‘Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?’

In March of this year an email was sent to Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology at Imperial College London. It was written by Martin Wilkins, his line manager. In the email, Wilkins states ‘I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.’ Wilkins goes on to say ‘Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI . . . Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance’.

Grimm’s track record is impressive. He has a string of grants to his name, including one for £135,000, and over seventy publications.

Not enough, it seems, for Imperial.

Stefan Grimm was found dead in September this year. An inquest into his death is ongoing.

In an email which he asked to be circulated prior to his death, Grimm states ‘Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output.’ He adds ‘What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine’.

Imperial College are conducting a review of their procedures to see if ‘wider lessons’ can be learnt. But there is no need for a review. There are no new lessons to learn. If you turn universities into businesses, you have recruited a highly motivated labour force, who have internalised all sorts of models of self-sacrifice and self-blame. And eventually, you will grind people down. We all know this. As Kate Bowles writes over on Music For Deckchairs:

Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

No internal review of bullshit HR procedures will tell us anything. Because the whole HR game is based on the premise that, as Catherine Malabou puts it, ‘anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear’.

What can we do? There is no short answer, which bypasses the need to organise, to build solidarity across and beyond academia, and to raise our own consciousness of what we have become. To find ways to refuse to play the game. To stop being ‘on’ all the time. To support each other to live and think proudly.

Otherwise, the last line of Grimm’s final email will be our only epitaph: ‘One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.’

5 thoughts on “‘Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?’

  1. Thanks for this Steven, a depressingly familiar story and a painful insight into the trajectory we are following. The Kate Bowles piece is especially poignant and accurate.

  2. I sit on a national grant funding body and each year we have to fund x number out of a total X number of applications.It is brutally competitve and the applications overall take two forms- A: ‘applications by numbers’ by what can be termed ‘professional grant applicants” and B: ‘blue skies/ intellectually exciting’ applications. We have to balance the two as it is from public funding, but we are lucky to be able to fund as many of the latter as the former. However the other side are what can be called the institutionally-pressured applicants who it appears are applying so they can at least state they have applied. Now our panel will make different decisions to a differently compositioned panel; and even a change in membership can affect what gets funded and what doesn’t. And this is what university management needs to know- grant funding is incredibly fallible and not a reflection on the academic/intellectual worth of the individual applicant. There are so many variables that need to be taken into account that winning a grant is in itself no indication of the worth or value of an academic. It is very much like that experience we all have of submitting an article or an ms to x, having it turned down, submitting to y, turned down and then to z and it gets accepted.
    The grant focus of the value of research reduces knowledge to an $ value which is incredibly problematic. So what doe we do?
    Perhaps the truest comment is one made by by 16 year old daugher who said: “Why would i ever want to work in a university or become an academic? I have seen what they do and what they do to you and how you are treated! You come home stressed and you never take a proper hokday at a time that fits with our school holidays.”( the latter part is especially true- my university never matches uinversity breaks with school holidays mid-year so as to fit in science field station trips…)
    And she is right. What interests me is that an insitution and community that is, traditionally, globally, ‘of the left’ has actually embraced both neo-liberalism and meritocracy so uncritically, internally. Perhaps it is because we are so afraid of what we would do, who we ‘would be’ if we were not ‘academics at a university’? So we work on our annual leave, we ‘privilege’ work and students over our own families and their time, we research outside our true interests to fulfull ‘research agendas’ of departments and colleges and we buy into the management mantra that research grants are the value of our worth- not only as academics but, increasingly it seems, as beings.

    There came a point where I decided that a choice had to be made- would i play the game and destroy myself, my family and what i valued both personally and intellectually- or would i decide to treat this like a job that enables me to do things i like and am good at- teaching and research, but do so on my terms? It also means deciding to work at places- now and in the future- where grant-winning/research-income is not central. It means not working long hours to the detriment of my health or my relationships. It means realizing that ‘it is never enough’ in such an insitution and so you can never reach that mythical place of ‘attainment’. I just say to them – my work is in areas where there are limited or no grants. Then play a form of ‘chicken’ or ‘mexican stand off’- saying in effect- look at my service on these committees, look at my teaching scores, look at my outputs- and i do this on my terms. It took me over a decade in academia, over a decade of constant restructuring, a decade of fear and stress to reach this point. And it was when i took on a role as an assistant dean that it all became clear. It is because too few intellectuals take part in management- rather management is the refuge of those who opt out of academia and being intellectuals. So ‘academics’ beome a problem to be managed- but the managers are the way they are because they are so-self–isolated from practicing, that is ‘working’ academics who can argue, coherently, in meetings where it counts, for the value of what academics are doing. For too often when an academics becomes an administrator or mager they self-socialize to the prevailing ethos. So effect, this is a call for more independent-minded, and rogue, intellectual/academics to willingly partake in administration. For ‘the system will not change by itself, it has to BE changed’.

    It reminds me of our complaining about politic and politicians and then not putting ourselves forward. To change the system we who want change need to get involved and from the inside challenge the issues. Because in the end the mythical work/life balance is never going to be one that will be given to us by our universities. Rather we have to be ones to invert it and make it a life/work balance.
    Hopefully my younger daughters will have a less-stressed, less work-a-holic father; hopefully my wife has a husband again closer to the person she married. Yes i still aim at the full profssorship, but at what cost is it worth it? In the end, when we die do we really want a version of this stated by iour universities: “he/she was a great servant of this company and bought into, often by fear and low self-esteem, all that we feed them about what this company values’…?

  3. I am an undergraduate in UK studying BA Comp. Lit., but before I was, I took a gap year and worked in a marketing department at King’s College London. From my experience the marketisation happens through management particularly in the way universities are mis-marketed to undergraduates. A point that is rarely emphasised. Besides certain facilities and opportunities that do not particularly affect academic standards, most universities provide a similar level of education – especially to the undergraduates, who fit into two categories (motivated/unmotivated, good/OK). But universities in an attempt to get more high fee paying overseas students are in a desperate battle to scale the tyrannical league tables. (This is the reason I have surmised but it doesn’t quite add up.) All sorts of absurd, and as I see it, ultimately pointless categories have been introduced that university management desperately induces their staff to doctor. Little do they know, the only thing that really affects the quality of the university is the students. The better the students, the more the teachers can push them and not feel guilty. Integrity is lost when the standard is based on the level of the students, or in the hope that students can get better grades to affect the ranking through doing easier work better. But perhaps the most pernicious of these is the ‘research grade’ because the tuition received by undergraduates is typically unaffected by it (while this is the university’s main source of revenue). Furthermore, the insistence on research grade forces teaches into research and away from teaching undergraduates. So when undergraduates go to pick their university that decision is informed by a host of ultimately irrelevant factors. Factors that are misinterpreted as vital for the success of the university such that academics have to devote all their attention to bettering when there is no particular need.
    Research should be done when it needs to be and in an environment that should foster it: stress is the bane of imagination.
    I have been (quixotically) wondering though, why don’t academics found their own universities? how has the business side – the superfluous admin, HR, marketing (the engendering parasite)- of universities become so pronounced?

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