That would be telling

Beware those who want information - and informers. An anonymous academic considers the police-state side to 'managerial techniques'

August 21, 2008

One of the questionable effects of the introduction of managerial models in many UK universities has been the use of academics by some managers in some universities to inform on their colleagues.

Informers may be used by managers who attempt to enforce unpopular policies and wish to monitor whether they are being implemented. Informers are used to gather damaging information on colleagues. Managers may demand that colleagues denounce each other just to prove their loyalty.

Take the case of Dr K, a probationary lecturer and a potential informer on Professor B, a non-research assessment exercise-returnable senior academic. K was called in for an urgent meeting with his supervisor.

The supervisor first bombarded K with a series of petty, nit-picking accusations about wrongly filled-in forms and a mark submitted late. K, on the defensive, said that the late submission of the mark was the fault of the second marker, B.

The supervisor accepted this and mentioned that K was to co-teach a module with B. The supervisor wanted K to report on B because the supervisor needed to know what he was doing. It would be in K's interest to inform on B, so B could not blame K in the future for any of his own regulatory failings. K declined.

But the supervisor insisted. "I read his emails. B is no friend of yours; you should not protect him." K replied that he did not inform on colleagues, friends or not. But the supervisor kept on, noting that "B makes a big fat salary for doing little".

Having failed to metamorphose into an informer, K joined B as an "enemy of the state". A postgraduate student who served as K's and B's teaching assistant was recruited to inform on them by his supervisor. His task was not just to record student complaints and possible regulatory violations, but also to induce student complaints that received prompt attention from the management.

Some managers consider informing to be a "managerial technique". What is so wrong about informing on an underperforming colleague? Even the composer Gustav Mahler, while director of the Vienna Philharmonic a century ago, used players to inform him of what others were saying about him. Since then, the Vienna Philharmonic has been a self-governing organisation run by elected officials.

But using informing on colleagues as a managerial technique is a mistake. It is an ethical vice, not a value-free technique. Its consequences are dire for institutions and for individuals who engage in it.

Managers may attempt to cause or encourage rifts, envy and resentments between colleagues and then use them to divide, rule and encourage denunciations. Once one colleague has informed on another, the victim is informed and invited to return the favour and inform on the informer. Employees who refuse to denounce may become targets for harassment. Managers may subject each of their professional actions to meticulous scrutiny and search for faults or regulatory violations, often through informers.

Arguably, the urgent need to reform universities, sometimes against the resistance of some academics, justifies the use of unorthodox and morally questionable means. However, this creates a slippery moral slope.

Managers who use informers effectively against one group, for example RAE-excludable academics, will rarely abstain from attempting to use more informers against other groups or individuals they do not like for whatever reason, from personal to ethnic. Consequently, an increasingly large group of employees can be drawn into the denunciation cycle as in totalitarian regimes.

Eventually, informing becomes an end in itself. Managers may demand that their employees inform on each other, not for any particular institutional reason, but as a sign of subservience. The motives that are manipulated to turn colleagues into informers - fear, envy, resentment, desire to avoid responsibility - are moral vices. In totalitarian states, they resulted in the destruction of civil society. In an organisation such as a university, mutual distrust leads to lack of co-operation.

If any act can be used against its performer, the prudent course of action is to avoid co-operation and hoard information. The less others know about one's life, the safer. When co-operation is inevitable, colleagues will demand documentation and witnesses for every interaction, turning every professional activity into a complex bureaucratic manoeuvre.

The ultimate victim of systemic informing is the very ideal of the university, of a community of scholars united by a common search for the truth - a republic of letters, rather than a police state.

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