Source: Swansea University School of Management
The colourful dean overseeing controversial reforms to Swansea University’s School of Management has expressed no regrets over either his actions or his tone.
As Times Higher Education has reported, since taking over as dean in May 2013, Nigel Piercy has overseen a series of contentious reforms to the school, including major changes to curricula and teaching loads and the “upscaling” of exam scores.
Professor Piercy has also antagonised opponents with his sometimes sarcastic tone. In July, in his response to a series of complaints submitted by PhD students, he wrote: “What were you expecting – a liveried footman arriving at your residence with a personal gold-embossed invitation [to the school’s Easter ball] on a silver salver?”
In April, reacting to the results of a staff survey, he wrote: “There were a few hippy-dippy comments about collegiality and letting the ‘people’ make the decisions.” He quoted a song from Les Misérables and continued: “This is not…a rest home for refugees from the 1960s.”
“I thought [that remark] was funny,” he said in an interview with THE. “In retrospect, I can see [some] people in the department might not have seen the funny side, but that is just my style.”
Tensions within the school were further ratcheted up by Professor Piercy’s suggestion that low marks awarded in this year’s exams were a result of “political behaviour” by disgruntled academics. He admitted that low marking had occurred before his arrival, but it had got worse this year and he could not think of any other reason.
“We can’t ignore it because, at some stage, you have to defend students’ interests,” he said.
In July, a scathing report by an external examiner that objected to the intended extent of the upscaling was leaked to the Western Mail. In a response emailed to staff a few days later, Professor Piercy called into question the examiner’s publication record and behaviour and noted his “close personal links” to members of the school’s labour economics section. In an email sent on the day of the newspaper story, Professor Piercy had linked the closure of the labour economics section to the failure of its staff to reciprocate his “sentiments of respect, collegiality and engagement”.
But he told THE that the closure was unconnected to the leaking of the examiner’s report and had been announced before the newspaper story. He felt “sympathetic” towards his detractors, since “they have been sitting there for 30 years…with no one interfering with them and then some jerk comes along from outside and upsets the apple cart”. But he had been recruited specifically to turn the school around – which had been “something of a shambles in a university that is really flying”.
It was now “heading in the right direction”, with student applications and quality going up. It had also recruited “sensational” new staff members, who now made up 65 per cent of the total school staff. Of the 21 who have left since Professor Piercy arrived, there were only two he genuinely wished had stayed.
He had received support from senior management and council members, and was unfazed by the acrimony. “Having spent my career fighting with hostile journal reviewers…accepting good and bad book reviews, and teaching MBA students…who challenge your right to live let alone teach, the current situation is par for the course,” he said. “Academic life is about dealing with robust challenges.”