Undecision, unleadership and contempt

This blog has touched from time to time on the qualities of leadership. Many would agree that, whatever particular attributes a leader should have, there are few in management jobs, especially senior positions, who possesses them. From big corporations and institutions, including our government, down to small town councils, it seems remarkable how many are badly run or fall victims to catastrophic decisions or just plain neglect. Perhaps the good ones simply go unnoticed but the noticeably bad ones are by no means rarities.

What are the abilities one would desire in a leader, especially a university leader? Should they be good academics with an impressive research record? Not necessarily. There is no reason to suppose such a person should be any good at management, although in many universities a long research record is usually the only route to a senior job. Leaders should be good at making decisions, of course, but specifically good at making the right decisions. This requires understanding and insight, rather imponderable qualities perhaps; but most important is empathy with the staff who are being managed.

The best we can say about Kingston University’s management is they don’t follow the lore of academic achievement: Spiersy and crew’s research record is modest at best. The crucial absence, in common with so many other university leaders, is the skill to make good decisions. In fact the overwhelming characteristic is undecision. This is not indecision, the dithering between options, but the lack of ability or motivation to make any decision.

Over the years I have had cause to write to senior managers at Kingston and other universities, usually with a complaint or a point of concern. Each time I have been struck by how the manager never makes their own decision but defers to one already made by someone lower down the order. The preservation of the status quo is sacrosanct, the willingness to think again in paralysis. Hence there is only one option for Kingston’s senior management to deal with the tribulations of the University — cut budgets, cut departments, cut staff.

At Kingston the fear of redundancy or the sack has been part of the job for several years. Clearly this does not trouble Spiers and company, even though academics and support staff who are persistently worried are not in the best state to do their jobs. The contempt for them from the SLT is the most damning of all its failings.

Who is to hold this useless management to account? Not the government, itself one of the most incompetent ever to run this country. Not the governors who have so far presided over the steady decline of Kingston, happy in their sinecures and self regard. Not even the staff who have trouble supporting industrial action in defence of their pay, still in long term decline. The sun is shining but the climate darkening. Pull down the blinds and pretend it isn’t happening.

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Kingston to rebrand as ‘Polyversity’

In a very rare appearance on campus, Vice-Admiral Steven ‘Poly-Uni’ Spier, Gold Commandant of Kingston University, exclusively revealed to reporters from The Hogsmill newspaper (the University’s new replacement for The River) exciting details of the recommendations of a KU rebranding exercise. The exercise was recently conducted on behalf of the University by outside consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Speaking through the letter-box of the front-door of Holmewood House, as the two reporters sheltered from the rain in the front porch, Admiral Spier confirmed that an image of a psittacine (otherwise known as an African grey parrot), would be the brand new symbol of Kingston University. In future, it will appear on all University letterheads, on websites and adorn all marketing material. New students in September will also be issued with free pens and notepads decorated with the African grey.

Commandant Spier said: ‘We recently invested a huge sum in commissioning a report from PwC and I am proud to announce that, following their recommendations and some comprehensive market survey data, the African grey parrot will – from this point onwards  – symbolise our new journey towards a Future Organisational Model (FOM). The FOM will be a Polytechnic-University structural model, with Polyversity status. The African grey sums up the forward-thinking values I want to see embodied in a contemporary, modern, post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-University, ‘Poly Uni’, and I will be asking staff (those who still have jobs, of course) to write down these values on yellow Post-it notes and display them all around my Kingdom, er, sorry, our Estate’. He added: ‘Other institutions have animals and wildlife to symbolise their values, such as owls, ferrets and unicorns. The grey parrot, with its undoubted multiplicity of skills in linguistic repetition, captures the types of vocational and other training we wish to instil in our students as they enter the wider world of employment’.

The VC also exclusively revealed to The Hogsmill,  in a muffled voice as the rain hammered down (and not helped by the grey blanket he had over his head), that his new vision includes a plan to ‘modernise’ Kingston’s graduation ceremonies. From mid-2021 onwards, the VC will have a real-life African grey parrot on his shoulder when he attends each of the ceremonies. A new and exciting part of this ceremony, which the Admiral hopes will become a regular tradition at Kingston, will be the free distribution of peanuts and other birdseed to the families of graduating students. Towards the conclusion of the proceedings, parents will be invited to throw the nuts and seeds back on to the stage, to induce the VC’s parrot to squawk loudly in appreciation. A specially composed musical canzonetta will accompany this moment.

Later the same day, Dave ‘the knife’ Mackintosh also spoke to The Hogsmill about the exciting new rebranding of University operations. Temporarily revived for the day through electric shock therapy, and wheeled out in his new motorised bath-chair (created for him by two bored engineering students at Roehampton Vale), the VC’s faithful bagman revealed: ‘Our new parrot has already made appearances at SLT meetings and delighted everyone who attended. In fact, it outshone many of the senior managers present with its ability to contribute to policy-making and to repeat the VC’s endless blandishments in a huge number of the same ways’.

Dr. Mackintosh added that Kingston’s African grey is still at ‘training’ stage, however, and it prefers at the moment to stick to ‘Give us a kiss’, ‘Hello Sailor’ and ‘Put the kettle on’, but the VC is apparently hopeful that, in the near future, the parrot will be promoted to become a full Dean in charge of one of KU’s Faculties. Mackintosh pointed to a recent email from the VC to his senior staff, where Spier stated: ‘This is more than a rebrand. This is more than a rebrand. It is a major step on the road to full Polyversity operational success. Operational success. We want graduates who will be fully poly-able. Give us a kiss’.

When The Hogsmill asked Mackintosh where all the money will come from for the latest rebrand, the oldest man in the University said: ‘Don’t worry. It will come from the savings we intend to make from getting rid of 55 or so staff in the next few months. Bunch of shirkers anyway’.

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Government expands university vocational courses

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Why the Spier Species is now rarely sighted

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The S.S. Spierland is on fire and badly leaking

Quick! Issue an S.O.S. Or, better still, call 999 and get the emergency fire hoses. The SS Spierland is all at sea, badly listing. More accurately, it is stuck on a Thames sandbank with a mutinous senior crew. Inside observers on shore report that the rusting hulk is now on fire and seriously leaking, with holes down below the waterline and growing panic on the Bridge.

As usual, KU’s very own pound-shop Admiral (sorry, ‘Commander’) Steven Spier has been blaming everyone but himself for this navigation fiasco. But the Chief Mismanager also knows that rearranging the SLT deckchairs on the sinking Kingston Steam Ship is merely risking a repeat of the SS Titanic disaster, and will not bale him out. Even a change of contact lenses has not worked. The Spierster remains marooned in a murky fog of his own making.

What’s brought about this sorry state of affairs? Emperor Nero, as he is often called by his own staff out of earshot (yes, it’s true!), has been fiddling again while his University burns and takes on more and more salty water. And the more the ship takes on water and sinks slowly in the sand, the more the self-designated ‘Gold Commander’ pumps thick and steaming dollops of bland glob out from the funnels and portholes, scooped from the very bowels of Holmewood House and his own personal DIY press-release kit. The message is always the same: trust the Commander, all is well. KU appreciates its ‘hardworking staff’.

But take a good, hard look at the main University website, or re-read the VC’s dull blandishments in the latest emails to staff. Not a word, or even a mere hint, about what is really happening across the institution, with staff livelihoods at stake, their jobs under threat, and whole departments earmarked for closure in key Faculties. There is Spierland, and then there is the real world.

But wait. The real world is stirring. Dissenter is very reliably informed that all is not well in the main cabin of the SS Spierland. Disarray has set in. And the Board of Governors (BOG) are not happy passengers. Some of them have finally woken up and are sensing that the Admiral’s stewardship of the University has steered the old Steamer on to very dangerous rocks, not just a sandbank. Spier should be worried. The massive pay he has been trousering since he became VC could even be placed in jeopardy. That nice little pension pot may be getting cracks.

Admiral Spiersy is very fond of proclaiming that the student and staff voice ‘is at the heart of decision making’, but all of the events of the past few weeks show, yet again, this is utterly untrue. The word ‘consultation’ has been given a whole new meaning in the Spiersland Dictionary. What it really means is: ‘We say, you obey’. The wave of negative publicity that has resulted from the closure of the Politics, International Relations and Human Rights undergraduate provision in the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences has been duly noted by the BOGsters. The axe that is now hanging over the staff, and the shocking incompetence with which the ‘consultation’ on this is being mishandled by the FBSS Dean and other members of the SLT, is now making certain BOGsters question the VC’s business and managerial competence again. To add more woe to the fire, there has been further unwelcome publicity over the ‘consultation’ being rolled out in KSA, too.

Shockingly, staff in Politics are still in the dark about the ‘Business Plan’ that was promised. No full documentation has been supplied, and the University and FBSS have not followed the correct (and legal) procedures. In meetings with staff, the Interim Head of School could not answer many of the most important questions raised by Politics staff about their futures. And when the FBSS Dean, Jill Schofield, finally agreed to meet staff (after repeated requests), all she seemed interested in really doing was to complain multiple times that there ‘must have been leaks’ to students. The implication was that staff were bringing the University into ‘disrepute’, which is a very serious allegation and a truly disastrous approach to managing staff. To add insult to injury, ‘the Schof’ repeated her view that too much teaching and time has been devoted to Human Rights, and that students ‘are not really interested’ in such subjects. So there!

This is not good for Spier, however. As any competent CEO will know, when one of your own managers loses their cool in a meeting with staff and starts lashing out (and shows clear evidence of prejudice against certain subject-areas), and when your own Board of Directors (the SLT) start squabbling among themselves, and major stakeholders such as the BOG begin to lose faith in your management, it is surely time to reconsider your position. Is Spier listening? Is he heck. Far from being a competent manager, the Spierster’s approach to management relies on hiding behind others, and instructing them in the dirty work he wants done, while maintaining a careful distance. The devious clown wants to leave a ‘legacy’ before he goes, and is still determined to get this, no matter what the price or how many staff he has to throw overboard. Schofield, whether she likes it or not, is merely a useful pawn, who is keen to please her boss but is also just as expendable as any other staff.

You think we exaggerate? Consider this. Big clues to what was in the pipeline were around in 2018-20, when it became clear that Plan 2020 had not worked. The SLT were told a new and more radical ‘plan’ was required, termed a ‘Future Organisational Model’. And the BOGsters should have seen the proposed bonfire of courses, and the subsequent PR disaster it is leading to, coming down the track (or the Thames) at breakneck speed. Dissenter has been told that major clues about what the Gold Commander was really planning came at a BOG dinner held on 24th June 2020, when Spier let slip to some of the BOGsters that he admires what he calls the ‘Polytechnic University’ model, and would like to see Kingston adopt this structure. He pointed to the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver in British Columbia, in Canada (a country he knows intimately), and also to Hong Kong Polytechnic University (where he has been a visitor on so-called University ‘business’ trips in the past). A skeleton staff, a slimmed-down Estate, a big shift to online delivery (to save on classroom and lecture theatre costs), with STEM and mainly vocational Degrees, it seems, will be the only game in town after the latest Spier wrecking-ball has finished its callous work and a ‘Poly-Uni’ emerges.

Spiersy will, of course, vehemently deny all this, and stay silent. He refuses to engage directly with staff Unions, and rarely sets foot on campus. When he does so, he remains holed up in the Holmewood Bunker. Despite the damage to KU’s reputation, and the serious private reservations of some of his own senior staff, Spier thinks he can just sit tight and sweat it out, and the Union of Kingston Students and the BOGsters will be pliable. And he will overcome any staff opposition by simply having less and less of them. His dismissive attitude remains as it has always been: ‘Suck on that, plebs’.

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A Lecturer’s Lament








First the SLT came for the Political Scientists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Political Scientist.

Then they came for International Relations, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not in that department.

Then they came for Human Rights, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not interested.

Then they came for Media and Communication, and I did not speak out –

Because I was marking.

Then they came for Film Cultures, and I did not speak out –

Because I was too busy.

Then they came for the Historians, and I did not speak out –

Because I was sleeping.

Then they came for the Administrators, and I did not speak out –

Because I did not appreciate them.

Then they came for the Technicians, and I did not speak out –

Because I did not know them.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I still did not speak out –

Because I was not a union member.

Then they came to sack me, and there was no one left to speak for me.



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