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What happened at Queen Mary?

Having survived an attempt to frame me for expenses fraud I really had to move on from Exeter, but getting a new position in the years immediately following the financial crisis as the UK moved into the austerity programme was not easy. After the events of 2009 I applied for several jobs through the next year and finally got an offer from Queen Mary University, in the East End of London in the first few months of 2011. From the outset it was made clear that there was a requirement to undertake a big restructuring of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences of which I was to become the head. Frankly this was not the job I really would have picked, no-one really wants to start a new position knowing there was going to be a big fight. But I felt that I had few options.

I do not intend to go into the details of the restructuring of SBCS here, which took a year or more to work through. I will focus instead on a few of the key scenes. The first of these came before I had even started, I made several trips up to London to meet with people and discuss the future of the school. One that made a great impression me was with Lars Chittka, he is an eminent researcher in the field of animal behaviour and was then head of the small psychology department within the School. This unit had come under great scrutiny in the previous year as the senior management could not understand how it could fit within the School – this to be honest was a reasonable concern. Lars described the mood in the School in general, and the psychology department in particular. He said ‘it feels like we have been marched up to the wall, we have had blindfolds put over our eyes, we have heard the firing squad march over and we have been waiting for the shots, but they have not come.’ To me this suggested that everyone was very stressed by the thought of what was to come, they knew something was going to happen and whatever was to be done needed to be done quickly. As a result of this discussion I planned the majority of what was to become the restructuring of SBCS before arriving in Mile End.

The Fogg Building home to most of the Biology and Psychology parts of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

The way in which these restructurings work, at least in Britain, is that management (me) publishes its plans giving the rationale for the restructuring, and draft plans. The whole thing then goes into a consultation period starts with the workers (my fellow academics). The research performance of SBCS academic staff was way off what it needed to be, but the trick to pull off was persuading sufficient under performers to leave while allowing normal business to continue, which meant that you could not lose too many people. QMUL had been persuaded to put up a substantial fund to offer early retirement or redundancy options to people who would go voluntarily and the wish was that people would opt for this route rather than be forced out.

As I said at the start, I had a plan before I arrived. But I felt that the consultation process would require a response which would reduce the impact of the proposal. So the first plan had to be pitched at a level that was more aggressive than the desired outcome, I could then respond by falling back to the original plan. This in principle was how it was supposed to work. I presented the draft plan to the School on the 5th of October 2011, it was a very emotional meeting. I had to make it clear that some people would lose their jobs. I do not mind admitting that I cried after the meeting closed.

Rather surprisingly the majority of the staff in the school decided to go out for a drink, and even prevailed on me to go with them. And there in the Half Moon on Mile End Road, of all people John Allen bought me a drink. He was in a fine mood, he was ecstatic about the plan. This would finally sought things out, some people just needed to go he said. His mood was to change quite quickly but in early October he was pretty happy about what was going to happen.

I had decided to have two rounds of consultation with the staff. I was genuinely trying to make the process work as painlessly as possible. This meant an initial consultation through October which ended on 3rd November. I spent that month meeting with just about everyone. Technically the most important group was the UCU, whose very well meaning local representative was Paul Anderson while the regional representative was, the very appropriately named, Amanda Sackur. I met with Paul many times and Amanda on a few occasions. Unfortunately their stance was that there should be no restructuring at all. They wouldn’t engage with what type of restructuring, they just wanted it not to happen. I never understood this argument, it seemed to me that the unions wished to defend any and all members of staff irrespective of whether they really could do any kind of job. They never seemed to grasp that there were young post docs, recently graduated PhD students who would never get a job in academia no matter how good they were. For me the overall balance between old established staff on the one hand, and young, potential staff on the other never entered the thinking of the union. It also meant that my plan to drop back from an aggressive proposal to a more mild one was stymied.

It was clear that the union was not going to provide the push-back I had anticipated and needed. I therefore had to be my own opposition. I wrote a detailed rebuttal of point in my own plan, arguing against what I had myself proposed. I invited two senior professors for a drink in a pub that was only rarely frequented by members of the university. At the end of which I told them that I would carelessly leave a document for them to read on the table. This piece of paper contained revisions to my starting plan (which had been made deliberately more aggressive than necessary) because I expected to be argued back from it. But the fact that everyone’s stance was ‘there should be no restructuring’ meant that no revisions were being suggested. By presenting these two with potential revisions I became my own opposition. This subsequently became the basis for the revision of the first draft back towards the original plan.

Joseph Priestley Building home of chemistry and biochemistry.

University Council approved the plan to restructure the School on the 23rd November 2011, and emotions ran increasingly high. There is a view among some academics that they should never be subject to any scrutiny of their performance. This comes, I think, from a misinterpretation of the idea of academic freedom. For me academic freedom is the protection an academic has to pursue whatever lines of enquiry or investigation s/he wishes to follow and to use whatever means s/he wishes to disseminate the results of this enquiry. This should be an absolute, it does though not allow an academic to break the law and it does not preserve them from reasonable expectations of performance. All university departments have variation in performance – academics who teach poorly, or whose research activities are lower than they should or could be. SBCS’s problem was that it had too many of such people. Fanis Missirilis’s problem was that he taught poorly, his research was weak and he also believed that he should be protected from the consequences because he was an academic. It wasn’t that he thought this for convenience, he truly and deeply believed that this was the case. He was deeply passionate about his opposition to what was happening, so much so that he was driven into some deeply inappropriate behaviour. He would send long, rambling missives round to everyone he could contact complaining about the injustice of what was happening. He couldn’t control himself. On one occasion I walked up to his office to talk to him, I suggested that just for his own health and well-being he might have a rest. He agreed. By the time I had got back down three floors to my own office another email had arrived. But poor Fanis was not the worst offender. I could have respect for him and his passionate opposition, the person who was most unpleasant part of this process was a senior professor – the same one who had bought me a drink a few weeks previously – John Allen. He was a highly intelligent man, but had a terrible temper and a deep sense of entitlement. He would wind up Fanis, feed him opinions and snippets and boom, off Fanis would go with another rant. What had produced his dramatic change of opinion about the restructuring I do not know. But I suspect it had something to do with the previous head of department, for whom John had a deep loathing that had started when the two of them had been part of the same laboratory as PhD students. Peter Heathcote had been head of department for ten years, and was not a terribly productive scientist. As a head he had been responsible for managing John for a decade and their relationship had got steadily worse. I believe that John originally thought that the restructuring would get rid of Peter once and for all. But this was never going to happen, the single protected person in the restructuring was Peter. Jeremy Kilburn the Dean of Science and Engineering had decreed that Peter would not fall in the restructuring, his opinion being that a long serving head of department could not be made redundant a year after stepping down. I think once it became clear that Peter would not be a victim of the process then John was always going to oppose the process.

The view of central London from Queen Mary

In the end Fanis was a victim of the restructuring, it was more or less inevitable that he would be. Jeremy Kilburn could have ended Fanis’s contract at the end of probation as he had failed to meet the terms of his probation. However, Jeremy ducked that bullet and left the restructuring to catch him instead (which of course was being run by someone-else). However, he did not need to be made redundant. He could have done what all the other people who left SBCS did, which was to take advantage of the early retirement scheme. But he chose to fight it out to the end, and in the final stage was escorted from the Fogg Building by security after the Principal had agreed that he should be made redundant.

Fanis did give me my most frightening moment of the process. One day I was walking down the Mile End Road just outside campus. Paul Anderson was going the opposite direction and stopped me. He said that as we were outside campus he could tell me something that he had been wanting to say for some time. He said ‘never be alone with Fanis, he means you real harm.’ Paul explained that in his time as a union representative he had heard people threaten all sorts of things, and usually he could dismiss them as an overly emotional reaction to a situation. This time though he said that he was really worried, he really believed that Fanis would try to take matters into his own hands. Paul seemed very serious about it, and I took this very much to heart. After that point I did decide to never see Fanis on my own again.

There were two principles that guided me through the restructuring. The first was that everyone should be allowed their dignity and should be treated with respect. It fell to me to talk to those who were deemed to have fallen short of the performance requirements of the School to give them this news. They would always be upset (very understandably) but I made up my mind early on that no matter how upset, and sometimes unpleasant they might be I would always try to be courteous in return. Related to this was the issue of confidentiality, it was important that each person’s information would only be known to that person and to me. No-one else would be told. This was frequently pushed against, people wanted to know how they stood relative to this or that person. I agreed to provide summary data of the entire set within SBCS but not data from any single individual. This upset some people, particularly Fanis, as it was regarded as being a way to hide the fact that some people were treated differently from others.

If Fanis gave me my most frightening moment, it was a collaboration between him and John Allen that upset me the most. But on this occasion they both may have been manipulated by another. Largely due to Fanis’s efforts there had been a lot if discussion of the restructuring in higher education blogs, and some specialist news outlets. These all largely condemned what had been done, and predicted dire consequences. Research and teaching would fall off a cliff apparently. Like the Union the higher education press seemed to be fixated on ensuring that those in the academy remained in it, they should be protected at all costs. What they conveniently forgot is that there are many young people coming up through the system all the time, and some of these are very likely to be better than the bottom end of those currently in jobs. Should they not be given a chance?

A typical headline of the time, the THE predicting sliding standards and debased teaching.

I could not work out why the Lancet was quite so interested. Until that is, someone suggested it was not about our restructuring at all, I was told that the editor of the Lancet had a personal vendetta against the Dean of Research in the Medical School. Why should this be the case? It seems that it is wrapped up with the Wakefield MMR vaccine causes autism scandal. As people will remember back in 1998 the Lancet published a paper by Andrew Wakefield and others that the MMR vaccine caused autism in children. This article remained published for 12 years before Horton finally retracted the article in 2010. This has been called “perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years” (Flaherty 2011). The Dean of Research at Barts and the London Medical School, Tom MacDonald, had been prominent in providing evidence to counter Wakefield’s claims. What I was told was this had resulted in personal animosity between Richard Horton and Tom MacDonald, but whether this is true I do not know. What I do know is that John and Fanis published a rather strange article in the Lancet – as Fanis told me at the the invitation of the editor.

John Allen and Fanis Missirilis’s article in the Lancet

This article was basically a complaint about what was going on, and a push against confidentiality. In the process, while as Head of School I had been able to give other people confidence that their data would be known only to them and myself, they were happy to, incorrectly, claim that I failed my own criteria. the fact that this was untrue was eventually part of the industrial tribunal to which Fanis took Queen Mary (and which he lost) in 2012. I was very upset about this article, as I felt that I was being attacked in the press, with no recourse or right to reply. Queen Mary’s communications team simply wanted to say nothing as they felt that to engage would only inflame the situation. In the meantime I was left hanging out to dry.

By the end of the academic year 2011/12 the restructuring had been completed. Half a dozen people were working out agreed periods of continued teaching before leaving with a decent redundancy payout. Another half a dozen had been moved onto teaching-only contracts. One person had been made compulsorily redundant. Despite the claims that teaching would fail or research would collapse SBCS continued to recruit students and to conduct high quality research. In fact when the tuition fee was increased to £9,000 in 2012 and then when the quota was removed from student numbers in 2015 SBCS continued to be the largest undergraduate student recruiter in Queen Mary. While the rest of the University was increasing the time it spent in clearing each year, SBCS filled its available places faster. Research grant income also increased during the restructuring. The final assessment of the success of the restructuring came with the results of the 2014 REF. The results of the REF showed that in biology SBCS went from 34/52 in 2008 to 22/43 in 2014; while we submitted to Chemistry for the first time since 2001 obtaining a position of 22/35. This was a major achievement and something that could not have occurred without the restructuring.

Finally, SBCS grew in the years after the restructuring reaching 80 academic staff by 2016. We managed to do this and simultaneously changed the gender balance from 17% female to 34% female. As a result of this, and the measures that we put in to make sure that the school had a level playing field for women and men the School was awarded Queen Mary’s first Athena Swan Silver Award. Unfortunately it has subsequently lost this award and whether it holds onto the same position in the REF of 2021 will be revealed in a couple of years time.