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”.’