Luke's Notes

Sussex Stories 5: The Farthing Years 2007-16 Part 1

Continued from Sussex Stories 4

The dream is over

The interdisciplinary structures had gone. But more was to come. The university motto 'Be Still and Know' became rarely seen in any public face of the university. There was very little 'Be Still' in the post-2007 period. 'Knowing' also went on the back burner. Education and knowledge were a low priority compared to rationalisation, money, and managerial control in the years to come. Two or three years into this post-2007 period I bumped into Alasdair Smith, the previous Vice-Chancellor (VC, the university CEO), in a café and said 'Come back Alasdair, all is forgiven'. 'I can't do that', he replied.

Money, money, money: flashy buildings

Michael Farthing arrived in 2007 as the new Vice-Chancellor. I was told later that in the interviews for the job he had been the only appointable candidate. It was a shame we had not had more choice. The first years seemed quite quiet. On arrival, Farthing was given a tour of the campus and was said to have expressed dissatisfaction at the state of the furniture in the buildings. There was a programme of refurbishment of lecture theatres and seminar rooms and so on. It seemed a bit superficial to me and I actually preferred the rooms as they were before.

A programme of putting up flashy buildings got underway. Arts D and E where I had had offices were deemed too broken to be saved (they were also the least attractive buildings on the arts and social sciences side) and were demolished and replaced by a flashy new building. It had a large atrium which took up so much room it did not leave much space for offices and teaching rooms around the edges. The management buzz phrase at the time was 'wow factor'. Buildings had to express this and the atrium was an attempt at it. This was not to wow the students or the staff but parents at open days. Marketing for money was put before functionality for students and staff.

Other new buildings popped up so we had somewhere to teach the expanding student numbers and the students had somewhere to sleep. We were told it was in tune with the Spence traditions. But it was not. It was architectural brutality. The devoted and careful Spence design was in ruins.

Sociology, Law, and Politics were supposed to move into the flashy atrium building but it became clear that the expansion of the university would mean there would only be room there for the business school. I was sorry this would lead to us being placed at the perimeter of the campus away from most of my arts and social science colleagues and the beautiful Spence buildings they were in. But I could not care less about the flashy building. There was outrage, however, that we would not get our glitzy new accommodation and Farthing had to come and speak to members of the school to pacify them. I was told in my early days at Sussex that the only things academics ever got worked up about were car parking and office space. Sure enough, there was also much discontent when parking charges for car users were introduced. Academics were concerned about more but there did seem to be some truth in the parking and offices preoccupation.

While we were waiting to be moved into our refurbished building we were in a prefab for a year or two or maybe longer, I can't remember exactly. I actually quite liked it. It adjoined a tiny wild area with a pond, trees surrounding it, and a rough path running through. Outside my window were trees and squirrels, who would sometimes pop in through office windows and eat people's lunch while they were out. One colleague made a tray of meringues for her students at their final seminar. She left them unattended in her room for a few minutes. You know what happened next. I can only assume Farthing never stumbled across this lovely unruly patch because it was exactly his sort of prime target for destructive modernisation.

I was on the project management committee for the refurbishment of the building we were to move into. Most of the people who attended were architects, IT people, heating, electrical and wiring experts, and so on. The three heads of department from the school were on the committee to keep an eye out for the staff and student interests. I had become a HoD (head of department) again (see later). No-one representing the professional services staff (non-academic support staff) was invited to attend, which seemed a real act of snobbery and contempt. The committee opened up a new world of building design to me and, possibly, alongside my membership of the Criminal Convictions Sub-committee, was one of the most fascinating experiences of my time at Sussex. The committee was chaired by PVC (Pro-Vice Chancellor, a deputy to the VC) Chris Marlin, who I had got to know as the PVC who led negotiations with the union when I was UCU (University and College Union) branch president (again, see later).

All these new buildings had to be paid for somehow. I wondered where the money would come from.


We had recently had the Smith restructuring but Farthing didn't like it and decided to launch another one. The schools, he felt, were too big for the Deans to manage. So we were restructured into smaller schools. A dozen new managers were employed, with corporate management styles, in newly created posts on huge salaries. It was all openly about increasing managerial control. The old-school traditional academic title 'Dean' was replaced by 'Head of School'.  

Again, I wondered where the money was going to come from to pay for the large Heads of School salaries. A higher education economist that the unions consulted later told us that for a university of its size Sussex spent a disproportionately large amount on £100k+ salaries. Also that the management had built up unusually large debts to pay for its big spending. Both were management choices. And big salaries and debt have to be paid.

It was not really clear where Sociology would go in the incoming structures. I attended a meeting between the senior staff of the Sociology and Politics departments and the Law School to investigate whether we could make a school of the three departments. The lawyers were in suits, the sociologists were in jeans and t-shirts, and Politics were somewhere in between. I said that if we had to conform to common sartorial standards this was never going to work. The fact that people laughed gave me some optimism. And, in fact, we did end up going into a school together and having more in common than I thought we would. Law turned out to be quite sociological and political and we had many common interests.

This was the second restructuring in a short period. The restructurings caused massive amounts of work that stopped us doing a lot of what we were supposed to be doing. The joke became that when you met other members of staff for the first time you didn't ask how long they'd been at Sussex, you asked which restructuring they had arrived in.

Admin and counselling restructuring

The co-ordinators had had offices alongside the academics and got to know staff and students through daily interactions. Under Farthing's reorganisation of the university, administrative staff were pooled in big school offices away from academic staff and students and were expected to stand in for each other and overlap. Until then the administrators would spot students with problems and refer them on, but under the new system they saw their own students less. We as staff also saw less and less of the co-ordinators on a daily basis. Under the new system, identified student problems declined. Either students were having fewer problems or we were no longer spotting them. You work it out. As with most of the Farthing reforms a system that was good for wellbeing and education was taken away in the name of a rationalisation which was on trend at the time.

Under Farthing counselling was also taken out of decentralised offices in school buildings, where counsellors were close to students and staff, rubbing shoulders with them regularly. It was radically cut and centralised. At one meeting with the VC, a member of staff asked whether the restructuring could lead to a failure to prevent suicides. He replied that the existing system was expensive.

Come Together: 2009-10, 115 staff and 6 students

In 2009 the second of my kids, my son, had gone to university a year or two before. I had adapted to life alone despite predictions I would struggle. But I decided after a while to get a cat. I had always loved cats and now felt it was the right time. Yul joined me in December 2009, a brown striped kitten with patches of ginger that came through more and more as she got older. Her early weeks were snowy and we hunkered down with the heating on over Christmas while I wrote at my desk and she slept on the bookcase next to me.

But just before she arrived a bombshell dropped. The university announced 115 redundancies across a whole range of units, support staff and academic. Of the latter, 10% of lecturers were earmarked for ejection. For many of them, given the academic job market, it would likely mean the end of their careers. Student counselling was, as mentioned, to be slashed and centralised. Other areas were to be reduced. The redundancies announcements followed the appointment of the well-remunerated new managers that had come in. The caring and sharing parts of the university were being cut and highly paid managerial control expanded.

As a fairly hands-off union rep for my department I was suddenly thrown into meetings to consult with us about the way forward. A union general meeting was called. It was packed. It became clear that all but one of the local union committee were up for redundancy. In some cases, this was probably a coincidence. People were put in pools out of which a certain number had to be made redundant and it just happened the UCU reps were in pools of people in units to be reduced. Others in the units apart from the union reps could have been those to go. But in the case of the branch president he was in a pool of one. It was said his job was no longer needed. When he was eventually made redundant a new post very like his was advertised and another person appointed. He was excellent at his job so that was not the reason he was pushed out. It was not very subtle. Luckily he got a new job in university administration and came to visit us on our picket line in a later dispute. He is a keen photographer and I still follow his fox photos.

One day I was walking down a university pathway, outside the main catering building. I heard the thumping of loud bass and saw one of my students in a car driving alongside me. The bass was so loud the car was literally vibrating. The passenger side window wound down and the student leaned over, animated. 'Luke, I've just been to Portsmouth Uni and I'm about to go to Kent. There are going to be a wave of occupations across the south coast'. It sounded like bravado and very hopeful.

But one day soon after, protesting students stormed the management building in support of the union campaign against redundancies and there was a noisy occupation. Police were called and the students were ejected within hours. As I passed the occupied building I bumped into the union branch president who himself had been ousted from his office by the occupation. He told me our ballot for action had just yielded the biggest turnout in the history of the national union. 80% voted in the ballot, 76% for a strike and 82% for action short of a strike.

As consultations with the unions continued, three days of strike action were proposed, one before the Easter break and two after. The union had made alternative proposals for saving money (called the Unique Solution, US echoing the university's branding initials) and the aim was the action would bring the management to the table to discuss this proposal. At the relevant union general meeting, I argued that the management would just sit out the three days of strike action and then carry on with the process. It would be no more than an expensive (in terms of lost pay) demonstration. We would need to have more sustained continuing action. But a motion on this was voted down. People felt they could not take the hit to their pay packets that multiple strike days would involve. Years later during the pension dispute, this all changed. Members would take rolling ongoing action on dozens of days over and over. But not this time.

library cuts.jpg

Library banner drop 2010 in support of the 115 staff

The student paper The Badger asked me to write an article explaining why we were on strike, which I did. I found out that I hadn't been the first person to be asked. Others had declined, worried that sticking their head above the parapet would lead to them being added to the redundancy list. There was a new culture of fear at the university. As the years went on I got invited sometimes to speak at student demos. It was often me that got called upon. It seemed there was a limited pool of staff available for this job. My politically moderate Mum wrote to Farthing during this campaign, aghast at what was going on. She was worried it would get me into trouble so she used her maiden name. She didn't get a reply. Not even some rubbish standardised letter that got sent to everyone.

After the occupiers had been ejected 6 of them were picked out for disciplinary action. They came to be known as the Sussex 6. They were banned from coming on to campus pending their case. On one strike day they came to the perimeter of the campus about 200 yards from the picket line and in a striking moment waved to us all from afar, receiving roars of supportive cheers in return.

The 6 suspended students got in touch with members of staff about accompanying them to their disciplinary hearings. One of my students asked me to go with her and the students held meetings with us at one of their houses to prepare. The hearings went ahead and some of the more serious charges were dropped after an intense and passionate effort by one of the staff accompanying the first two occupiers going before the panel. Other charges were upheld and the students were fined. The staff union raised the funds to pay the fines for the brave students who had supported us. The students were reinstated and finished their studies. The student I accompanied went on to become a human rights lawyer specialising in representing people who are victims of the state - the police and mental health services, for instance.

In the end, 112 redundancies were made. This was before the third strike day which consequently did not happen. Staff took voluntary redundancy, as the offer was better than for the compulsory redundancy that would otherwise inevitably follow. In many cases, it was compulsory redundancy to all intents and purposes but the university could deceptively dress it up as voluntary. It was lying and disingenuous of the management to present it as all having ended up happily and harmoniously.

During this dispute, I was dismissed and patronised on the picket line (and elsewhere) by people I knew and thought I respected who said there just wasn't enough money and the cuts had to be made, as if I was stupid and naive and the union's activists were a bunch of ignorant knuckleheads. In this case and all the others I was involved in in the union (more to come), we looked carefully at the management cases, looked for evidence, took expert advice on the finances and law, explored alternatives, and tried to think creatively. This took us time and tested our wellbeing. You wonder how someone can be an academic in theory but drop all the standards of that in practice and passively accept what the management told them without any effort to investigate it critically. We found that these issues were not about if there was enough money but how you choose to spend it, choices not necessity. The management must have been laughing at people who just bought their case without exploration, that this was what had to be done. Who were the stupid ones here? I tried my best to be respectful and friendly to them.

Professor of Political Sociology 2010

I had applied for promotion to Professor sometime in the 2000s, I can't remember exactly when. For months after I applied I heard nothing. I mentioned this to the Dean and he said he'd have a word with the PVC in charge of professorial promotions. The Dean called me in one day with a grim doom-laden face. I thought someone must have died. But it turned out that I had just been unsuccessful in my application. I really did not care. It was more the money than the glory I was interested in this time and I would just apply again at a later date. It turned out my application had been dealt with months before. The PVC had just never got around to telling me the outcome. He must have been busy. When I met him and asked for advice about what I needed to do to better meet the criteria for promotion he seemed lost about what to say. He scanned the papers before him and said just keep on doing what you're doing. It wasn't that helpful so I just forgot about it and had another go in 2010.

I got invited for an interview after I applied this time, which usually means you have got it and they have to go through the motions of meeting you. The professor promotion panels are chaired by the VC, in this case Farthing. At this point it was after the 2010 redundancies but before I was UCU president so I had not had much to do with him directly and had a fairly low profile at the university. At the interview the PVC asked about leadership roles I would like to take up at the university as a professor. I said I had been elected to be Vice President of UCU. This was a recognised university role. I said I would like to use the role to promote a more consensual culture at the university. People on the committee suddenly found papers on their desks they needed to look at or shuffle. I would rather have said it and had it counted against me, than not say it and live with not having made the point about Farthing's approach. But the panel told me I had been successful.

I had to choose a more specific title than Professor of Sociology. So I became Professor of Political Sociology in 2010. After my interview Farthing said to the committee that being promoted to professor was not the end, it was a beginning. I was thinking of winding down actually. But that's not how it worked out. I later found out that another professor in my department had lobbied the Head of Sociology at the time to recommend against my promotion. Most of my colleagues over the years have been amazing. But I've had the odd nasty very egotistical one.

As soon as I became professor people started treating me differently, and with a lot more honour and respect. I was amazed. I was still the same person as the day before I got promoted. I was also very sceptical about professorial promotions. It was obvious that some people got promoted to professor on dodgy grounds. They threatened to leave and were promoted to persuade them to stay, maybe 5 -10 years before they would have been promoted to professor through normal channels. Some people got their mates to write references for their promotion applications. You were not supposed to get mates to do that, but it depended on how you defined 'mate'. On promotions committees in general I was very disappointed in how people were treated. One person I mentioned earlier in these stories had clearly met the promotion criteria, I think it was for Senior Lecturer, but people on the promotions committee I was on said it was 'too early' for them to be promoted. However much I pleaded that there were criteria and they had been met regardless of timing it did not matter. There was always an HR rep on the committees and they did not intervene to correct these clear transgressions of process and injustice. They would just say that it was at the discretion of the committee. Of course, many people were rightly and justly promoted to professor or other ranks.

Sussex UCU President

Most of the union branch committee left after the 2009-10 dispute ended. It wasn't easy to replace them as no-one wanted to put themselves in the firing line of this management. I was, however, persuaded to help fill the gaps and joined the committee. Within weeks someone had to be Vice-President and I agreed. Then, soon after, the new President resigned. No-one wanted to be in the position of the previous president, who it was seen had been picked out to be sacked. But in the absence of any other takers I agreed to take up the role. I knew very little about the details of employment issues and I threw myself into training days at the union London HQ. It was a steep learning curve from being a lowly branch rep to suddenly be in consultations with the university central management. It had echoes of the time 17 years before when I had suddenly become chair of the SPT division in an emergency and had to adapt fast.

After going on holiday to Istanbul in 2010 with my then grown-up kids I came back for union training on the Sussex campus with national UCU officials. After several days of further training at UCU national HQ in 2011 I became the proud recipient of a National Open College Network Level 1 and 2 Award in Trade Unions Today certificate. This was validated by the College of Haringey, Enfield, and North East London. It was my first educational qualification since I received my PhD 20 years before.

At an early union training event at the London head office the trainees were put in groups of 3 and in my group I had to play the role of union rep, one other person the manager, and the third the member. We had to role-play a meeting about a disciplinary problem. Suddenly the person acting as the member started shouting at the manager and admitting to serious disciplinary offences and the manager started behaving in an authoritarian bullying way. I was aghast and completely taken by surprise. I told the 'manager' I needed to talk to the 'member' in private. I took him away and had a quiet word with him about his behaviour but he kept shouting and being aggressive. It then dawned on me that it was a set-up. The trainers had told the 'member' and 'manager' to act up. It seemed my response had been the right one. It was good training. I encountered similar situations in real casework I was later involved in.

Yul the cat was joined a year or two later by Sidney, a black and white cat. My son got Sid for his international model girlfriend, but when they split up I got custody of the cat. Sid is from Upper Clapton in Hackney originally, but is the more mild-mannered of the two cats.

The first thing I had done when arriving at Sussex in 1990 was go and find the union branch secretary George Rehin and ask if I could join the union. George was also a colleague in the Sociology group, a mild-mannered American teaching race and racism, in what students described as a very laid-back style. George also did the annual planning of teaching for the Sociology group and would send around highly complex photocopied handwritten charts of our teaching allocations that I am not sure we all understood. George was astonished when I sought him out to join UCU and said, to my surprise, that active requests to join the union were not what he was used to. It was pre-internet and I think then the union recruited by leafletting staff induction days and peoples' pigeonholes. Later when I was on the union committee, HR came up with some ridiculous reason why the union could not have a table outside staff induction meetings.

I wasn't active in the union for quite a time after arriving. I joined in the strikes but rarely joined the picket line. I felt awkward about picketing for higher academic salaries. There was not then the large academic precariat that came along later who I was more happy to more actively support. Many people joined the union as an insurance policy or out of principled commitment to unions. But it wasn't really until the 2009-10 redundancies campaign and then the later pensions disputes that it really mobilised a very broad cross-section of members actively as well as the core diehards. The pensions dispute especially radicalised a lot of people around collectivism.

Reducing the institutional headcount: Senate and REF

I felt there was little we could do to improve what the union branch did under the previous excellent local leadership. But during my time as UCU branch president, we tried to be a bit more frequent and open in communications with members. Members of the branch committee had been mostly non-academic for a while, but more academic staff joined the committee.

One issue that came up was a code of conduct for how Sussex handled the external research assessment process, the REF (Research Excellence Framework). The management proposed that staff who did not do well in the preparatory internal mock REF could be put through capability processes and potentially sacked. This was proposed by a PVC who liked to use phrases like 'reducing the institutional headcount' to describe mass sackings. It was a crazy proposal. Taking a snapshot of someone's research at one moment was not a good way of judging their research capabilities. Putting them into such a scary process should have been a real last resort and not something put in our faces as a threat upfront. There was an uproar and I tried to coordinate opposition, especially on Senate which I was a member of.

At one Senate meeting where this was being discussed the VC looked at me eye to eye across the room and said 'You have been very active on this issue, Luke', before all members of the meeting. Senate was the main academic body of the university. I don't think I had contacted him about it at this point so someone was keeping him informed of my role. Relatedly, in union consultations with the management, the Director of HR showed an uncanny knowledge of the content of our emails to members. She was clearly being given access to them by someone. Bob Allison, the PVC who was running the REF process, asked me to meet him for a coffee in a campus cafe. Bob was a towering man with a big smile and a booming voice. He asked me if I would join a Senate working group to discuss revising the REF code of conduct. It was obviously a ruse to get me on there as UCU President so they could say the union was on their side. There was some discussion on the union committee about co-option and whether I should accept. I thought it was better to be in than out. I said to Bob I would join the working group as long as it was clear I was not on it in my union role but as an academic on Senate. So I joined and the group of 6 or 7 of us came up with a reasonably good document. At the Senate meeting where the document was approved, Bob made a show of saying to everyone that every member of the working group was behind what the document said. Several people looked round at me smiling.

Also on Senate, we had a meeting about what fee level should be set at Sussex, with fees of £9000 having been allowed by the government. The Director of Finance gave a paper in which he set out his costings to show that a university degree at Sussex cost £9000 exactly. I thought it was remarkable that the cost had come to match exactly the maximum fee that the university wanted to charge.

Student union reps were on Senate and were very supportive of us in our various campaigns. SU presidents Tom Wills and Kelly McBride steered careful lines during the 2009-10 redundancies and the anti-outsourcing campaigns respectively. David Cichon and his fellow officers were friendly and supportive when I was UCU President. I worked with many great Student Union officers when I was UCU president and before and after that. I won't name them but they know who they are. They were always fully behind our union even when we pursued actions that were very disruptive to their members, the students.

I hated Senate. The physical set-up was that the management would sit at a top table facing the rest of the members and we would be in rows facing them. What happened to meetings in the round? The power structure was made clear. There was an expectation that people should speak properly, which meant not directly or with any fundamental criticisms. Mild questions which did not question the status quo were allowed if you spoke in accepted language. You were allowed to raise doubts and accept management reassurances that you didn't need to worry about them. Incredibly, liberal members of Senate seemed to find this kind of brush-off sufficient. You were not allowed to email the membership of Senate without going through the secretary of it. One time I had a critical agenda item I had sent in days (maybe more) in advance. Towards the end of the day before the morning meeting the next day it had not been sent out. All other agenda items had had the items and papers put out. It was obvious my paper would, exceptionally, be sent out too late for people to read it before the meeting so I just emailed the membership myself. I got a reprimand the next day by the VC at the meeting in front of anyone, saying I had not followed set procedures. When I tried to speak at Senate I sometimes got interrupted, one time by a PVC when I had only just started to speak. I had to ask to be able to continue after the interruption so I could say what I had set out to. The management tried to rule critical agenda items out of order. It was a censoring controlled body where you were expected to behave within narrow boundaries of politeness and acceptance. You were expected to meet standards of civility in performance that the management made no attempt to meet in their practices at the university. The minutes were unbalanced, selective, and economical with the truth. Attempts to challenge them were dismissed. When I was not on Senate I sometimes lobbied my Senate reps to represent views on certain items.That was the whole point. They did not have to agree with the views but they were supposed to at least convey those that came up from us. They were reps. They said they would do their best but then sometimes did not. This was my experience of Senate in this period. It may have been different at other times. And, of course, there were brave members of Senate who spoke out despite this all.

There were three major campaigns while I was union president: on the staff Statute 21, outsourcing, and the closure of continuing education. I'll come back to these soon. We were also in dispute over changes to our pensions and took industrial action over this while I was President but I deal with this dispute in the last part of these Sussex stories. I had always been suspicious of managers, but saw them as misled or misguided and corrupted by power and bureaucratic constraints on them. But in this period, when I got face to face with senior management on a day-to-day basis in consultations over these issues, I got to realise just what fundamentally bad people many were, with little humanity or care or respect for people and no misgivings at all about riding roughshod and brutally over peoples lives and tearing up caring and education in pursuit of rationalisation.

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