RUC staff accuse management of hasty solutions

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Last December, when the Board of Directors of RUC adopted a budget involving redundancies, some staff members wrote protest letters about their frustrations and turned up at the budget meeting..

De studerende er ikke alene om at protestere på RUC. En gruppe ansatte har både gjort det med breve og personlig fremmøde til bestyrelsesmøde.

The students are not the only ones protesting at RUC. A group of employees protested by sending letters and showing up at Board meetings.

The redundancies that have been announced  –  mostly at the Department of Culture and Identity (CUID) and the Department of Society and Globalisation (ISG)  –  will not only have consequences for the employees forced to leave RUC, but also for the internal cohesion at RUC as a whole and the freedom of research there. Moreover, the sudden announcement of redundancies by management is a panicked solution based on their failure to show due care and diligence.

These are the most serious charges made by CUID and ISG staff, who will be hardest hit as RUC fires staff over the course of 2015 to balance its budget. The charges were put forward in two letters sent by a group of CUID staff to the Board of Directors during the days leading up to the Board meeting held on 17 December. One of the authors, CUID’s Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen, told RUSK more (read the letters in their entirety below – ed.)

RUC skal fyre medarbejdere i 2015 (Redundancies at RUC in 2015)

risbjerg340

Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen, an associate professor whose area of research is European science history, still wonders why and how management’s announcements could change so much and so quickly.

“At a CUID meeting in mid-November, we were discussing how to spend a surplus, and one week later they were announcing redundancies because of a deficit. How can that happen? That the budget was changed and adopted so suddenly is worrying in itself,” states Dr Eskildsen.

Rector Hanne Leth Andersen informs us that the Rectorship was just as surprised as the staff.

“This kind of situation is partly due to our decentralised financial management system. But we addressed the issues at once. We invited the local trade union representatives to a meeting at my office three days after receiving the news,” she explains, emphasising that openness and employee participation is very important to management.

Research threatened

However,  what concerns Dr Eskildsen and like-minded staff are the consequences of this sudden decision, because they are far-reaching. The most important general consequence is:

“It’s a threat to the freedom of research.”

At a CUID meeting in mid-November, we were discussing how to spend a surplus, and one week later they were announcing redundancies because of a deficit. How can that happen?

According to this concerned group of staff members, all researchers, there is a risk that academic staff become both wilful and unproductive when threatened with dismissal. They will become wilful because they will focus on their own job security and career at the expense of contributing to the general development of the University, including the instruction of students and the academic environments. In other words, researchers will go for research they believe management will approve of rather than research they consider important. And they will become unproductive because no one becomes more efficient at their job when the threat of losing it hangs over their head.

The seriousness of this charge was confirmed by the Norwegian member of RUC’s Board, Inge Bostad, at the meeting held on 17 December. She stated that a similar round of redundancies would be illegal in Norway.

“Management showed understanding for our arguments, but was not responsive, sadly,” Dr Eskildsen says today.

Dimensioneringens konsekvenser ligger klar for RUC (Consequences of downsizing at RUC)

According to the staff members RUSK spoke with, the adopted budget and related redundancies will, on a more RUC-specific level, result in a higher degree of disunity between the different parts of the University: departments, undergraduate programmes and subjects alike.

Holistic approach needed

“The overall problem is that management do not take a holistic approach to the University and end up with territorial disputes between middle managers. We propose taking a look at the University as a whole. The way things are now, there are internal battles about in-house funding,” Dr Eskildsen says. He draws attention to what he sees as a paradox:  that staff are laid off at CUID while new positions are advertised at the Department of Communication, Business and Information Technologies (CBIT).

“Isn’t it possible that some of the employees to be laid off are qualified for these new positions? Let’s try to find a solution that takes a holistic approach rather than protecting a few arbitrary groups by applying a ‘divide and conquer’ principle.”

Moreover, the group of employees proposes that the University reallocates resources to basic studies over the next two years so that more funds flow to CUID and ISG, the departments with deficits.

Rektor Hanne Leth Andersen lytter til kritikken. Foto: Uffe weng.

Rector Hanne Leth Andersen hears the criticism. Photo: Uffe Weng.

The Rector is open to all suggestions.

“We have asked the heads of department to think of alternative solutions at all levels, whether in terms of structure or administrative tasks,” Dr Andersen says, emphasising that there is no way to avoid such drastic measures as redundancies:

“We cannot make the situation disappear, and we can’t  jeopardise RUC’s financial basis.”

Being heard

While rethinking the structure, the dissenting group of employees sees no harm in eating into the equity. It’s better than implementing rash redundancies, they argue.

“Apparently, they listened to this argument to some degree. At least they’re waiting with the layoffs until March when they’ll have a better overview of the annual financial results. We are pleased about it, in spite of everything,” Dr Eskildsen says. It is an interpretation of the events that Dr Andersen can confirm.

However, there is a limit to the happiness when it comes to all the different criticisms Dr Eskildsen and his colleagues have put forward about the Rectorship, also about how CUID and ISG could even end up in their current situation.

“The heads of departments have the power to employ staff, and there are indications that CUID and ISG have hired too many. But this isn’t something that happened overnight. Why didn’t management react a long time ago? Is it possible that something happened here that shows a lack of due care and diligence on their part? It’s possible. If this is the case, then management must assume responsibility for it,” he declares.

Again, Dr Andersen is open to the criticism. She concedes that it is worth discussing the current degree of decentralised power the departments have, and she also indicates that there is a need to tighten things up:

“Where is the limit to departmental freedom in our current model? The idea is to entrust the academic experts with the decisions, but it also means that we in the Rectorship are sometimes taken by surprise. To avoid such surprises, more control and monitoring may become necessary, for example in job postings. I think we need to allow the University’s executive management to lay down common guidelines to a higher degree.”

Dr Eskildsen, one might claim that management is, in fact, taking responsibility by presenting a budget that ensures sound finances at the University. We all know it’s the government cutting the taximeter rates to universities and the re-sizing of study programmes that put the budget under pressure.

“It’s true that the rates are falling, but the year-on-year fluctuations are relatively small, and management could have taken action in this connection. And the deficit we are dealing with now has nothing to do with the re-sizing process. The variation in FTEs is small and shouldn’t lead to panicked solutions.”

Subdued atmosphere

Because the two letters they received did not immediately cause management to change course, both employees and students turned out in large numbers at the Board meeting held on 17 December. Dr Eskildsen believes there were between 40 and 50 people present in the lecture hall, in addition to the Board members. The authors of the letters were given the floor for 15 minutes – without being allowed to repeat what they had written, however – and then the budget was adopted. The mood was not good.

“The mood in the room was subdued. It also seemed as if the situation weighed heavily on Rector and the Board of Directors, but, unfortunately, it didn’t change anything.

The current status of the announced round of redundancies is that the applications are about to be negotiated for either voluntary termination of employment or a senior scheme, for which the closing date was 23 January. In early March, when the financial results for 2014 and the FTE forecast for 2014-2015 are available, the first actual letters of dismissal will be sent out.

Dr Andersen gets the last word:

“We can’t help it that some people will feel it’s unfair when cutbacks are made. But included in our new strategy is developing a more transparent budget model more closely related to our core activities – education and research – and ensuring a minimum of teaching and guidance for students across the board at the University.”

The facts

The first letter from CUID staff

To the executive management:

The newsletter of 20 November 2014 issued by the Rectorship announced the redundancy of between 20 and 25 employees due to falling taximeter rates and the future resizing plan. This announcement has caused much concern among academic staff. We were therefore pleased to read the joint statement in Politiken on 6 December 2014 in which student representatives, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM) and the boards of the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, Aalborg University, the University of Southern Denmark and RUC jointly emphasise that they welcome the opposition’s efforts to soften the blow of the resizing plan introduced by Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science Sofie Carsten Nielsen. We would like to take this opportunity to ask the executive management to act wisely in relation to the 2015 budget.

The current situation, in which cuts in academic staff are proposed, is an acid test of how the University will function going forward. Redundancies in the different learning environments are damaging to RUC’s self-perception as a university and to academic staff’s identification with the institution. The immediate consequences are

  • more disunity between the different parts of the University – both between the individual departments and between the undergraduate programmes and subjects.
  • that the individual researchers will potentially limit their horizon by focusing narrowly on their own job security and career at the expense of their desire to contribute to the overall progress of the University, including working to develop educational aspects and the academic environments.
  • a long unproductive period due to staff members fearing for their jobs and their academic and research work.

Continuity in the academic and research environments and job security form the necessary framework for freedom of research, critical thinking, and staff desire to work and be active. Without this aspect of job security, RUC will be left with wage earners who feel they have no vocation or calling, and it will risk its legitimacy as a university. Also, it is worth emphasising that, at the end of the day, both the academic staff and the students are the very justification of the University’s existence. If cuts are made in academic positions, cuts are made in the core activities of the University: education, research and dissemination.

We urge the University management to rethink its 2015 draft budget and attempt to solve the problem without taking the drastic step of reducing the number of academic staff, e.g. by using some of RUC’s equity to balance the budget for 2015 and thereby gaining time to thoroughly consider the academic and staff-related consequences of the bachelor reforms, the student FTE income, and future and currently unknown resizing measures. Also, it is very disheartening that individual departments have been singled out and proclaimed to be the cause of the financial crisis without any budgetary evidence of such claim having been presented. Even if individual departments have been financially irresponsible, the academic staff are not responsible for this, since we have no real influence on financial priorities and choices. Punishing the academic staff for the consequences of territorial disputes between middle managers, e.g. in connection with the bachelor reform, thus seems irresponsible and counterproductive. If academic staff redundancies and the breakdown of learning environments can be avoided by spending some of the University’s capital and then renegotiating the demarcation lines between the departments in the near future, including departmental allocations of funds for the undergraduate programmes, then this is an option that must be seriously considered.

Yours faithfully

The academic staff at the Department of Culture and Identity, RUC

The follow-up letter sent the following week:

To the Board of Directors and the Rectorship

Last Wednesday, the Rectorship and the Board of Directors received a joint letter about the impending cutbacks from the academic staff of the Department of Culture and Identity, which has since received support from the academic staff of the Department of Society and Globalisation. We wish to emphasise the seriousness and fundamental importance of the choice made by the Rectorship and the Board of Directors and have therefore decided to elaborate on our statements in the first letter, as follows.

At the meeting to be held on 17 December, the Board of Directors and the Rectorship face a fundamental decision which not only concerns budget adjustments, but the future of the entire university. The basic principle which is now being questioned is the job security of tenured academic staff who can only be dismissed in the case of compelling personal reasons. There are several reasons why universities in the Western world have long upheld this principle.

Job security has allowed university researchers to think and research freely and critically, to launch long-term research projects and to engage in topics that may not be popular or politically opportune at that particular time. Consequently, such security is one of the cornerstones of the academic freedom.

However, other, more pragmatic reasons for this principle also exist.

The academic labour market is not like most other labour markets. Within some fields of research, only a few positions exist in the world, and the recruitment process is complicated and lengthy. Even for the most highly qualified researchers, this means that years may pass from when they begin applying for jobs until they have permanent employment. If job security is questioned, qualified employees are more likely to seek employment elsewhere than at the University, or they will at least consider the options for employment elsewhere.

As a result, an academic employee’s priorities will change. The most important factor in connection with employment is scientific publications. If employees are uncertain about their job security, this will be their predominant focus at the expense of other tasks such as quality development of teaching and development of learning environments and collaborative relations with the surrounding world in addition to development of the University itself.

The University depends entirely on academic staff not only perceiving their employment as a stepping stone in their career, but also as a calling. If the job insecurity now being proposed becomes a reality, the University will be left with wage-earners without vocation, and this will threaten the lifeblood of this institution.

That the Board of Directors and the Rectorship today face such a fundamental decision is highlighted all the more by the fact that these redundancies can be avoided.

By way of example, management could reallocate resources and staff within the University and across departments and subjects during a transition period, thus gaining time for making changes and possibly cutting some staff in a few areas. RUC’s interdisciplinary basic studies and interdisciplinary approach to education in general offer excellent opportunities to do this.

With the draft budget to be considered on 17 December, an entirely different way of perceiving the University is proposed. Rather than taking a holistic approach to the institution, management has chosen a “divide and conquer” policy in which single arbitrary organisational units are rewarded if they prevail in the territorial dispute with other units, and if student trends and political winds happen to blow in their direction. Management are recruiting staff for some departments and some subjects while handing out notices of dismissal elsewhere, and this is being done even though the teaching tasks could be handled by the academic staff already employed at the University. In the long term, the “divide and conquer” policy will be damaging to any trust, loyalty to colleagues and collaboration across the University and thus to RUC as an interdisciplinary university. We therefore urge the Board of Directors and the Rectorship to take responsibility and aim for long-term planning that puts the common good of the University above the consideration for short-term financial goals, and that they agree to the following principle:

that job security for academic staff is a prerequisite for academic freedom and for the cohesion and development of the University. Consequently, dismissal of tenured academic staff should be a last resort and considered only if all other options have been exhausted, including reallocation of resources and staff internally within the University. 

On behalf of many concerned staff members

Janus Mortensen, Esther Oluffa Pedersen, Søren Riis, Jakob Egholm Feldt and Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen

 

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