Why are we allowing faculty ‘whips’ to do university managers’ dirty work?

Senior faculty are trying to prove their worth by making the lives of others so unpleasant that they agree to leave. It is time to call them out, says Aymen Idris

March 28, 2023
Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. Adapted from Michael Dobbs best selling sequel to 'House of Cards'
Source: © BBC Archive

“Take care, stay safe, and watch out for the whips!”

This was the sign-off message in the last email I received from a colleague who was recently made redundant. He was referring to the senior professors who, in UK universities, are increasingly taking on unofficial departmental roles akin to those of parliamentary whips, doing deans’ and heads of departments’ dirty work to ensure that the executive’s will prevails.

Goodness knows that there are increasing amounts of dirty work to be done. Redundancies were a recurring issue even before the pandemic prompted worried universities to launch a wave of redundancies. Now they have almost become a fact of normal academic life as the cost-cutting continues long after the major threats to university revenues posed by Covid-19 have receded.

And gone are the days when solidarity and collegiality were the norm and redundancies were handled in a supportive, respectful way. Indeed, it is not uncommon for university administrators to openly endorse the use of brutal and exploitative managerial practices drawn from the business world. Yet heads of department and deans appear increasingly unwilling to get their own hands too dirty. Rather, they hand the axe to a willing band of academics in the twilight of their own careers who may previously have been heads or deans themselves and who, while they are too well respected to be got rid of, are generally modest achievers and too expensive to keep – unless they can convince HR of their high ongoing value to the department. My colleagues and I call these the faculty whips.

Tragically, many academics think of these long-servers as caring and benign mentors who, after a hard day’s work of their own, try their best to help their struggling colleagues. But their real role is to make the lives of “underperforming” academics unpleasant, to the extent that they agree to negotiate an exit package.

Academics are accustomed to appraisal and assessment schemes, and we thrive on constructive criticism – that comes with the territory: it isn’t something that would hasten us towards the exit. Faculty whips know this. Thus, manipulators that they are, they resort to underhand persuasion methods, such as clever borderline bullying, gaslighting and verbal aggression in one-to-one meetings. “When push comes to shove, there are no witnesses or a digital trail – it’s their word against mine,” an academic who was recently forced into retirement told me.

When he was the government's chief whip, Gavin Williamson famously kept a tarantula in his office, allegedly as an intimidation tactic. I once joked with colleagues that at least our whips do not keep killer animals as office pets. But they do appear to relish a similar self-image as ruthless operators. Stories abound of their unhealthy fascination with figures such as Machiavelli, Vito Corleone from The Godfather or the brash media tycoon Logan Roy from the TV series Succession. Colleagues in the process of being forced out have heard faculty whips quote tone-deaf pseudo-proverbs such as “It’s not personal – it’s strictly business”, “It is better to be feared than to be loved”, and “You wanna do good things? Be a fucking nurse”.  

It is time that such behaviour was called out. I understand that these are hard times, and most academics are living with the constant fear of losing their jobs and livelihoods: the last thing they want to do is invite the whips’ wrath. But, silence is no longer an option. The sad truth is that no matter how nefarious the faculty whips’ actions are, our cash-strapped universities have no incentives to tackle a practice that saves them money. Yet if we don’t confront it now, whipping will only become ever more entrenched, exacerbating the culture of fear, distress and anxiety in universities – and potentially working against official efforts to address prejudices such as ageism, sexism and racism.

University staff in the UK are already out in the streets in their thousands demanding that managers rethink their priorities. Yet many academics, particularly those from minority groups, find it hard to garner the courage to confront micro-aggression by senior colleagues. We should stand in solidarity with all fellow academics who are bullied and manipulated into believing that they have no other choice but to leave their tenured positions.

In the end, though, the question is what the academics with the actual – as opposed to self-assumed – power will do. Will they continue to give in to the demands of university administrators for savings by empowering their hatchet men and hatchet women to make struggling colleagues’ lives a misery? Or will they instead provide those colleagues with the support that they need to be successful teachers, supervisors, grant-winners and researchers?

To adopt the famous phrase of the late US secretary of state and academic Madeleine Albright, there’s a special place in hell for academics who do not support each other.

Aymen Idris is senior lecturer in the department of oncology and metabolism at the University of Sheffield. He dedicates this piece to all academics in the UK (and around the globe) whose careers ended prematurely, and to the enduring spirit of those who remain.

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Reader's comments (10)

Why am I afraid to share this with academic colleagues??
I like the fact that this piece acknowledges that many of the negative elements of modern academic life - much as we might prefer to blame 'managers', the government, 'neo-liberalism' etc, have taken place with the complicity of senior academics in many instances. Precarity would be another example.
I guess I must be lucky having never seen or heard of these tactics in my own department. As someone near retirement and not a high flyer, I would expect to be on the receiving end if they occurred. Sad to hear that things are not so benign elsewhere.
This article is spot on. I know of at least two academics forced out of their jobs. Both were ill and could have done with occupational health support rather than gas lighting and other tactics used to force them out. There are other non 'faculty whips' who deploy similar tactics to force others to resign if they do not want them on their team. Sad that such things are happening in today's universities.
Blimey. At least in my department, when this has happened, the HoD has had the guts to do it themselves.
While sympathetic to the concerns, it is not accurate in terms of who the hench(wo)men (henchpeople?) are. Generally, mid level 'managers' in most institutions (who do like to believe they are part of leadership teams) are academics who rose to that level not because they are at the top of the game but because they are precisely not at the top of the game. They may be senior in rank but not senior in terms of standing globally. Hence, they know they are in the position they are in on the greasy administrative pool because the people above them have put them there. Hence, their loyalty is not to those below (the mistake is believing that department heads and deans are there to serve the academic faculty they are in charge of) but to those that put them there and will be recommending them for the next step administratively. So it is not so much camaraderie but loyalty to whom. Such a culture leads to a situation where everyone is 'precarious' to some extent since decision making power (both de facto and de jure) resides in a managerial bureaucracy that actually knows little if anything about managing an organization. So they take on the superficial aspects of management w/o really having a clue how to be managers.
Law needs changing to make reinstatement mandatory upon unfair dismissal. That a university can get around the reinstatement rule by offering a mere £112k in compensation makes a mockery of the idea of tenure. Academics ought only be sacked if they are not producing research or have committed a serious criminal offence. Too often they are fired for not playing politics.
Where is the evidence that any of this is true? Not one single case is cited -- just gossip. How can THE publish this rubbish, and how can those commenting assume that it has substance? Take it down, please!
It's not a practice exclusive to just the academics in HEIs unfortunately. A PS colleague ex academic who has first hand experience!
The faculty whips are failed researchers so they make everyone else's lives a miserable hell!!