Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Discretion and valour

Posted by Jock Coats on 5th February 2010

The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that the post from a couple of days ago about some of the details of the reorganisation of schools has disappeared.  The relevant people for whom it was primarily intended – the heads of the departments in the School of the Built Environment – had seen it (I can tell from the server logs!) as had many colleagues in the School.

But I notice today, having received paperwork for next week’s governors meeting that the issue is still marked down as part of the confidential section of the agenda.  Personally I am no fan of “confidential agendas” – though I can see why in certain cases where some kind of commercial contract is involved that could jeopardise our position in a proposed deal if it got out may need to be confidential.  It happened at the city council as well – though I seem to recall that “confidential” there did not apply to staff of the council, only the public’s presence at the meeting.

Anyway, I have got into a bit of hot water previously about discussing confidential items, albeit more publicly than on this blog, so for the moment, and until I clarify the situation, I have taken the post down.  On 19th January I did ask the V-C whether I could now talk more openly about the reorganisation and she said at that time “give it another couple of weeks” in order for Executive Board and the Deans to have a chance to see the proposals first.  Two weeks was up on Tuesday of this week, but although I think I have covered myself, I want to get further clarification given its appearance on the confidential agenda for next week.

That said, if you want to discuss it, or read the piece for yourself (and it really does mostly apply to SBE rather than the whole university), mail me or call me and I’ll forward it to you: I just feel it might be best not in such a public arena as a blog that anyone on the planet can find!

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Musical chairs, or the great game of reorganisation, round 3 1/2

Posted by Jock Coats on 3rd February 2010

Ever since I’ve been at Brookes it has felt like there is constant reorganisation going on (thankfully, usually, around me rather than involving me directly).  And so there should be, in many respects.  A large organisation does not grow, breathe, develop, without change; without constantly re-evaluating itself and the ebb and flow of outside influences and how we react to them.  So, as most of you are probably now at least dimly aware, there is another round of reorganisations in the works.

I remember literally the very first day of being a governor, the day after the election count, was a “Governor’s Strategy Day” which is an opportunity, usually once a year, for governors to meet slightly less formally than in a “business meeting” to hear from a variety of people about plans for the university and to discuss, without having to make immediate decisions, various options for the future.  Working in a team that supports desktop computing need from directors to admin assistants in all non-academic areas of the university, and having a background in business analysis and so knowing how to pick up vibes and information about how people and departments work, as well as living onsite to boot, I always thought I was reasonably well “plugged in” to how Brookes worked.

But when in the first presentation on that Strategy Day it became clear that far from being the dominant manager class, SMT actually had to “ask” this panel of more or less independent experts whether their idea of the direction of travel seemed appropriate.  They had to ask what we thought of their ideas, effectively ask permission to develop them and so on, and that was the very first time that I really felt like I could see the direction of travel of the entire machine, rather than the sometimes confusing apparent changes in the arrangement of the cogs inside that machine.  And it was comforting in a strange way…

I don’t want to appear to have “sold my soul” to the managerial classes, because I haven’t.  I retain a very healthy scepticism about management in academia, and about academics who give up their life’s passion to become part of “management”.  But I do always feel reassured that management always act in what they feel are the best interests of the institution and its mission.  In the underbelly we often hear murmurings about, for example, everything becoming too “corporate” or “commercial”, but from the governance perspective, many of these real world pressures upon us do become clear.

Now, none of that is to say that there are not opportunities to argue with management.  One of the best things I have found, even when I was an unknown, junior techie, about working at Brookes is that, by comparison with my experience of “big business”, even the most senior management are much more approachable with ideas, much more willing to re-evaluate after feedback than often extremely dictatorial corporate management.

We all recognise that we are a quintessentially “social enterprise”.  This has implications not just for what the “ends” of the institution as a whole are (i.e. that “profit” is not the only, or even the predominant, consideration in the “bottom line” except where it allows us to do more of what we think will be a greater social benefit).  But that unlike the corporate world where the shareholders are ultimately the primary interest in a business, we recognise much more the place of all our “stakeholders” (to use one of the most overused but ill-defined neologisms of contemporary “market politics”).  Management are not the explicit, legal agents of a class of interests (the owners) that is often fundamentally opposed to other interests such as staff but much more obviously have to co-ordinate those varying interests.

Anyway, a lot of this is really by way of introduction to my next post – as we are at one of those points where a little bit of arguing back to management might well be appropriate.  The proposal to reorganise the university into four, instead of the current eight, academic “groupings” – call them “schools”, “faculties” or whatever you will, is probably pretty well public knowledge by now (I know, to some personal frustration at not being able to discuss it terribly openly, the rumour mill has been going for months now about it).  And I believe I have kept my word as a governor to keep my silence until Deans and Executive Board and so on had had an opportunity to hear the plans, so now I think I can address some of the issues more publicly and directly.

Whilst in many areas, the synergies are obvious, and indeed welcomed amongst some colleagues looking forward to working more closely with new “school mates”, there is one area in particular, the School of the Built Environment, where the current unit is not going to be a “partner” in a merger but split apart into several different new schools.  So this deserves a post of its own as Mitch and I grapple with some of the issues that you would like us to take up on your behalf over the next couple of weeks before the plans become completely set in concrete…

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