It has not been a good year for Kingston University’s self-annointed ‘Gold Commander’, Professor Steven ‘No Mask’ Spier. In his own estimation he is the world’s foremost modern architect and a leading Swiss cheese expert, but to others he is otherwise known as Britain’s most useless Vice-Chancellor. Even the new Polyversity mascot has been squawking its unhappiness.
An online meeting with the Minister of State for Universities early in 2021 left Spiersy looking especially stupid, after he insisted on giving one of his notoriously boring speeches about KU’s ‘industry skills’. Then his heavily publicised and much-trumpeted ‘VC and SLT staff address’ in the Courtyard of the Town House to all staff on 14th July was embarrassingly poor and sparsely attended, and he scuttled away very quickly without answering any staff questions, despite promising he would do so (a now familiar pattern with Spiersy). A wave of negative media coverage over Kingston’s farcical ‘consultations’ and the resulting savage cuts to Humanities and Social Science subjects saw the University’s already battered reputation nose-dive even further. The VC’s brief appearance on a BBC Radio 4 education discussion programme, which he seemed to think was a ‘success’, in reality drew widespread criticism when he dismissed ‘arts’ subjects as traditional fields that, he said, should be left to other Universities. Jaws nearly hit the floor. It was a great big blatant vote of no-confidence in his own hard-working staff, delivered on national radio, much to the evident disgust of some of the other guests present on the programme.
More cuts and ‘restructuring’ are in the pipeline at KU, including to subjects Spier still regards as ‘traditional’ and therefore surplus to requirements, such as Mathematics and various pure science subjects. Watch this space: nobody is safe in Spiersy’s disastrous ‘Polyversity’ vision, and Dave ‘Mack the Knife’ Mackintosh was recently working on a new round of cuts before he moves on from SEC to his shiny new Faculty.
Even though Spier bangs the drum endlessly about KU’s ‘creative’ skills, the only thing KU has managed to generate under his leadership in 2021 is misery. To add further misery to the misery he has already created this year, KU’s hapless VC has also been unable to prevent St. George’s from deciding to break away from Kingston due to his crappy VC-ship. This was a huge blow. This development alone, in any other HEI workplace, would have led to the resignation of the man in charge. But this is Kingston University, not a ‘normal’ HEI. There is no honour among these mis-managers. On top of this, in the summer, Spiersy’s previously loyal University Registrar, Keith Brennan, gave in his notice, utterly miserable and fed up with the VC’s incompetence.
Back-biting and leaks from his own Senior-Lack-of-Leadership Team have also continued, increasing Spiersy’s distrust of those around him, while some of his own administrative staff have expressed unhappiness over his Boris Johnson-style contempt for wearing a face-covering in meetings or when wandering around the Holmewood Bunker. The recent survey of KU staff is also expected to result in a whole shed load of criticism of the VC and his Senile Leadership Team, and the vote for industrial action by the KU’s UCU branch has merely confirmed what is very obvious: morale across the University under the Gold Commandant’s VC-ship is now at an all-time low. Spiersy, who loathes UCU and refuses to meet them face to face, had been banking on the traditional apathy of KU staff towards industrial action, but he was given a nasty surprise in November. It was a major indication of the discontent many staff now feel about the direction the VC is steering the University in: over the cliff.
All this has not gone unnoticed by some members of Kingston’s Board of Governors (BOG), and we are reliably informed that a couple of them privately voiced their frustrations to outside observers, wondering whether Spiersy is really up to the job and should be removed, and whether he is really value for KU money (according to HESA statistics, the VC has been trousering a tidy £329,000 a year, which makes him one of the highest paid New University VCs in the UK, and that does not include all the claims he has made for ‘business’ trips to Hong Kong, New York and elsewhere). Like your average Tory MP, Spier also has other roles apart from his main VC one, including as chair of the Governance Committee of Rose Bruford College. It seems he has been quietly building some nest-eggs for when he leaves KU or if he gets booted out, whichever comes first. As one of the BOGsters put it, ‘how can he do his main Kingston job properly if he has others on the side? What do we pay him for?’ Exactly: Dissenter couldn’t agree more. There was particular anger when it was discovered Spiersy has been doing his Rose Bruford job on KU’s own time. But it might explain why he rarely appears on campus. To rub salt into the wound, there is also BOG discontent at the way the VC has spent a ton of KU money on expensive outside consultants, such as PwC.
Increasingly under pressure, and tipped off by one of his close SLT mates (who he has rewarded with a new Faculty, no less), it seems the VC became aware of the BOG’s growing unhappiness and, in desperation, has decided to go all out to win over the BOG and reassure the Governors that his new ‘Polyversity’ strategy is still viable, and his FOM (‘Future Operational Model’) will work out wonderfully in the end, rebranding and repositioning KU as a new type of ‘hybrid’ Poly-Uni.
The first sign of this new ‘woo back the BOG’ strategy came with a ‘Board dinner and Away Day’, held on 28th and 29th September. And we have been given a juicy inside account of how this went.
The special dinner held for the BOG took place on the evening of 28th September. The evening kicked off with a special drinks reception at 6.00pm in the Clownhouse (sorry, Townhouse) groundfloor Courtyard, where members of the SLT mingled with BOG members and plied them with booze (sorry, engaged them in conversation). Notably absent from the proceedings were KU’s very own Professor of Sleeping (Around) Studies, Simon ‘Shagpile’ Worthless, who appears to have been told to keep a low profile for now, and Caroline Mawhood. Otherwise, there was a near full turnout of all the usual suspects. However, one BOG member did ask where the University Registrar was (that ‘very nice man Keith’) and an SLT member had to quickly change the subject (Brennan’s resignation, at that stage, was still being kept quiet).
Once everybody was suitably warmed up, a ‘walking tour’ took place at 6.45pm up the stairs of the Townhouse to the 5th floor (something that was apparently the whizzkid idea of Vice-Admiral Spiersy himself). The merry gang were divided up into three groups, led by the VC, Sean Woof (sorry, Woulf) and Connor Wilson.
Then, at 7.30pm, the SLT and BOG attendees were provided with a slap-up multi course Dinner, with waiting-staff table service and plenty more drinks on tap. This lasted two full hours, and Spiersy used this as an opportunity to deliver a verbal report on KU’s ‘return to campus’ and how well everything has been going (according to him). Predictably, he painted a rosy picture of ‘a happy’ University, with all parts pulling together and supporting ‘our SLT journey’. While some of the BOG were all ears and clearly lapped this up, the waiters noticed a couple had zoned out (nodded off, in other words), unimpressed with the sheer mediocrity of Spier’s spin. Oh dear.
When the Dinner was over, some of the BOG were accommodated locally for the night at the Doubletree Hilton (it’s got to be only the very best for our esteemed BOGsters, folks).
The next day (29th) was classed as the BOG Away Day, which took place in the Picton Room (which led one attendee to wonder why they were now ‘slumming it’). The attendees included all the SLT and the BOG members from the previous evening, plus special guest Prof Roger King, a new non-academic staff Governor-designate, Jane Hargreaves, and the new Union of Kingston Students President, Sarim Syed (Spiersy, as in previous years, is especially keen to keep the UKS officers ‘sweet’).
The day’s events started off at 8.30am with a generous breakfast, followed by a brief talk from the BOG’s big chief Francis Small. It lived up to his surname. Then the Gold Commander himself took to the floor again, with a 30-minute talk (it seemed like an eternity) setting out what Spiersy termed ‘a University strategy’. This contained all the usual and tired old Spier spin favourites: ‘Plan 2020’ and its major ‘achievements’, the ‘problem’ Spier is ‘trying to solve’ at KU, and the need for ‘a bold approach’. Then, after the VC had bored everybody into a kind of frozen silence, a special film was screened, which set out KU ‘staff experiences’ and presented the ‘SLT’s journey’. Yes, you guessed it – it was the same films screened during the VC’s embarassingly inept ‘VC and SLT staff address’ of last July. That means that some of the BOG have had to sit through these films twice. Oops!
After the films, the room was then subjected to about an hour’s session on the ‘problem we are trying to solve’ and ‘graduate attributes’, led by Sue Reece. This involved dividing the room into three tables, with three SLT members and four BOGsters on each table. This had been all carefully planned out by Spiersy beforehand, to ensure that the likes of Dave ‘the Knife’ Mackintosh, Jill ‘What’s the point of human rights’ Schofield, Mandy WhoHer?, and others from the SLT would be able to chat to and ‘be nice’ to the Governors. The VC roamed the room, attaching himself to each table to see how things were progressing. Reece had given a brief presentation beforehand on ‘Graduate Attributes’ (which are, apparently, ‘self-belief’, ‘digital skills’, ’empathy, ‘initiative’, ‘adaptability’ and ‘specialist knowledge and competence’ – in other words, all the things the VC and SLT themselves seriously lack). It was clear many of the BOGsters present had little idea of what the hell Reece had been talking about, and some them appeared uncomfortable and puzzled over why they were being treated like students in a poorly-run seminar.
After another generous meal at lunchtime (no expenses spared), the afternoon saw another ‘table session’, led by Helen Laville, on ‘a Kingston pedagogy’, but it was clear that some of those present were itching for the day to be over. After yet another talk by the Gold Commandant (mercifully only 15 minutes long) on Kingston’s ‘next steps’, the last hour of the Away Day involved a walk to Knights Park and a tour of the Middle Mill renovation project. Some of the BOGsters, stunned into extreme boredom by Spier’s mid-afternoon speech, had already made polite excuses and left, but those that remained for the walk were rewarded with some glasses of wine at Knight’s Park at 4.00pm.
The VC is not out of the woods yet, and he knows it. Some of the SLT, when they are not briefing and bitching against each other, are watching Spiersy closely, ready to pounce if he trips up. His evident uselessness has also clearly pissed off various BOGsters and it is going to be hard for him to win back their full confidence. But he remains desperate to do so, and has already pencilled in further events as part of his ‘woo back the BOG’ strategy. Will it work? It is going to be an interesting 2022. If Steven ‘two jobs’ Spier does not perform better, he may not even survive it.