Sunday 30 October 2011

Parallel Crises

I had intended to write this week’s blog on the remarkable upturn in the study of ancient Greek and Roman history in Australia’s secondary schools, where it is now more popular than Modern History, but try as I may to get away from industrial conflict, it seems to be following me around. 

On Friday night in Sydney my children and I got onto our Qantas flight to London. It turned out to be one of the very last Qantas flights to leave Australia before the entire domestic and international fleet of this old, prestigious, much-loved airline was grounded by its own Chief Executive, Alan Joyce. 

Alan Joyce
This is an extraordinary step for an airline boss to take—in Joyce’s own words, ‘an unbelievable decision’.   

The Australian prime Minister stepped in and referred the matter to an emergency session of Australia’s industrial tribunal, which has now ruled that the unions and management should  return to the negotiating table and come to an agreement within 21 days or face binding arbitration.

Joyce put at risk thousands of passengers and jobs, the future of the airline, and even the national economy of Australia. His strategy was designed to make the unions of airline workers come to heel and agree to stop all industrial action straightaway. He did not want to negotiate with them but to force them back to work on his dictatorial terms. 

The fact that he grounded the fleet just one day after raising his own salary by a massive 71 percent to five million Australian dollars p.a. shows that he is not a tactful man, but we shall have to wait and see whether this is the worst that can be said about him. It is not clear that his company can ever recover from his divisive and high-handed tactics.  He has damaged the relationships between management and workers profoundly.

While Qantas employees and all Australia wait to see whether Joyce’s company can recover from behaviour which Captain Richard Woodward, vice-president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, has described as ‘megalomaniacal,’ the situation at Royal Holloway remains critical. 

Paul Layzell
The first formal ‘consultation’ between the Classics Department staff and members of the Senior Management Team takes place tomorrow morning at Egham, inauspiciously on Halloween; there are still three weeks until the next meeting of College Council. 

But while on the other side of the world Alan Joyce refused to continue talking to his own workers, at Royal Holloway the Chair of our Union (the University and College Union) Bruce Baker, has just this morning felt forced to resign. 

Baker writes ominously to UCU members that he does not ‘believe that the Senior Management Team has now, or has ever had in the time I have been at Royal Holloway, any genuine interest in establishing constructive relations with the UCU or acknowledging that employees, including academic staff, should have a collective role in determining the conditions under which they labour.’  

The ancient Greek biographer Plutarch liked to write history in terms of parallel biographies comparing Greek and Roman individuals whose careers shared similar features. The Athenian general Nicias was compared with the Roman Crassus, for example, because the former was responsible for the Sicilian disaster and the latter for the Parthian disaster. 

Perhaps the 21st-century equivalent would be the Parallel Disasters brought on worker-management relationships in old and prestigious British and Australian organisations.

Monday 24 October 2011

On Missing the Point

After more than three and half months of flat-out campaigning against the proposals of the Managers of my college to decimate my department, I left Britain with a sigh of relief, assuming that I could enjoy two weeks’ of freedom from conflict between those in power and those they claim to manage.

But just outside the apartment in Melbourne where I have been staying, teams of mounted policemen used what certainly went far beyond reasonable force to evict a peaceful set of protestors from the city centre. The soundscape which I experienced began with singing of Aboriginal and protest songs but ended in sirens and screaming.


Lucidly written leaflets explained that the protest was primarily against the mining of uranium by BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, in a very specific location. It is on land sacred to indigenous Australians at the Olympic Dam works North-West of Adelaide.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I watched Australian television and read Australian newspapers, to read that the trouble with the ‘Occupy Melbourne’ initiative by the protestors was that it had no specific goal, only a vaguely articulated sense that capitalism was not a good system.

That was not what I heard the protestors saying. The press missed the point they were trying to make entirely, and also seemed unwilling to entertain the possibility that the police force’s violent eviction of the demonstrators might have just a little to do with the imminent visit of Queen Elizabeth II.

Obscuring the point that people who disagree with you are making is one of the most effective weapons in the artillery cupboard of the powerful. When I embarked an Airbus for Australia a week ago, I had not yet recovered from my astonishment that the press was giving more column inches to the question of whether Liam Fox is gay, and to the alleged use of public money to subsidise his best friend’s accommodation in hotels, than to the scandalous fact that an unelected representative of wholly biased political and business interest groups was regularly allowed to interfere in British defence policy. Yet this staggering corruption was scarcely discussed the day that Dr Fox resigned.

On a miniature level, the same tactic of obscurantism has characterised the entire attempt of the Senior Management Team at Royal Holloway to discredit the teaching and research activities of its own experts in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds since the end of June this year.

Huge efforts and the assiduous work of well-paid Directors of Communication has gone into obscuring the obvious point that nobody can know whether students will want to take degrees costing nine thousand pounds in any particular academic department until there is any evidence to consider.

If this basic point is missed, then heads of universities can close or decimate any department they like on the strength of ideological grudge disguised as speculation.

BHP want to mine uranium on Aboriginal land. Adam Werritty has not been elected and doesn’t represent British citizens. Classics at Royal Holloway had record applications this year. Are these points clear enough?

Sunday 16 October 2011

On Leadership

On June 28th, my colleagues in Classics & Philosophy as well as our Union representatives were abruptly told that our leaders were about to put proposals before  Council that would emasculate the teaching of ancient Greece and Rome at Royal Holloway and make half its Classicists redundant. 

This means that for the first time in my life, I now have direct personal experience of a work community suffering from the drastic loss of morale which highhanded management creates.   

Our new professional Managers had of course failed to consult with us or our representatives ‘when proposals were still at a formative stage’, to quote the ACAS guidelines relevant to this type of situation. 

But our Managers’  failure to talk to their own people at an appropriately early stage and in an appropriately respectful manner is not just a violation of modern employment protocols. It also happens to be exactly the same mistake made by every single incompetent leader in ancient Greek literature, and there are quite a few of them. 

In fact, most of the greatest Classics focus precisely on the connection between the style of an individual leader and the success or failure of the community he leads.  In the Iliad, it is Agamemnon’s demoralising insults to the most able members of his team, precipitate decisions, personal greed and intellectual shortcomings that make such a pig’s breakfast of the siege of Troy.   

In insulting the time-honoured local traditions represented by Chryses, disparaging his crack warrior Achilles, exuding negativity, taking more than his fair share of booty and privileges, and miscalculating the tenor and content of his speeches to the army, Agamemnon manages to delay the fall of Troy considerably, damage many relationships, dispel trust, and incur many more fatalities. 

In Sophocles’ Antigone, civic collapse is caused by Creon’s highhanded edicts, intimidating tactics and failure to listen to his citizens, when he has no previous experience of being the Chief Executive and has only just taken up the reins of power in Thebes.  

On the other hand, in Xenophon’s Anabasis, we are presented with an inspiring picture of the sort of leader who knows that morale is everything. The Greeks are stranded, in lethal danger, in Mesopotamia. They face material hardship, hostile tribes, and a Persian King with a deep grudge against them as well as an enormous army. 

But Xenophon, the Athenian captain freely elected by the men who do the work, is aware of the importance of group solidarity, freedom of speech, and especially of proving that he does not regard himself as any more important or deserving than the ordinary soldiers. The morale he fosters in due course enables the Greeks to escape, despite numerous obstacles and hazards, to home and safety. 

We could do with a little more Xenophon and a little less Agamemnon and Creon in Egham right now.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Against Secrecy

My university is in danger of losing direction. So how is power exercised in it? The College exists, according to its 1985 charter, ‘to promote for the public benefit education and scholarship’ and ‘to provide instruction leading to the degrees of the University, to superintend postgraduate studies and to promote research’.   

The only people with the power to take major decisions to make sure that these objectives are met are the members of the college Council. There are currently fifteen lay members of council, whose votes alone determine the future of the college. They can vote for or against proposals put to them by the Principal.  They appoint him. He is accountable to them. They are our executive body. They could not be more important. 

 Royal Holloway Council

There is absolutely no statute or rule preventing any member of college from contacting them. But when our campaign asked for their addresses so that we send invitations to them to attend our event Celebrating Classics at Royal Holloway on 16th September, the college administration refused to let us have them, saying they would forward the envelopes on themselves. 

Just in case this did not happen, we persevered and managed to track down most of the addresses, even though the list on the official college website was out-of-date. One Councillor, Hugh Meares, accepted. He has been extremely helpful and interested in hearing our case. 

In anticipation of the Council meeting scheduled for the 5th of October, we wrote to all the Councillors again. When they arrived on campus, they were greeted by a large and good-humoured group of protesting staff and students.  Before and during the Council meeting, several of them said publicly--and were even filmed saying--that they were surprised and impressed to have been contacted by us. 

Thankfully they deferred all decisions about the proposed ‘restructuring’ of academic departments, which of course involve the radical reduction in the size and autonomy of Classics & Philosophy as well as redundancies for several of my colleagues. 

There was, indeed, a lengthy discussion in which, most unusually, the Senior Management Team was criticised by some of the Lay Councillors for its handling of the whole process and the ‘consultation’ period. 

What lessons can we learn from this? The staff and students of my university need to be in direct dialogue with those who hold the executive power in our institution. These people are reasonable, experienced, civil, highly intelligent, interested in us and what we do, and can be persuaded by rational arguments if we can just get direct access to them.  

School governors are normally expected to spend a day or two a year in schools, attending classes and meeting pupils and staff.  But our own Councillors at Royal Holloway scarcely know who we are. This probably applies to universities and colleges across the country. 

We can’t let the new Professional Managers who are taking over our institutions  stop us talking to our Councillors. We need to take up every opportunity to explain our work as students and staff of the college both in the run-up to the next Council Meeting, on 21st November, and into the future.   

There is NO requirement for secrecy or silence, merely a corrosive convention that has slowly taken hold and can be exploited by those whom it suits. Let’s think about ways of talking directly to the Councillors NOW!

Sunday 2 October 2011

The First Edithorial

Hello Earthlings!

I have finally decided to start a weekly blog, to be published every Sunday morning, because on June 28th 2011 I was thrown all unwilling into the fast-paced world of cyber communication. As someone who went into academia because she liked reading books, I had still scarcely figured out how to use Facebook on June 28th, let alone post a blog, when it became suddenly and unpleasantly clear that I could no longer avoid full participation in the nationwide campaign against the assault on British people's access to Higher Education in the Humanities.

David Cameron told us last week that he wants top universities to put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Britain’.  He does not see the paradox in issuing this mandate while cutting university funding. And at Royal Holloway University of London, a long-established, prestigious department is fighting for its life.  That Department is my Classics Department, in the south quadrangle not far from the beautiful Victorian pediment carved into the original fabric of the college which boasts that it exists to foster the study of Homer, Shakespeare and Dante.

The attack is led by a new Principal spiritually descended from the Vandals who has met Classics staff only once, for an hour.  Surely a nation that wants to advertise itself as a centre for cultural excellence does not dispense on a whim with the ancient Greeks who gave us the Olympics, democracy, and the best stories in the world—the Cyclops, the Argonauts, and Oedipus, the man who married his mother? Surely we might have something to learn from the Romans, who ran a world empire (including Britain) for centuries? We can’t afford to stand by and watch the demolition of an academic department with a global reputation, which has taken decades to establish, just because it might not show a profit next year.  The value that world-leading scholarship in the Humanities adds to Britain’s brand is literally immeasurable, in that its enhancement of our country’s reputation can’t always be converted by the end of the next tax year into monetary terms. By its nature, an intellectual culture takes many decades to take root and mature. It takes only weeks to destroy.

  • A version of this blog post first appeared in the London Evening Standard on September 29th 2011, and can be read online here.
  • The Save Classics at Royal Holloway Facebook page is here.
  • My new web page is here.