The Business University: New Statesman article by EP Thompson

This article was published in New Society on 19 February, the week after the discovery of the ‘secret files’ at Warwick University.  It is by EP Thompson, then Reader in the History of Labour at the university.

The confrontation at Warwick raises questions about the purpose of a university.  Here is an analysis, by a participants, of what has happened and what it means.

When student unrest erupts at a British university, two standard reactions can be expected. The first assumes that the students are alone responsible, and leads on to speculations as to their motives. The second assumes that responsibility may be charged to old-fashioned elements in the university administration and among senior academic staff, who have responded too slowly or too clumsily to legitimate student demands.

There is, however, a third explanatory hypothesis, which most observers would overlook as being too improbable.

This is the explanation that dominant elements in the administration of a university had become so intimately enmeshed with the upper reaches of consumer capitalist society that they are actively twisting the purposes and procedures of the university away from those normally accepted in British universities, and thus threatening its integrity as a self-governing academic institution; and that the students, feeling neglected and manipulated in this context, and feeling also – although at first less clearly – that intellectual values are at stake, should be impelled to action.

Such a hypothesis seems unlikely, but it might be worth sketching- in an abstract way – how it might come about. An old provincial university is often immersed deeply in local business and civic life, and is subject to many utilitarian (and sometimes improper) pressures. But it also employs large numbers of teachers and administrators who have, over the years, established traditions in tended to safeguard certain academic priorities; and its affairs are governed by a high formality of bureaucratic procedure. The vice-chancellor, while wooing private and public money, is also expected to defend his academics from external non-academic pressures, and to represent the independence of his university institution as a place of learning.

A new university might be established, however, to which a new kind of vice-chancellor was appointed, who saw it as his particular mission to establish a new type of intimate (and subordinate) association with ”industry.” He might see himself not so much as an academic organiser and arbitrator as the managing director of a business enterprise.

Such a man would hold quite exceptional power, and would have commanding influence over an input of some millions of money-mostly public, some private. Having a decisive say in the appointment of his first professors, he could also virtually nominate at his pleasure approved laymen to the university’s governing Council: or he could do this if he had a close working understanding with the Council’s chairman. A raw university Senate (comprised of members who, for the most part, depended upon him for favours without which their academic plans would be frustrated) and a complaisant Council (in part comprised of his own nominees) would offer no serious check to his power.

If the university also raised several millions of pounds in private-appeal moneys, and if the allocation of these moneys lay effectively within his control, his ability to secure his own power by dispensing influence would be enlarged. It would be possible for him to decide – without close regard to student demand, national need, or the logic of academic development and achievement – which areas should expand and which should be held back, which new subjects should be introduced, what public image the university should project.

Difficulties might arise if his senior administrative staff should – out of professional integrity – resist this manipulation and insist upon open academic decisions and due procedure; or if an element in his academic staff should resent his decisions enough to question them repeatedly and forcibly on committees. But these difficulties could be surmounted – the first, perhaps, by changing the terms of employment of administrative staff so as to make them employees virtually subject to dismissal by the managing director; the second, perhaps, by intimidating some staff, by releasing financial favours to others for some cherished project, or, possibly, by confusing academic and policy issues by routing and re-routing them through an opaque complexity of committees, by rewriting minutes and by disguising where, when and how the critical decisions of policy are taken.

It might even be possible to adopt some of the seedier methods of certain business firms, by replacing face-to-face human relations and formal committee decisions by telephonic exchanges and a security-conscious administration, who were told to mark certain staff and students as “disloyal” to the organisation.

Such a corruption of the purposes of a university could take place – it should be noted – without any violent fracture of legal proprieties and even without irregularities which call for the attention of the auditors. The academic body would exhibit, at the higher levels, either accommodation to the system or a resentful paralysis of will; little would be heard in the corridors of pseudo-power other than the dull thud of academic knives in other academic backs; while at the lower levels there would be confusion and unfocused resentments.

In such a situation, only the students could defend the university’s intellectual integrity, and they could only do this by the now classic forms of student “revolt.” Such a revolt, in such a context, would – it could only be expected – display a mixture of motives, offer a confusion of objectives, and have unhappy as well as idealistic and heroic features.

If such a revolt were to occur, then the position of the university teacher would seem to be clear. He could not confine his role to that of making clucking ‘protective’ noises on behalf of the rights or good intentions of his students. As an intellectual worker, in whatever field of study, he must be unconditionally opposed to the mystification of the truth. He could no longer, by his silence, assist in the mystification of the very institution in which he and his students work. He should come to the side of the students by telling them what he knows of the truth.

Such an institution could not exist on this side of the Atlantic. We may heave a sigh of liberal relief.

There does, however, exist, in the Mid-Atlantic of the Motor Industry, the new University of Warwick. Pitched in cold fields three miles from any urban facilities, its staff and many of its students are weekday visitors. The students stand waiting in the wind for the inadequate public service transport, or rely on hitches from friendly citizens from their digs in Coventry, Kenilworth or Leamington Spa. The white-tiled buildings straggle across more than a mile, the university’s administrative block standing at the opposite pole of the site to the main teaching buildings, laboratories and library.

The students’ own living, eating and recreational facilities are segregated again, like the cafeteria and service stations on a detour from a motorway; and the students’ social building has the lack of privacy, noise and dehumanised utilitarianism of that kind of public convenience. The administration calls it Rootes Hall: the students call its main area “the airport lounge.”

There is no central campus, no quadrangle or social facilities where the staff and students can easily intermingle on their normal occasions. Whatever other instruments the architects may have used on their drawing-boards, they certainly made lavish use of a divider and a ruler.

The vice-chancellor, Mr J B Butterworth, MA, JP, is a lawyer whose previous post was as a bursar of an Oxford college. The keynote of his planning, from the first initiation of the university, has been clear: this was to be a forward-looking institution, with exceptionally close relations with industry, employing advanced methods of internal business management, with an ambitious rate of growth towards a target of 20,000 or even 25,000 students: this was to be a Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the midlands.

There is nothing exceptionable in this, and much that many people might approve of. In one or two respects the vice-chancellor achieved spectacular successes: the citizens of Coventry through their then Labour-controlled city council presented the university with a handsome quarter-million-pound site on the periphery of the city’s limits, and the Warwickshire county council donated land comparable in extent and value. adjoining the city’s lands.

An initial university appeal fund raised some £2.5 million, mainly in covenants from local industrialists. In other respects; the vice-chancellor’s plans did not always come to fruition – an attempted merger with Coventry’s large and reputable Lanchester College of Technology was negatived by the Department for Education, and the intended rate of growth in the sciences and technology was slowed down, on University Grants Committee instructions, and, in part, as a result of the insufficient student demand for places. As a result the arts and social sciences still hold a preponderating number of the students enrolled and of the staff employed, although they do not have a preponderating influence on the professorial board.

The success of the vice-chancellor’s policies is indicated by the roll call of chairs endowed by outside funds. These include the Barclays Bank Professor of Management Information Systems, the Clarkson Professor of Marketing, the Esmee Fairbairn Professor of the Economics of Finance and Investment, another Clarkson chair in economics and the Volkswagen Professor of German.

Well and good. Well and good also to the Institute of Directors Professor of Business Studies and to the Pressed Steel Fisher Professor of Industrial Relations who have recently received massive injections of public and private money for their research programmes, the latter programme being supported to the extent of some hundreds of thousands of pounds by the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust.

T’his is itself the state of the current academic game, and reveals only somewhat more than the normal pattern of the distortion of academic growth in the directions which private or earmarked endowments dictate. It is only to be expected, also, that the disposition of these endowments, as well as the uses to which the university’s foundation appeal have been put, have occasioned some jealousies among professorial staff – unconvincingly concealed from the knowledge of their juniors and their students. (The university’s foundation fund is administered separately by trustees, and does not form part of the annual published statement of accounts.)

The effects of this channelling of money are, of course, felt most acutely in the arts and several of the social science subjects. In the fifth year of the university’s development, these subjects are still housed in crowded and unsatisfactory accommodation at the top of the library building, while the sciences have substantial, well-equipped new buildings. But, in terms of the “end product” of the whole process, 264 first degrees were awarded in arts and social sclence subjects in 1969, as against 127 in the sciences.

It has been a long-standing complaint that one or two of the sciences – and notably the molecular sciences – have received more ready attention and help from the finance and general purposes committee than (for example) the library has, though this has made excellent use of the narrow resources allowed to it.  The university’s published accounts show that by 3 1 July 1969 there had been, in capital expenditure on equipment, £437498 for engineering science, £319,249 for physics (furniture, books and equipment), £321,553 for the molecular sciences and a further £101 ,150 for the workshops. The total that was allowed for the library in furniture, books and equipment, over exactly the same initial period, was £171 ,858. (This does not, of course, take account of current expenditure.) The researches going forward in the scientific laboratories are, no doubt, valuable and of general scientific and technical importance; but with work going on in such problems as metal fatigue (Massey Ferguson), vehicle instrumentation (Rootes and Ford Motor Company), fatigue in tyres (Dunlop), and high-speed machine-tool cutting tips (Alfred Herbert), local industrialists may be forgiven if their interest in the university is largely as a laboratory for their own research and development.

Within the arts and social sciences there can be seen the same rapid growth-rate of favoured subjects. All fund-raising is centralised through the vice-chancellor and his appeals officer, and this largely results in earmarked grants. But there also appears to be some emphasis of policy in the allocation of public (UGC) money. For example, at the commencement of the current academic session, of some 22 UGC-·financed professorships in the university, only three fell in arts subjects (less than 14 per cent), although more than 25 per cent of the student body lay here. (Facing protests from the Board of Arts and student discontents, the university has recently announced, tardily, the institution of three new chairs in English, French and History.

Such questions of policy might perhaps be justified by the finance and general purposes committee, which is a committee of Council. What is, perhaps, not wholly traditional in old-fashioned university terms is the constitution of the university’s governing body, the Council. At first sight this is constituted on the usual lines. There is a majority of laymen; a minority of duly appointed academic representatives (this even includes two students). The laymen include three representatives each from the Warwickshire county council and the Coventry city council; and there are nine coopted lay members. It is generally understood that nominations for co-option emerge through the vice-chancellor or else emerge through the chairman of Council (the pro-chancellor).

With one exception (the Bishop of Coventry), all nine coopted members are representative of very substantial business interests. Sir Stanley Harley is chairman and managing director of Coventry Gauge Limited and director of 15 companies, mostly concerned with machine tools: he is also president of Coventry Conservative Association. Gilbert A Hunt is managing director and chief executive officer of Rootes Motors Limited (now American-owned, by Chrysler International), and also a director of the Reed Paper Group. Lord Illifie is vice-chairman of the Birmingham Post and Mail and chairman of Coventry Newspapers Limited. Sir William Lyons is chairman and chief executive omcer of Jaguar Cars Limited, chairman of Coventry Climax Engines, Guy Motors (Europe), Daimler Company and Henry Meadows, and a director of British Leyland. J R Mead, an accountant, appears to be a director of some 40 smaller companies. Lord Rootes explains himself. A F Tuke is vice-chairman of Barclays Bank, and RD Young is chairman of Alfred Herbert Limited and a director of Rugby Portland Cement.

No impropriety here, of course: a lack of tact, perhaps, to co-opt only one part of the spirit to eight parts of mammon. A lay body has a role to play in the running of a university, and sympathetic industrialists have a place on it and can lend experience. But . . .perhaps the people of Coventry or of Warwickshire might not feel themselves to be wholly represented. (Since Labour lost control of Coventry city council, no individual from Coventry’s strong labour movement has in fact held a place on the university Council.)

Two other powerful figures complete the Council: RJ Kerr-Muir, a director of Courtaulds, who is the university’s treasurer; and Sir Arnold Hall, chairman and managing director of the Hawker-Siddeley Group, who is the university’s pro-chancellor and the chairman of its Council.

These are all very busy men, and some of them, no doubt, can do little more than grace the Council with their names and offer to it their goodwill. But several have lent to the university their very active services – notably Sir Arnold Hall, R J Kerr-Muir and Gilbert Hunt. The latter is chairman of the university’s building committee, while Mead, Tuke and Kerr-Muir serve on the crucial finance and general purposes committee.

The Council is generally held to have – both in plenary sessions and (even more so) through its committees and executive officers – more direct and continuous influence within the decision-making levels of the university’s government than precedent normally sanctions in other universities. This cannot be found out by reading the university’s statutes. It is more a question of a certain style of management techniques.

The vice-chancellor has said, more than once, and at meetings of Assembly (the congregation of the full academic staff): “We must remember that Council is our employer.” On more than one occasion decisions which (in conventional practice) might be assumed to be the concern of the university’s academic governing body – the Senate – have been overturned by Council. More than once some members of Council have been invited to a good dinner, at the university’s expense, before Council meetings at which disputed matters have been on the agenda: the vice-chancellor has been the only academic present.

Trivial academic politics, no doubt. But there has been growing, among taff and students, an increasing sense of the opacity of the university’s decision-making procedures, as critical decisions -affecting finance, social policy, build ing, university development, student representation- are moved from committee to committee, and decided in places where the vice-chancellor and one or more of his powerful coopted Council members themselves have over-riding influence.

Attempts by staff to influence future academic development, after protracted and sometimes enthusiastic discussion in the academic schools and boards, have, more than once, disappeared into the upper air with little explanation. For example, on one occasion, Assembly proposed that the chairmanship of subjects should be able to pass among senior academic staff, rather than being permanently vested in one professor; this resolution was approved, with modification, in Senate; but it was then negatived in Council.

More than two years ago Professor Zeenlan, the distinguished mathematician carried an overwhelming majority of Assembly in support of a resolution favouring an independent student-controlled union building (a commonplace in most universities). The proposal was upheld, by smaller majorities, in Senate. The vice-chancellor and his close Council associates were inflexibly opposed to this, in part because they wish to employ student social facilities during vacations as a conference centre, rather more (one suspects) because they have an understandable dislike of the word “union.”

The proposal was shunted through delaying procedures and eventually was to come up for decision on Council. Some days before the Council meeting the vice-chancellor informed Professor Zeeman that if he, Zeeman, could see his way to remaining silent when the matter was debated on Council, the vice-chancellor, for his part, could see no reason why certain mysteriously-delayed building conversions essential for housing an international seminar of mathematical scholars – should not, at the next building committee, be rapidly advanced. Outraged, Professor Zeeman circulated an account to members of Council in advance of their meeting, suggesting that he had been subjected to improper pressure. When Council met, its chairman severely rebuked the professor for his violation of procedure: the proposals for a union building were defeated.

Sad stuff – and in violation of procedure to mention it. In any case, it is often suggested to staff that they should be grateful that they are able to call upon such expert industrial experience, in managing their affairs and finances by the most advanced managerial techniques. Warwick has spent a high proportion of its public (UGC) resources upon administrative costs, but the benefits accruing to them have not been immediately apparent. Since scarcely any Council members are known to have attended academic or open social events in the university, it is hard for staff to know what their managerial skills consist in.

Page after page of the evidence taken during the parliamentary inquiries in the case of Bristol-Siddeley Engines, when investigating that company’s overcharging of the British public by some £3 million in excess profits on defence contracts (in the repair of aero-engines), give rise to an uneasy sense that managerial techniques may be only too much like techniques which academics have experienced nearer home:

“You see, this again, is one of these rather curious examples of perhaps my language being imprecise. I say ‘when this matter was brought to the board room’ and I do not say that it was discussed by the board. In fact, it was discussed by Mr Davidson, first with me and then with Sir Arnold Hall and, for reasons which I have explained about the constitution of the company, in a matter of the greatest importance our decision was really final . . . and I think you will find that Sir Arnold probably consulted his financial director and I probably consulted mine, and we told Mr Davidson to get on with it . . .” (evidence of Sir Reginald Verdon-Smith, 21 March 1968, Third Special Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, page 55).

Sir Arnold Hall, the chairman of the university Council, was of course managing director of Bristol-Siddeley during the three years when it seemingly did not come to the notice of senior management that defence contracts were running at the satisfactory rates of 120 per cent profit (Sapphire 6), 124.9 per cent profit (Sapphire 7), 135.2 per cent profit (Viper) and 142.6 per cent (Proteus). Such matters (his fellow directors explained to the committee) might never have been important enough to have come before their notice.

Early in 1968 the university Council engaged a firm of industrial consultants, John Tyzack and Partners, to carry out an investigation into the administrative structure of Warwick. Their report – which is clearly being implemented by stages – was presented in a style, and revealed a manner of thinking, somewhat strange to academics. “Taken as a whole, the university is certainly inefficient by normal commercial or industrial standards.” (Alas, no lecturer’s profitability could compare with that of Sapphire 7).

Assuming for no stated reason that the university’s policy demanded a rapid rate of expansion it cautiously recommended ‘economies’ to further this by means of an increase in the ratio of students to staff. (To a university teacher this means more work or poorer teaching to larger groups; the student’s “economy” is to find staff less available.) The vice-chancellor (the report said) was, heavily engaged in “maintaining the momentum” of the university, “nurturing its reputation for ‘high academic achievement,” and in

“fostering its interests in the highest circles, attracting financial support, and enhancing its status by playing a part in the public life of the University world at large both inside and outside the United Kingdom. His image is its image.

He was so busy in these many ways that he required the services of an assistant or deputy vice-chancellor. This post (it was recommended) should not carry security of tenure : ”the reasoning here is that this is primarily an administrative appointment, and we see no reason why it should not be treated by Council in the same way as a board of directors would treat the appointment of a general manager.”  The university was to be structured according to the principle of absolute loyalty and responsibility to its chief executive, the vice-chancellor. The vice-chancellor should have the power to veto committee decisions and refer them back to Council or Senate. Indeed, Messrs Tyzack perceived very little to recommend itself in the university’s structure of academic policy-making:

“We have been told that democracy has a special place in university life, and that there is constant political pressure from the rank and file of the academic staff claiming the right not only to be consulted more but to “have a hand in decision-making.” The result in practice is already an amorphous and time-wasting system which has led to needlessly protracted argument, dilatoriness in the taking of decisions, uncertainty regarding the effective centres of power and action, and at times to conflicts of policy . . .”

No firm could increase its output in this slovenly way.

“Sooner or later the University of Warwick will have to come to terms with the age-old conflict between democratic principles and effective government.”

Indeed, academic committees would not stand up before time-and-motion study. “Committees absorb not only the energies of salaried members of the academic staff whose primary function is supposed to be teaching and research, but also the time of registry staff who have to service the committees.” “We cannot emphasise too strongly . . . that whatever a committee’s area of authority it has no power to seek implementation otherwise than through the vice-chancellor.”

If committees could not actually be abolished, the smaller the better : “the bigger the committee the less desirable it is that there should be frequent meetings, for the man-hours consumed will be proportionately higher.”

A section of the report was devoted to the products of this new, forward-looking operation: the students.

“The university must somehow put across the message that the student is considered important as an adult member of the community, and that the authorities care about him and value him.” Representation of students on any important policy-making committees was not commended: but a student liaison committee might be set up, whose “main function would be to provide a working link between the students and the administration rather than the university at large.”

At the end of Warwick’s last academic session, the registrar – an officer who, in most universities, is to be measured in power beside the vice-chancellor, and one who is, above all, concerned to ensure that all formal procedures are properly observed – tendered his resignation and accepted a post at another university. Several of his senior administrative staff left with him. Neither the Senate nor the Council instituted any inquiry into the reasons for their departure, and their own professional code commands their silence. They were universally respected by the staff, as honest, accessible and hard-working men.

On Tuesday 10 February The Times carried a three page supplement (for which the university paid some £1,500 – as much as three student grants or an assistant lecturer’s annual salary) on “Science at Warwick University.” “Tailored to industry’s needs,” wrote the Technology Correspondent. ”Projects . . directly related to modern industrial needs,” was the theme of a short message from J B Butterworth. On Wednesday 11 February, the students invaded the registry, infuriated by the prevarication about student control in their three-year pursuit of humanised surroundings – not meaning only union buildings.

Opening a file in an unlocked office next to the vice-chancellor’s they came, almost at once, upon the astonishing report of the Director of Legal Affairs of the Rootes Organisation on the visiting American professor, David Montgomery. Knowing that he was my colleague, a student rang me. I went in, inspected the letters, and decided immediately that they must be made public to the academic staff. As I left the registry, some 150 students were holding an intense but responsible discussion. The issue: should they – despite any promises which some felt that they had made to an administrator – force the vice-chancellor’s door and inspect all files that he ‘ and his assistants had not hurriedly taken away earlier in the day. They were very angry indeed.

Asked by the Birmingham Post about the Montgomery report, Butterworth is reported to have replied : “I cannot remember who sent it. There are several people at Rootes who might address me as “My dear Jack’.” There are, indeed, and at least one of them is upon his Council.

This is, of course, the corporate society, with all its ways of adapting and tailoring men to industry’s needs, the corporate managerial society, with its direct access to legal process to prevent the truth from being published, making the very air of Warwick this week crackle with tension, as we have been waiting for that alignment of forces to move in on us.

It might be thought that we have here already, very nearly, the “private university,” in symbiotic relationship with the aims and ethos of industrial capitalism, but built within a shell of public money and public legitimation. (The university’s published accounts for the year ending July 1969 show that it has already expended from HM Treasury £8,620,519 in non-recurrent grants alone, as against £1,307,856 in private gifts).

There are big issues enough to be pondered here. The integrity of a university as a self-governing institution, which now seems like a fading episode of liberalism. Personal rights of privacy and academic liberties. The question of due representation on the lay bodies of institutions primarily dependent upon public money, as well as the powers of such bodies – and of administrative officers – in relation to the academic staff. And other issues. The attitude of the labour movement towards this kind of spying.

There will be time to think and talk about these things. But, as I write, the first need is for public opinion to give support to our students. Despite all its unhappy history of manipulation, the University of Warwick has kept the services of many very good and – it is now becoming plain – more than a few courageous staff. There are human and material resources here in abundance, capable of making the university a first-rate and modern centre of learning, if its independence and internal self-government can, in this crisis, be asserted. Such a university might properly develop far wider and more differentiated relationships with the people of industrial Warwickshire. Until recently the system was so opaque that few can be accused of seeing it in more than anepisodic way. The staff could only see its consequences – these rows, these frustrations, this or that administrative hang-up. Collectively, all of us – all we liberal academics – were struck with a paralysis of will as the system not only grew round us, but built us into its own body-walls. Once inside there it looked as if we were running our bit of the show: but the show itself was being directed towards other ends.

We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.

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