Pushing back on restructuring

In the spirit of Chad, I’m writing this week about one of the periodic threats to politics research here in the UK.

Birkbeck is both a storied institution and one with a special educational position, delivering most of its programmes through evening classes in London. It reaches a section of society that most universities don’t or can’t.

The plans to restructure have been left rather vague by senior management, but include options to drop significant numbers in a range of departments, including Politics, whose members include names you’ve probably heard of, wherever you’re from.

There are petitions you can sign, and letters you can share, and I’d strongly encourage you to do so.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened, and won’t be the last: the economic downturn and tightening government support for universities have meant a lot of management meetings and opaque comms to staff and students. Despite being relatively cheap courses to run, social sciences and humanities often end up in the firing line, perhaps because there appears to be little sunk cost and because they don’t get the STEM-is-economically-vital style boosterism.

Whatever the causes, the strategies in response appear to be relatively clear.

Push up the cost of any restructuring/cuts. Management have made a call on the basis of some information, but almost inevitably not all of what’s out there. Gathering and enumerating more can be a powerful tool for those on the receiving end: show that the calculation (in both senses) doesn’t really stack up like the plan suggests. A big part of that is about the reputational damage: regardless of the money (which is usually the driver), loss of kudos matters. Likewise, cutting back some programmes or knocking a couple of people off the payroll might sound simple, but does that endanger the ability to provide what’s intended to be kept?

Mobilise your networks. First and foremost, if your students are against this, then make sure that they are heard by management. That has to be without your prodding, as an authentic display of their feelings, but equally if they come to you to ask for more information, then you’d want to share what is in the public domain. Likewise, alumni – especially if you’ve got famous people or, even better, famous people who’ve already done promo stuff for the university – are great for getting profile on this. Professional associations, colleagues, funders, whoever you can: the more voices that come in, the more the costs of the exercise rise.

Work as a unit. Internal division is a distinct possibility, especially if only some posts are going, but whatever the situation it can make it much more difficult to pitch an effective pushback. That means being as collective as possible, recognising that most of you are going to be feeling very rubbish and anxious about the situation. However it goes, these things are a long process and cast very long shadows.

Play a very straight bat. Absolutely the worst thing for any campaign is to be found to be playing fast and loose: it immediately destroys your credibility with management, and badly hurts your relationship with your networks. So that means not dissembling or lying to anyone, not making unethical or illegal choices (like sharing confidential materials), and generally focusing on being constructive. If you can come with a better plan that meets management’s stated objectives, then that’s much harder to push away than if you just say you don’t like their ideas.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the best time to do this kind of thing is before anyone in the management suite thinks about restructuring or cost containment. Being constructive and present and an asset to the institution should be a positive for any department at any point: it’s about trying to make governance work better for all involved.

Of course, this is also easy to say when you’re not in this position. Unfortunately, a lot of us have been there, at some point or another, so maybe we can use that to our advantage by being there for colleagues, reaching out to them when we hear about such cases, rather than waiting to be contacted.

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