Academics Stand up in Large Numbers: UCU Report of the Special Meeting of Academic Board: 18 May 2017

UCU Report of the Special Meeting of Academic Board: 18 May 2017

Please find below a report on Thurs 18 May's momentous Academic Board (AB) Special Meeting. This report has been distributed by email to UCL UCU members.



The meeting was called by 22 signatories of a letter in response to a Survey of Board members on the current state of the university and its Management. The Survey had 492 responses and overwhelmingly showed that the academic community felt marginalized and alienated from many decisions that were impacting on their work in negative ways.



It was the best attended AB meeting in recent memory, with nearly 400 members of the Board filling out the Quad Pavilion (about half of the attendees were standing and the room has seating for 200).



The Provost, in an unprecedented move, had surrounded himself with a panel of Senior Management Team members, and the first few rows of the room were all Senior Management and Senior Management+, which was amply demonstrated when the vote was taken.



The motion before the meeting was the setting up of an AB Governance Committee that would act as a scrutiny/review committee, looking at policies and decisions within the framework of academic values and the way such decisions impact on academic work. It would act to inform the wider AB on these matters, make suggestions to the Board, and in all instances, act as the agent of the wider Board in a way that the large membership of AB cannot currently do. It would take large policy documents that are currently presented as done deals, review them and highlight issues of academic risk, and alert the board to items of consequence that are currently easily slipped through in the agenda. It would be composed of elected members of academic board. In effect, it was proposed as the solution to the need for democracy, transparency, representation, and engagement of the Academic Board in communicating the view of UCL’s Academic Community to SMT and Council.



The debate proceeded with members of SMT and SMT+ being called to speak and attacking the motion. But as the meeting progressed it became evident that these contributions could not muster a single argument of substance against the proposal. We were told that this was “dangerous”, that it would empower “activist cliques”, it was potentially “politicized” and ultimately dis-empower the Academic Board. The irony was not lost on the audience that this was coming from an entirely appointed (unelected) group of managers. Additional levers of democracy, apparently, are too good for UCL’s academics. Not only that, as they began to visibly lose the argument, some members of SMT engaged in strange interventions including: comments that the attendance of the meeting was unusual (in an accusatory tone); insulting the audience (as one Dean did) with admonitions that if people did not “get” what SMT were doing for us they should think about getting a job elsewhere (that speech was booed loudly by the room at least twice); telling us how SMT clearly had our (academics) best interests at heart (received with significant guffaws), and telling us that we could not make this decision lightly after a 1hr debate and it should be deferred (ignoring the previous AB meeting where the Provost has originally wanted to pass his counter proposals in a 20min slot, and that there had been plenty of build up to the decision with pre-meetings, information being issued by both sides, etc.). All this hyperbole was easily dismissed by looking at the slide with the proposition: it said the proposed body was democratically accountable to AB, its work would be answerable (because presented to) AB, and its very existence depended on AB. One would think what was being proposed was a militia rather than a simple committee.



Those promoting the motion were measured and to the point, intellectually engaging these arguments – as you would expect from academics. It soon became clear that substantive arguments against the proposal were thin on the ground, even if the personnel opposing it was very vocal. The Provost moved to a vote. On many estimates canvassed afterwards 70-80% were in favour of the proposition. The votes against were mostly concentrated in the SMT contingent at the front of the room. After a brief doubting by the chair as to whether the vote was decisive, the motion was declared as carried. UCL’s Academic Board will now have a Governance Committee.



This meeting was instructive on one significant point: it made it obvious to anyone with eyes to see that there is a huge chasm between the understanding, priorities, and approach of UCL’s Senior Management and the Academic Community that makes this the great university that it is.



On the proposers’ side the notions of academic values and academic community were the most prominent elements of substance motivating the proposal, along with democracy and transparency. On the other side, there was talk of Senior Management needing to make quick and complex decisions, according to timetables that could not do with being slowed by academic deliberations, and of being ‘responsive’, but at no point was there either a sense of what matters for academic work or for the academic community. It was a room, in a sense, of two meetings. This does not bode well for the future of UCL unless that chasm is significantly addressed. In other universities with the same chasm, but with decisions entirely in the unconstrained hands of Senior Management, has resulted in mass redundancies and huge damage to the academic mission (whilst resources go to constructing legacy buildings, commercializing of education, and chasing league tables).



The elections for this new representative body of AB will take place within the next 6 weeks. It is important that this democratic process is a vigorous one and that the committee works well for AB, bringing back some of the voice academics have lost at UCL in the last 10 years.



UCL UCU enthusiastically supports democracy and transparency in aligning the priorities of the university, and supports AB in fighting to attain these standards and place them at the heart of the governance of the university.



UCL UCU Executive Committee



*ENDS*



Sent on behalf of the UCL UCU Executive Committee

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