On moving over to the other side
Early one morning recently I bumped into a colleague on campus who I’d not seen for a while. He greeted me with the exclamation, ‘I hear you’ve moved over, Julie!’ Knowing exactly what he meant, I smiled and confirmed that yes, indeed, I had resigned from my management role; that I was now working as a research fellow and completing my PhD. He kindly asked about the topic of the doctorate, wished me luck and went on his way.
This exchange came at a time when for me, as Schostak says,
‘the pragmatics give way to the lonely yet exhilarating reflections on ‘life’, ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’, ‘self’ and ‘otherness.’ (Schostak, 2002 p35)
The moment I completely gave up my ‘new management’ role (I had been part-time for a while) it all went quiet. I don’t mean the embarrassed silence in the departmental meeting when I announced my impending move to a research role (I should’ve seen that coming). I mean the absence of the day-to-day jingle jangle of new management; the groans at yet another abuse of the university brand guidelines, the ‘kill Kodak’ rallying cries in the race for admissions, the laments over another conference crisis, the gripes about phone calls from eccentric alumni and rude remarks about former colleagues who had ‘moved over’ to the other side. I could at last, on the other side, hear myself think.
(It also came at a time when four friends, Andrew, Estella, Jasper and Friso, died together on flight MH17. We had been with Andrew and the boys on the Easter trip this year and whilst we were not particularly close, their sudden loss in this way shook my understanding of ‘moving to the other side’ in a very different context. I’m still thinking that one through.)
I am of course still a member of the university community. And it is far from lonely.
In examining morale in university life, David Watson, who sees universities as ‘membership organisations’, acknowledges the complex and contradictory nature of higher education and suggests that the mesh of psychological contracts, or ‘deals’ that it involves,
‘make much of the current discourse about happiness and unhappiness in contemporary life look simplistic and banal.’ (Watson, 2009 p3)
I wonder if this is so different from other sectors. I recall difficult times at Norwich City Council in the 1990s with round after round of cuts; when as managers we had to attend a ‘star chamber’ and justify the continued existence of our service. I remember, despite some success, a palpable sense of bereavement as my own organisation suffered repeated losses of assets and morale. I don’t imagine it is any easier in the current economic climate.
Watson repeats the tale that vice-chancellors like to tell each other – go around your university or college and ask the first ten people who you meet how their morale is and the response will always be ‘rock bottom’. Ask them what they’re working on and the response will be full of life, optimism and of enthusiasm for the task in hand.
This almost certainly applies just as much in public and voluntary organisations. Generally, people care about what they do and they want to make a difference.
Jon Nixon, who writes about the moral bases of academic professionalism, describes academic practitioners as members of a ‘highly differentiated workforce’ having to ‘hammer out their sense of purposefulness within an institutional context which is morally fractured.’ (Nixon, 2008 p14)
Why this matters especially in higher education as opposed to elsewhere is that, according to Nixon, the university is the one place where we can, indeed must, ask awkward questions about why we do what we do.
I couldn’t agree more. In the university we should have the space and the freedom to think the unthinkable. It is what universities are for.
However, Nixon goes on to say that the task is virtually impossible in a context where the leaders of our institutions have ‘deserted the field’. Their abdication of moral responsibility for the university sector as a whole represents a serious ‘failure of nerve’.
Perhaps, as practitioners on the ground we need to become subversive and move into the liminal space that enables us to breathe a different air.
Gary Rolfe, in echoing Bourdieu’s ‘community of unconsciousness’ offers freedom (and possibly happiness) via a parallel existence in his ‘paraversity’ with its ‘organic, fluid, rhizomatic, evolving community of thought’ in which the ‘values-based’ researcher and lecturer have the ‘freedom to be good.’ (Rolfe, 2013)
What a shame his invitation is to academic staff only. His freedom, exercised by a ‘community of critical friends committed to the process of thinking together’ appears to be denied to those who he describes as the ‘ever-expanding administrative class’ thereby implying that the very opportunity to be good is the sole domain of the academic.
I may have ‘moved over’ but I’d like to assert a right for all members of the university, academic and administrative alike, to join in the thinking; to be ‘values-based’, whatever their role, and to experience the freedom to be good.
Why have sides?
Nixon, J (2008) Towards the Virtuous University: The Moral Bases of Academic Practice New York, Routledge
Rolfe, G (2013) The University in Dissent: Scholarship in the Corporate University London, SRHE
Schostak, J (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education, Buckingham, Open University Press
Watson, D (2009) The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life, Maidenhead, Open University Press & McGraw Hill Education