‘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”.’

Where are all the women?


I was recently the respondent to a presentation by Dr Mathew Guest of the findings of his recent co-authored report (with Sonya Sharma and Robert Song) on gender and career progression in Theology and Religious Studies departments in the UK (Spoiler: it’s not good); he asked me to make my response available online, and so I’m posting it here in the hope that it might spark some useful discussions.

The presentation I was responding to was at the 2014 meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology in Durham, UK. I was asked to be the respondent at the last minute, the day before the seminar, because when the programme was released, Kate Tomas pointed out that the session looked like this:

Image Continue reading “Where are all the women?”

The Cyberteacher

What I’m about to say verges on the apocalyptic. Perhaps, in large part, because they quickly disintegrate into hyperbole, apocalyptic discourses tend to be easily dismissed. So I’m just going to own it. I’ll only add that apocalyptics, undeniably, have a certain rhetorical value. I suppose I’m adding that as a gesture toward self-justification. But, I digress.

My actual concern is about the possible futures of higher education. This is a subject I’ve been somewhat myopically tracking in news feeds in recent months. One obvious reason for this is the fact that I’m a dissertating PhD candidate, going on the job market in the fall. I’m trying to discern as much about the possible futures of the academy as I can. So that I can speculate wisely. Overwhelmingly, it seems that the magical bullet distracting many from narratives of academic collapse (and titillating commentators like Thomas Friedman) is the MOOC. The Massive Open Online Course. I have so many things to say about the MOOC. I’ve already said some of them, elsewhere. But I want to avoid making this commentary a wastebasket of opinions and gripes. Mostly, what I want to think about here is the kind of digital pedagogy they’re likely to advance, and the spooky virtual specters of the cyberteachers who might operate them. Continue reading “The Cyberteacher”

The University as Craft Enterprise. Or, College as Cheesecake Factory

Nigel Thrift has a new, dystopian, speculative post up on his blog at The Chronicle of Higher EducationHe reveals, at the end, that the entire vision he’s just laid out doesn’t really sit well with him. But, before he gets there, he raises a series of “what if” questions: what if a new kind of political economy were to arise in the American & British university system? What if it looked like the conglomerate chain model that so many restaurants follow (think: Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory) where “large numbers of customized choices” would be “delivered efficiently and well through the production of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost”? He’s inspired, in this reflection, by Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece, where he reflects on how the medical industry could re-shape itself in accordance with these standardized restaurant models. In a nutshell: what if university education were to become a mass produced product with greater predictability and standardization? There would still be some old hold-outs, who could represent the “craft model”… the nostalgic sort, that’s only available for those with time and money to burn. 

Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was: isn’t this already happening? Isn’t this what the whole MOOC phenomenon (“elite” universities partnering with private companies like Coursera to offer Harvard-style lecture courses that are cheap to produce for “the masses”) is all about? Isn’t this craft model exactly what enterprises like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research are trying to produce? This isn’t some dystopian future that might happen, if we don’t come up with something better. It’s what is happening now. These are the actual conditions of our existence.  Continue reading “The University as Craft Enterprise. Or, College as Cheesecake Factory”