What should we learn from the recent suicide at Imperial College? A collation of comments from the discussion in the Times Higher Education pages gives hope. However, one commentator, Jim, has spotted a danger: “If we tar all senior management as the same simply because they are making people redundant, decent compassionate people will opt out and only the real monsters will do these jobs.” I would say reform is urgent, for “The record suggests… such monsters are climbing high on the ladders.”
How to avoid petrification from the real monsters? Reform is required with respect to university governance; I suggest we pay close attention to concerned academics:
Julian: Alice Gast and Sir James Stirling have remained silent in this shameful affair: indeed the UK seems to have a breed of ViceChancellors who are incapable of apologizing, and who resolutely refuse to explain their policies, even though they are still largely (over)funded by public monies.
Dorothy: So the death of Stefan Grimm may not have been prevented “if revised policies on performance management had been in place”. Surely what this tells us is that Imperial does not need better ‘performance management’ policies, but rather an abolition of the performance targets that equate good performance with financial targets of grant income… Placing so much emphasis on annual funding targets is bad for science, creating a dysfunctional incentive structure, and it is even worse for the individuals who try to do good science.
Tina: I abandoned British academia as I found it had a deeply flawed “business plan” which demands that we endlessly grant write, chasing scraps of grant money not hoovered up by the large ‘Armani’ labs. Unfortunately grant winning is far from random – it’s eerily predictable – as becomes our science. It’s practically clonal.
Damian: The management of people highlighted by this case of Stefan Grimm is a sad microcosm of what happens across UK academia… How dare they use UK taxpayers hard earned money in this way whilst they harass and humiliate colleagues to the point of suicide… I witnessed grown men and women in tears after such performance review meetings. Such shameful Machiavellian behaviour coupled with too many looking for their own gold and gongs means there will be more suicides before this changes. This suicide is the tragic tip of a very large iceberg that continues to undermine UK higher education.
David: The fact is that most people are too terrified about repercussions if they speak out… Places like Imperial (and several others) operate a reign of terror (under the euphemism of “performance management”). They are corrupting science and must bear part of the responsibility for the crisis of irreproducibility. No human can be expected to do thorough, conscientious science when the price for doing that is loss of your job, your house, and even your life.
Alex: …allegedly performance-related job losses are part of a deliberate and conscious strategy. “High hire, high fire” may trip off the tongue nicely, but it is a very wasteful way to use organisational resources and also betrays a complete lack of concern for employees – who are, almost by definition, disposable.
More people are commenting elsewhere.
Mark: If professors are “small business owners” [as Alice Gast of Imperial suggested in her interview to BBC] what does this make universities? The only way this analogy could incorporate the relationship between researchers and their institutions is to cast the latter as akin to nation states: providing infrastructure, managing resources and taxing income. But then what sort of micro-state is the contemporary university? Even on the most benign reading, it would seem to be a distinctly totalitarian one, inclined to scrutinise and control all activity taking place within it.
My own view: There is a single reason why this and other vice-chancellors receive scandalous pay (funded by the public purse): they have taken to terminate academic careers according to the wishes of external funders (public or private); you need missionaries to achieve such a state of unfairness. That their methods of termination can result in suicide was acknowledged and reinforced by the Imperial College response, so how could Alice Gast be expected to say she is sorry?
Democratic governance would not allow such appalling behaviour. If Universities are accountable to Parliament there is a need for an external inquiry into the death of Professor Grimm and on whether the managers in question exercised their duty of care – as David Colquhoun called for early on. The sector is also quite clearly in a need to reform university governance, expelling those at the top and prohibiting their reappearance in any form.
Higher education and academic freedom is incompatible with the present violence in the UK universities.