Getting nasty: Lancaster demands I censor my REF posts

I today received an email from Trevor McMillan, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Lancaster University, asking that I “address two very serious issues” connected with my previous posts about Lancaster’s selection of History staff for the 2014 REF on this blog.  The letter was not marked confidential.

Professor McMillan is concerned, first, that the identity of History’s Critical Friend “has been easily deducible from the information I have posted online.” He asks that I “modify the text online to remove this possibility and also write to Professor ________ to apologise for what has been posted.”

As Professor McMillan very well knows, the “removal of the relevant text from my blog” for which he asks will seriously weaken the presentation of the procedural issues at stake in my appeal, to the undoubted advantage of the University in what has become an increasingly public debate.

Two key arguments in my case are (1) that the professional experience that led the History Department to invite Professor ________ to become its Critical Friend did not qualify him for the role he came subsequently to occupy in Lancaster History’s REF process; specifically, (2) that Professor ________ ‘s particular field of academic expertise did not qualify him to make judgments of the “originality, rigor and significance” of many colleagues’ outputs within the Department, including my own.  Since these judgments played a key part in the University’s selection of staff for submission in the REF, Lancaster’s procedures did not meet HEFCE’s requirements.

Professor McMillan demands I now remove from my blog (1) my description of Professor ________ ‘s area of expertise together with (2) any reference to the professional experience that led us to invite him to become our Critical Friend in the first place, in the interests of maintaining his anonymity.  My case will thereby lose much of its evidential support.  I am permitted to make generic arguments, but not to publish the facts on which they rest.

This is an excellent example of how what Paolo Palladino, in his original Open Letter, referred to as the “culture of secrecy” surrounding the REF at Lancaster works to suppress free discussion and dissent.

I shall remove “the relevant text” from my blog, but only because I shall lay myself to disciplinary action for disregarding the direct instructions of a superior if I do not.  I am also happy to write to Professor ________ explaining my actions, but not to apologize for them.  To apologize would constitute an admission of a liability that I do not accept.

The second issue that concerns Professor McMillan is this:

Your implied comparison online of compliance with the REF process and attitudes to the Holocaust has caused some great distress among a number of your colleagues at Lancaster.  While we clearly support academic freedom for our staff I hope that you will see that this cannot go so far as real upset caused to colleagues and therefore this warrants the removal of the relevant text from your blog.

For those interested, the full text of the post concerned can be found here.

I did not “compare the REF to the Holocaust.”  The specific problem I raised was explaining how individuals involved in administering the REF are prepared to engage in actions that may damage the reputations and careers of colleagues, even though they know that the processes of evaluation involved are far less rigorous than those normally used in academia.  This might be seen as an instance of a more general problem of how ordinary decent folks sometimes do extraordinary and indecent things when required or empowered to do so by the bureaucratic organizations for whom they work.

I cited a number of classic studies (Weber, Foucault, Havel) in the sociological literature that variously address this problem.  I could have mentioned others: the Milgram experiments, for instance, in which randomly-selected subjects showed themselves willing to administer powerful doses of electric shock to fellow human beings when reassured by people in white coats that it was OK to do so, or Adorno and Horkheimer’s Authoritarian Personality.  Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust is a pivotal work in this tradition, and is seen as a seminal contribution to the field precisely because of the way it brings out the connections between the extreme evil of the Holocaust and the everyday routines and expectations of modern bureaucracies—like, in this case, universities.

Since I doubt Professor McMillan—or, possibly, some of those who claim to have been caused “great distress” by my reference to Modernity and the Holocaust—will find the time, as the REF cull at Lancaster nears its conclusion, to read one of the great classics of contemporary sociology, let me give you Wikipedia’s summary of Bauman’s argument:

Drawing upon Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno’s books on totalitarianism and the Enlightenment, Bauman developed the argument that the Holocaust should not simply be considered to be an event in Jewish history, nor a regression to pre-modern barbarism. Rather, he argued, the Holocaust should be seen as deeply connected to modernity and its order-making efforts.  Procedural rationality, the division of labour into smaller and smaller tasks, the taxonomic categorisation of different species, and the tendency to view rule-following as morally good all played their role in the Holocaust coming to pass.  And he argued that for this reason modern societies have not fully taken on board the lessons of the Holocaust; it is generally viewed—to use Bauman’s metaphor—like a picture hanging on a wall, offering few lessons.

I am not going to be intimidated out of applying the analysis of bureaucracy and conformity developed in the discipline in which I was trained, sociology, to my own workplace, or to the REF more generally.  I do not regard the fact that people claim to have been “upset” by my reference to Bauman as sufficient reason to remove the reference from the blog, as Professor McMillan demands.  It is a wholly unwarranted intrusion into the academic freedom to which all Lancaster University employees should be entitled.  I will therefore not remove or amend this post.

Let me finally say that several of my colleagues at Lancaster have also been caused “great distress” by their exclusion from University’s submission to the 2014 REF.  They have ample reason for feeling “real upset.”  As I put it in an earlier post on this blog,

I find it poignant that so cavalier an attitude toward evaluating the research of colleagues should be adopted in a university that requires external examiners for PhDs to be “an experienced member of another university qualified … to assess the thesis within its own field” and—unlike in North America—also requires all undergraduate work to be both second-marked internally and open to inspection by an external examiner before it can count toward a degree.   Why are those whose very livelihood depends on their research—and its reputation for quality—not given at least equivalent consideration as the students they teach?

I understand why the University might prefer discussion to focus on my alleged breaches of confidentiality and upsetting of colleagues rather than its own lamentably inadequate REF procedures.  But does Professor McMillan really want to go on record as saying that “academic freedom for our staff … cannot go so far as real upset caused to colleagues,” while at the same time maintaining that the freedom of administrators to evaluate people’s research in the way Lancaster has in History–with all its demonstrably distressing effects for individuals who are excluded from the REF as a consequence–should be above public debate or criticism?


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