and may lead to his downfall.

The first crisis came over chemistry. After an international outcry, Professor Smith had to perform an embarrassing U-turn on plans to axe the department, which has produced three Nobel laureates. It is now planning to expand the chemistry department.

Then last week 100 academics from across the university met to voice concerns that the management was moving towards compulsory redundancies, after a call for 45 voluntary redundancies produced only eight volunteers.

Academics claimed that deans had been inviting some staff for interviews in which it was suggested that they take early retirement or voluntary severance.

"The whole thing is being done in such a secretive way," one lecturer told The Times Higher . "It has come down to the Kafka-esque knock on the door. We are wondering who will disappear."

Rumour had it that the management was using a mock research assessment exercise, in which "critical friends" from other universities were invited to rate departments to weed out those who were underperforming on research.

Richard Grove, a research fellow in environmental history, said: "Critical friends were not told that their decisions could lose people their jobs. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have been involved if they knew."

He added: "People are shit scared. More than 100 have signed the letter, but lots have said they want to keep their heads down in case they lose their jobs."

At a tense senate meeting on Friday afternoon, Professor Smith denied that he was pushing ahead with compulsory redundancies and confirmed that any such procedure would have to be approved by the senate first.

But it was agreed that phase two of his much-trumpeted Investing in Excellence strategy would have to be dropped until next year or the year after to save money.

This news will do little to boost morale. It means that 35 new appointments, which had been promised to overstretched departments, will now be shelved.

Academics on the ground cite the management style as the overarching problem. They argue that the vice-chancellor and his executive team (all of whom have been replaced by Professor Smith in the past 18 months) have repeatedly failed to communicate big changes in the university.

One academic said: "Colleagues who have come here from other universities say that they have never worked anywhere so undemocratic." He added: "Smith is a bit of a Tony Blair. He seems personable, but at the same time he has presided over this incredibly autocratic management team. They simply impose their will."

Yet, on the whole, staff want a bloodless coup. One senior scientist said:

"People want Alasdair to go quietly. We won't call for his resignation - I hope. We want him to have a period of personal reflection."

Staff might have been frightened about going on the record to discuss such sensitive issues, but the students were not.

As the grand finale of their vehement "Sort us out" campaign, the student union released a slick documentary film that attacks management. It calls for a radical change in approach, with staff being consulted on key policies and their views taken seriously.

Roger Hylton, president of the union, said: "The reputation of the university hangs in the balance. We are showing that students have the power to change things."

He added: "I went to the staff meeting last week and some of them were so angry they couldn't speak properly."

The film has gone down well with academics. Gerry Lawless, head of the chemistry department, said: "It is a very well thought through case. Daniel Vockins [the film's director] was not trying to bring down the institution. He is just a concerned individual."

The film also caused waves outside. The union sent copies to the heads of all universities in the 1994 Group, many of whom predicted privately that Professor Smith would have to go.

Revealingly, two vice-chancellors from universities outside the group also privately e-mailed the film's director asking for copies last week - admitting that they were anxious to learn from Professor Smith's mistakes.

Professor Smith declined to be interviewed this week.

In a statement, the university said that no one was being forced to take redundancy. But it said: "A compulsory redundancy committee was established in April on a contingency basis, which could operate should insufficient savings be achieved through voluntary means."

Professor Smith would not step down, the statement said. "Senate discussion concluded with a wish for a focus on positive and constructive approaches and achievements as Sussex moves ahead, and that is what we will continue to do," it added.

The V-C on a collision course

Alasdair Smith, Sussex University vice-chancellor

  • Appointed vice- chancellor of Sussex University in 1998 at the age of 49, after an international search process by Korn/ Ferry consultants
  • He was a well-known international economist. He was professor of economics at Sussex from 1981; before coming to Sussex he had been based at the London School of Economics
  • Professor Smith was educated at Glasgow University, the LSE and Oxford University. He is married to Sherry Ferdman, a tutor in social studies at Sussex's Centre for Continuing Education
  • His research specialism is international trade. On his webpage he says he has developed a particular interest in the economics of higher education
  • Sussex union members have passed two votes of no confidence in Professor Smith. In 2003, students also passed a vote of no confidence in him. He dismissed this as "a clever piece of electioneering by some of the candidates standing for election as student union officers"
  • In May, he was attacked by the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee for secretive and inept decision-making. Shortly after, he was forced to go back on a decision to shut the chemistry department.

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