Time to abandon the gold standard? Peer review for the REF falls far short of internationally accepted standards.

Time to abandon the gold standard? Peer review for the REF falls far short of internationally accepted standards.

The REF2014 results are set to be published next month. Alongside ongoing reviews of research assessment, Derek Sayer points to the many contradictions of the REF. Metrics may have problems, but a process that gives such extraordinary gatekeeping power to individual panel members is far worse. Ultimately, measuring research quality is fraught with difficulty. Perhaps we should instead be asking which features of the research environment (a mere 15% of the assessment) are most conducive to a vibrant research culture and focus funding accordingly.  [LSE Impact Blog, 19 November 2014]


ABOLISHING PRAGUE

dereksayer:

Excellent piece by Louis Armand on Prague, mutability, and modernity.

Originally posted on equus press:

THE PERENNIAL CITY

The truth about a city can’t be gauged from the lines on a street map. And yet how can the idea of Prague exist, except as a kind of diagram of itself, the fractured geometry of an alchemist’s necronomicon, the figura mentis,figura intellectus, figura amoris

May 1945. Edvard Beneš, the man who would come to enjoy the “doubtful distinction of having signed away his country twice,”[1] stood at his window up in Prague Castle surveying the city below. Prague had just been “liberated” by the Red Army after six years as a de facto SS statelet. During that time 345,000 Czechs (263,000 of them Jews) had been killed by the Nazis, Lidice had been razed and its inhabitants murdered, and the Czech armaments industry had fed Hitler’s leviathan. The state-of-the-art Barandov film studios had meanwhile made Prague the jewel in Goebbels’ propaganda crown, safely…

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Lancaster University Professor Wins the American Historical Association’s 2014 George L. Mosse Prize

For immediate Release: October 22, 2014

Lancaster University Professor Wins the American Historical Association’s 2014 George L. Mosse Prize

Washington, DC— Derek Sayer, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, has been selected as the winner of the 2014 George L. Mosse prize for his book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton University Press, 2013). The George L. Mosse Prize is awarded annually for an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500. The prize will be awarded during a ceremony at the Association’s 129th Annual Meeting in New York, NY, January 2-5, 2015.

Sayer’s book was selected by a review committee of AHA members including Brad S. Gregory, Chair (Univ. of Notre Dame), Celia Applegate (Vanderbilt Univ.), and Michael T. Saler (Univ. of California, Davis). “Set against the city’s recurrent and often brutal political dislocations, with vast erudition that incorporates the literature, music, arts, and architecture of Prague’s cultural avant-garde from before World War I through the Velvet Revolution,” commented 2014 Mosse Prize committee chair Brad S. Gregory, “this study is as conceptually bold as it is impressively learned.”

The George L. Mosse Prize was established in honor of George Lachmann Mosse, American cultural historian, with funds donated by former students, colleagues and friends of the late Dr. Mosse.

The American Historical Association is a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies. The AHA provides leadership for the discipline, protects academic freedom, develops professional standards, aids in the pursuit and publication of scholarship, and supplies various services to sustain and enhance the work of its members. As the largest organization of historians in the United States, the AHA is comprised of over 13,000 members and serves historians representing every historical period and geographical area. For further information, visit http://www.historians.org or call 202-544-2422. ###


Internationalizing the REF: a health warning

As a result of my posts on this blog last year relating to Britain’s Research Excellence Framework (see especially here and here), I was invited to write a short book to inaugurate the new “Sage Swifts” series.

Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF will be published on December 3, 2014: a couple weeks before HEFCE is due to publish the REF results.

But today’s announcement that HEFCE is actively “exploring the benefits and challenges of expanding … the Research Excellence Framework (REF), on an international basis” with a view to “an extension of the assessment to incorporate submissions from universities overseas” suggests some advance publicity might not be untimely.  For the REF should come with a health warning.

What I find most chilling in today’s HEFCE announcement is the bald assertion (in the accompanying survey) that “The UK’s research assessment system has a positive international reputation, built on a methodology developed over more than 20 years.”

Rank Hypocrisies shows on the contrary that the procedures used to evaluate outputs by Britain’s REF panels make a mockery of peer review as understood within the international academic community.  Among the issues discussed are the narrow disciplinary remit of REF panels and their inability to evaluate interdisciplinary research, the risks of replication of entrenched academic hierarchies and networks inherent in HEFCE’s procedures for appointment of panel members, the utterly unrealistic volume of work expected of panelists, the perversity of excluding all external indicators of quality from many assessments, and the lack of competence of REF panels to provide sufficient diversity and depth of expertise to evaluate the outputs that fall under their remit.

The REF is a system in which overburdened assessors assign vaguely defined grades in fields that are frequently not their own while (within many panels) ignoring all external indicators of the academic influence of the publications they are appraising, then shred all records of their deliberations.  That HEFCE should now be seeking to extend such a “methodology” beyond Britain’s shores is risible.

*

Derek Sayer’s book is essential reading for all university researchers and research policy makers. It discusses the waste, biases and pointlessness of Britain’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), and its misuse by universities. The book is highly readable, astute, sharply analytical and very intelligent. It paints a devastating portrait of a scheme that is useless for advancing research and that does no better job at ranking research performance than do the global indexes but does so for a huge cost in time, money, duplication, and irritation. Anyone interested in research ranking, assessment, and the contemporary condition of the universities should read this book.

Peter Murphy, Professor of Arts and Society, James Cook University

Rank Hypocrisies offers a compellingly convincing critique of the research auditing exercise to which university institutions have become subject. Derek Sayer lays bare the contradictions involved in the REF and provides a forensic analysis of the problems and inconsistencies inherent in the exercise as it is currently constituted. A must read for all university academic staff and the fast multiplying cadre of higher education managers and, in particular, government ministers and civil servants in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

Barry Smart, Professor of Sociology, University of Portsmouth

Academics across the world have come to see the REF – and its RAE predecessor – as an arrogant attempt to raise national research standards that has resulted in a variety of self-inflicted wounds to UK higher education. Derek Sayer is the Thucydides of this situation. A former head of the Lancaster history department, he fell on his sword trying to deal with a university that behaved in an increasingly irrational manner as it tried to game a system that is fundamentally corrupt in both its conception and execution. Rank Hypocrisies is more than a cri de coeur. It is the best documented diagnosis of a regime that has distorted the idea of peer review beyond recognition. Only someone with the clear normative focus of a former insider could have written this work. Thucydides would be proud.”

Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, Warwick University

Sayer makes a compelling argument that the Research Excellence Framework is not only expensive and divisive, but is also deeply flawed as an evaluation exercise. Rank Hypocrisies is a rigorous and scholarly evaluation of the REF, yet written in a lively and engaging style that makes it highly readable.

Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and Wellcome Principal Research Fellow, University of Oxford

The REF is right out of Havel’s and Kundera’s Eastern Europe: a state-administered exercise to rank academic research like hotel chains – 2 star, 3 star – dependent on the active collaboration of the UK professoriate. In crystalline text steeped in cold rage, Sayer takes aim at the REF’s central claim, that it is a legitimate process of expert peer review. He provides a short history of the RAE/REF. He critiques university and national-level REF processes against actual practices of scholarly review as found in academic journals, university presses, and North American tenure procedures. His analysis is damning. If the REF fails as scholarly review, how can academics and universities continue to participate? And how can government use its rankings as a basis for public policy?

Tarak Barkawi, Reader in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics

  More details of the book (which will be available in hardback and electronic formats) may be found here.


Call for Papers: Academic Freedom and the Contemporary Academy

In 2015 it will be thirty years since Philip Corrigan and I published The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Blackwell, 1985), a book that did much to popularize the concept of moral regulation as a category of political analysis. The birth of the Journal of Historical Sociology, which Philip and I co-founded, was bound up with the political project of that book. It seems appropriate to mark this anniversary by attending to present-day forms of moral regulation that gravely threaten everything an open interdisciplinary scholarly journal like the JHS stands for.

In December 2013 the Kansas Board of Regents empowered universities to dismiss faculty whose “improper use” of social media was “contrary to the best interests of the university.” Months later Steven Salaita was “de-hired” before he could take up a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of tweets criticizing Israel for its actions in Gaza. Meantime the University of Saskatchewan in Canada dismissed Robert Buckingham, dean of its School of Health Sciences, because his public challenge to the budget-setting process constituted “egregious conduct and insubordination” that “damaged the reputation of the university.” On the other side of the Atlantic Thomas Docherty, a prominent critic of UK higher education, has been suspended from his position at Warwick University since January 2014 charged with “undermining the authority of his head of department” and allegedly banned from any contact with his colleagues or students—a Kafkan state of affairs whose acceptance within the sector might be taken as a mark of how abject contemporary British academia has become.

We believe these well-publicized recent cases are symptoms of a much wider crisis of regulation in universities, in which neoliberal university managers concerned to advance the institutional “brand” run up against assumptions of academic freedom that were the bedrock of the liberal university. Attempts to regulate communication in a world in which communication is potentially freer than ever before, however, are merely the tip of a very large iceberg. What lies beneath the surface is less visible but no less dangerous: an arsenal of regulatory routines whose cumulative effect is to reduce the academic profession to a docile workforce that can be relied upon to police itself. The progressive “adjunctification” of university teaching on both sides of the Atlantic and the increasing “management” of research through regimes like Britain’s REF are important aspects of this process and no less corrosive of academic freedom.

The Journal of Historical Sociology is planning a special double issue on Academic Freedom and the Contemporary Academy. As always with the JHS, our hope is to use particular instances to focus the bigger picture. We welcome submissions from all disciplines and any standpoint. Contributions should be either regular articles (max. 7000 words) or briefer pieces that document experiences or develop positions (2500-3000 words). We are also open to other forms of contribution (e.g. interviews) but please contact us first. Please send abstracts/proposals by October 31, 2014.

Please direct all inquiries and contributions to Derek Sayer (d.sayer@lancaster.ac.uk) or Yoke-Sum Wong (y.wong@lancaster.ac.uk).

Derek Sayer
14 September 2014


Getting your teeth stuck into High Performer Misconduct

One for the odorous comparisons department.

I was intrigued to come across (via a Facebook friend) an article comparing “outspoken” and “insubordinate” academics to the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez, who was kicked out of the World Cup for biting an opponent.

The article is by one David Browne, who is a Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, “a full-service UK law firm with global reach.”  “We pride ourselves,” the firm says on its website, “in providing exceptional legal advice which is client-focused—our approach of immersing ourselves in our client’s sectors and businesses ensures we are best placed to provide pragmatic and pro-active solutions to achieve excellent results.”

The core of Browne’s comparison is as follows:

“Universities and colleges may, equally, encounter high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand. This could be through outspoken opinion or general insubordination. Irrespective of how potentially valuable these employees may be to their institutions, the reality is that, in consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour, institutions may be setting dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated. From a risk perspective, it is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before.

As much as employers may hope that unacceptable behaviour from key employees will be curbed without sanction, in reality the problems will persist, needing to be addressed further down the line. It remains to be seen whether Suarez is right when he says that he will never bite another player again, but he has made similar statements before.”

Never mind that biting an opponent is (a) contrary to the rules of the game of football and (b) an assault under most systems of criminal law.  I am sure university managers will find Mr Browne’s advice a “pragmatic and proactive solution” to the sorts of problems that arise when “academically brilliant” people open their mouths in ways their employers find “unacceptable.”  Once upon a time this was known as academic freedom.

The full article can be found here:

Getting your teeth stuck into High Performer Misconduct.

UPDATE.  Since I posted the above, SGA Martineau have issued a clarification to Browne’s original article.  It reads as follows:

This blog has attracted rather a lot of attention on twitter, and has been interpreted by some as suggesting that the exercise of academic freedom might amount to misconduct. That was never the intention of the piece and we are happy to clarify that the lawful exercise of academic freedom does not amount to misconduct. However there may be circumstances where opinions and/or behaviour fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom and in these cases questions of misconduct may arise. Appropriate clarifications have been made to the text below.

So that’s alright, then.

For more on this see John Holmwood’s excellent commentary, which goes to the heart of the matter: http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2014/07/04/academic-freedom-and-the-corporate-university/


Five light pieces on a serious subject: why we want the university president’s job | openDemocracy

The witty campaign of mass applications by groups of four mostly junior or adjunct faculty for the $400,000 a year job of President of the University of Alberta has served to highlight much that is disturbing about the way universities are headed internationally.  The conjunction of ever-rising numbers of overpaid managers, cuts to tenured or permanent faculty positions, and greater and greater reliance on a reserve army of adjuncts is a transatlantic phenomenon.  It would be nice to see similarly spirited and intelligent resistance in the UK.  In this piece two of those involved in the Alberta action explain their thinking more fully.

Five light pieces on a serious subject: why we want the university president’s job | openDemocracy.

The debate has also been taken up in the New York Times.  Kathy Causey, the associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, who inaugurated the U of A mass application campaign, concludes her “Room for Debate” piece:

“If the compensation for university presidents should reflect their credentials, backgrounds and the jobs they do, then surely the compensation for the many adjuncts they employ should likewise reflect their credentials (Ph.D.’s), backgrounds (years of teaching) and jobs (the same work as tenured faculty). If universities are the “marketplace,” we should be able to decide what cost the marketplace will bear. The leaders of universities, in these times of austerity, need to lead by example.”


Update: The Situation at the University of Saskatchewan and the Academic Freedom of Academic Administrators

dereksayer:

More on Robert Buckingham’s firing/unfiring and the disturbing implications that remain for academic freedom. Another excellent analysis from Carolyn Sale at the University of Alberta.

Originally posted on Arts Squared:

Yesterday the University of Saskatchewan partly reversed the decision its Provost, Brett Fairbairn, took on Wednesday morning in regard to the position and tenure of the Dean of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham. On Wednesday morning, Buckingham was deprived of his position as Dean, fired from his position as a tenured professor, and apparently informed he could never return to campus for a letter that he had written to members of the Government of Saskatchewan and others the day before. The letter charges the University of Saskatchewan’s President with subjecting administrators, especially Deans, to a regime of silence in regard to the restructuring process, “TransformUS,” underway at the University of Saskatchewan. Yesterday, asserting that the principle of tenure is “sacrosanct,” the President declared in interviews that the University had “blundered” and Professor Buckingham would now freshly be “offered a tenured faculty position.”

With this decision, the President of the University of Saskatchewan…

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Why I Love the Prague Coffee House Kafka Didn’t Frequent

Image

Some time back I was asked to contribute a piece on any location in Prague for the “Where I go” feature of the internet magazine Zocalo Public Square.  I chose to write (again) about the Grand Cafe Slavia.  It finally came out earlier this week.  Here it is.


U Sask climbs down, Buckingham unfired, questions remain

The Saskatchewan Star-Phoenix reports that the University of Saskatchewan has hastily reversed parts of its decision to fire Director of the School of Public Health Dr Robert Buckingham for publicly criticizing the administration and given him his tenure (though not his Deanship) back.  This is welcome news.

Serious questions remain.

University of Saskatchewan president Irene Busch-Vishniac has issued a statement complaining that the U of S received “inaccurate and undeserved” criticism from across Canada after Buckingham’s firing.

“The debate that is raging,” she says, “confuses Dr. Buckingham’s former role as executive director of the School of Public Health with the academic freedom associated with of a tenured faculty member. In his role as an administrator at a level that removes him from the faculty association, Dr. Buckingham is not only permitted but encouraged to have opinions that might disagree with those developed by top administrators.  However, once a decision is made at the institutional level, all senior leaders must publicly conform to that decision or resign their leadership role.”

No, Dr Busch-Vishniac, it was you and your cronies who “confused” Professor Buckingham’s roles by depriving him of tenure as a punishment for stepping out of line as an administrator.  And the whole world knows it.  Thanks to social media.

Perhaps you and others in universities tempted to use disciplinary procedures to close down free and open debate over issues of public concern might think twice next time.

 

 


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