Managing in the Middle

My husband Rob’s tenure as an acting head of department at Keele University comes to an end on April 1st, and it can’t come soon enough. It was always made clear that in the long run an outside person was wanted, and Rob was happy to play an interim role until a full-time appointment was made. But enough is enough.

We live on campus and don’t have any internet connectivity at home in an attempt to try and keep some work/life balance. Consequently Rob mainly comes home for lunch, and before his headship, would pop back to the office for short periods of an evening or at the weekend. However, with no respite from any of his “normal job activities” and numerous additional demands on his time, 12+ hour days, 7 days a week became the norm!! Lunchtime (if he got one) could swing between anything from 11.15 to 2.45pm, depending on meeting durations or a sudden summons from “on high” being received. Whole days filled with back to back meetings regularly occur, meaning his “day job” duties would start at 5pm or clocking-off time for many others. This situation is all the more frustrating because much of these head of department meetings are on subject matters that you have no qualification for, health & safety, finance, building plans, HR etc! He is a scientist (with his research withering on the vine right now) but finds himself playing a politics game within a hierarchy that has revealed itself in a less than favourable light. Issues of legacy seem to be far higher on the agenda than issues of staff and student well-being.

Strike action over pensions is about to start in universities. Edicts from the powers that be on how to handle the situation, contradict completely the Union manifest on the same subject. It seems to me as if both sides inhabit some alternate reality called La La Land, because their expectations are so unrealistic. Rob as head of department is placed directly in the middle of this maelstrom, being the frontline face and message boy of information, regardless of his own personal feelings on the matter. He is getting hassle from all sides, the university hierarchy, the Union and most damaging of all, grief from colleagues. Rude, ill-tempered and at times derogatory emails flying back and forth is one thing, enduring highly unpleasant face to face confrontations is quite another. It’s hard to accept the Union rep’s mantra “oh it’s nothing personal” having been challenged by a disgruntled colleague “are YOU proud of what the university is doing?” If only that person appreciated just how desperately Rob is trying to tread a fine line of fairness and diplomacy. How he is filtering some of the commands from on high because they are totally ridiculous, being unworkable and highly controversial. But these efforts are going largely unnoticed.

So as strike action looms over the last few weeks of Rob being head of department how do things look to me? Well as I listen to what’s going on from the sidelines, it’s clear that work relationships are bound to be irrevocably damaged by people reacting both in the moment and to the event, whilst generalising Rob’s role in being “one of the bad guys because he’s in management”. There appears to be little awareness that work relationships will have to continue after the dispute is over, however strained that process may be. The mantras being laid down from both the Union and higher university management seem to indicate a “head in the sand” entrenched approach, which shows scant regard for the dynamics of maintaining a good working relationship in the future. It’s all very divisive and I can’t help but reflect on the miner’s strike of the 80s where families and communities were torn apart, many remaining divided to this day. I can see a parallel with the university sector doing battle over pensions now, tuition fees in the future, and lecturers taking sides. Rob will hand over the reins to a new head of department with a sigh of relief in April, but he will never see the university hierarchy or many colleagues in the same light ever again.

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