Communities of bad practice: resisting the ‘toxic’ university

“The language of crisis dominates the literature on the corporate university, urging us to act before it is too late. We are more optimistic, believing that resistance is alive and well” (The Slow Professor, 2016). With this comment in mind, Ray Martin confronts some facts around the breakdown of campus communities and offers suggestions for continuing resistance. She argues that resistance starts with the belief that, before you can do anything, you must look after yourself.


Written by Ray Martin | PUBLISHED ON 12th May 2022 | Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’ (Mahatma Gandhi)

Introduction

Some years ago, a Wimbledon College of Art student created an installation around the theme of community. All the staff were offered a piece of clay – from cleaners and catering to senior academics – and invited to make a figure to include in the installation. There was no selection process.

While I was looking at the finished installation (which included sounds of people walking around in various parts of the college, reinforcing the idea of community), two caterers and a caretaker came to identify their work, to admire each other’s and to consider the installation as a whole. What the student had done was raise important questions about the creativity that we share and what higher education institutions (HEIs) might be.

When I look back to this model, I can only sigh over its distance from reality. ‘Higher education has become an “anxiety machine”, in which excessive pressure to perform has been normalised’, says Liz Morrish, in a HEPI paper on Pressure Vessels (2019:51). She quotes Paul Gorczynski (2018) as saying: ‘43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder. This is nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population’ (ibid:16). And it is not only academic staff who are suffering: Morrish and Priaulx’s 2020 follow-up paper (Pressure Vessels II) demonstrates that admin staff are also suffering in the ‘toxic’ university (ibid:53).

‘Excessive pressure to perform’ goes hand in hand with a lack of respect for many staff, catering staff and caretakers among them. Bullying and harassment are also widely reported: according to trades union Unison (2013:8), ‘Alarming levels of bullying and harassment … exist in the higher education (HE) sector’. Exact figures are difficult to establish, partly because there is no general agreement on what ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ might mean and partly because of the variety of methodologies and sampling that have been employed in research projects. As a guide, a 2014 University and College Union (UCU) study, with 14,677 participants, found that nearly 50% of the respondents felt they had been bullied at work, 8.4% saying that this happened either ‘always’ or ‘often’.

The situation is considerably worse among BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) staff in HEIs: ‘Nothing,’ say researchers Mahony and Weiner (2019:6), ’prepared us for the sheer weight of racialism confronting racialised staff in these so-called eminent seats of learning.’ They note that in 2018, of the 19,000 professors in UK universities, only 25 were black women and 90 black men. They also quote a 2016 UCU survey of black, minority and ethnic staff participants in which ‘72% responders said they were “often” or “sometimes” subject to bullying and harassment from managers, while 69% said they were “often” or “sometimes” subject to bullying and harassment from colleagues’ (ibid).

In the LGBTQ+ community, 17% of staff said they had experienced ‘biphobic, homophobic or transphobic name-calling at work’ (name-calling!), 13% bullying and harassment and 10% threatening behaviour. Three percent were actually assaulted at work (The Forum, 2016:28).

What can be done

‘It is time to let, and encourage, the simple humane value of kindness ameliorate the toxic university, thereby allowing more talented individuals to survive within it’ (Morrish, 29:53)

‘Whatever else we do, we need first … to stop abusing ourselves with overwork: It doesn’t help students … learn, it ruins our health and causes us to have colourful breakdowns’ (Berg and Seeber, 2016:40)

All this evidence falls so very short of the three aims of the Public Sector Equality Duty (2011):

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act.
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

(The ‘protected characteristics’ refer to: age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, set out in the Equality Act, 2010.)

The obvious solution might appear to be to include levels of bullying, harassment and racism in the annual university league tables but, as writer Sara Ahmed (2019) points out: ‘A complaint is made confidential as soon as it is lodged’ and the proceedings then follow ‘behind closed doors.’ There’s a culture of secrecy around complaints – universities paid out nearly £90M in two years on ‘gagging orders’ (Murphy, 2019). Many leading academics want to see this secrecy lifted (Devlin and Marsh, 2018), but it’s difficult to see what HEIs can gain from transparency at present. It is simply not in their interest.

For the complainant, Ahmed thinks, complaint becomes ‘a secret, a source of shame, as what keeps you apart from others’ (2019). It is our community responsibility to report any bullying, harassment and racism to managers or human resources, but quite how wise might this seem in these circumstances? For Ahmed, at least, ‘Making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again’ (ibid). There is also evidence that those who complain may well lose their jobs or feel they have no choice but to leave (Simpson and Cohen, 2004).

Former president of the Royal Society Venki Ramakrishnan strikes a more optimistic note. He believes stricter sanctions by funding agencies would be effective in tackling the problem of bullying. He cites the Wellcome Trust’s tough anti-bullying rules under which the Trust withdrew a £3.5M grant from the Institute of Cancer Research after a senior researcher was found guilty of widespread bullying (2018). ‘If [funding agencies] start taking it seriously, universities will follow suit,’ Ramakrishnan says. ‘Money talks’ (Devlin and Marsh, 2018).

But waiting for money to speak is a pretty feeble option: HEIs need to be safe places now where staff feel respected and valued and are therefore in a position to provide warm, safe spaces for their students to prosper. It is Ahmed’s contention that ‘we need to work on the university when we work at the university’ (www.saranahmed.com › bio-cv; accessed on 20.7.20), and the surest way to do this is to start by looking after ourselves. We can look after our colleagues better, can be authentic in our support, if we are in good shape ourselves. There are, of course, a number of ways to go about this. Among them are these:

Increasingly, people are finding support in Mindfulness, a Buddhist form of meditation around 2,500 years old. Through it, one can direct attention to the moment; ‘observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself’ (Williams and Penman, 2011:5). It is recognised by NICE (National Institute for Clinical Health and Excellence) and prescribed for depression in the UK largely through MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy), but it also offers succour for those who want to improve their sense of wellbeing. Danny Penman (2011) offers a free online three-minute meditation that can be done at any time (more or less) and any place: standing up, sitting down, stirring the soup, watching the rain (http://franticworld.com/the-three-minute-breathing-space-meditation-is-now-free-to-download/). There’s also a chocolate meditation.

There is increasing evidence for the value of spending time in green spaces, though not all of it is conclusive, and clearly, taking a walk in a park just vacated by music festival devotees (horrifying mountains of rubbish and abandoned tents) could keep you awake nights. Likewise, walking down a litter-strewn path beside a stagnant pond may have a lowering effect. Choose your green spaces and aim to take more than two hours’ exercise a week in them, which White et al. (2019) claim will improve health and wellbeing. They do not know how these two hours can best be divided. Many people would, no doubt, find two hours in one go a definite blight on their wellbeing, and if you’re not enjoying it, it’s probably not doing you any good. But there’s a plus to the exercise: walking improves creative thinking, not just while you’re walking but for a short while after you stop. A double whammy, as it were (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014).

There are seemingly endless positive effects from being grateful (Ackerman, 2022) and a great deal of research to support this claim. Action for Happiness suggests that each day we write down three things for which we are grateful (www.actionforhappiness.org), which is supported by Wood et al. (2008) findings that ‘Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life’.

For Joe McCarron, Manager of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at UCA, we need to manage our energy because, despite our best intentions, we can become very insular when we are stressed, under time pressure, under an emotional or cognitive load – or just plain tired (2020). There will be little brake on our unconscious tendency to move towards people with whom we can identify (what’s called our affinity bias) and things that are familiar to us (metacognitive exposure effect) and to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our beliefs (confirmation bias) (ibid). If we’re not managing our energy well, we can easily start Othering.

If we are to resist the bullying, harassment and racism on our campuses, to make them safe places for the staff and by extension our students, we need to become more open and aware of our communities. McCarron suggests that you can ‘come off autopilot’ and:

  • Extend your network. Who don’t you know? (individuals or teams)
  • Seek out difference.
  • Reflect on the ‘in groups’ you are in.
  • Seek out alternative views.
  • Be open to be challenged.
  • Resist the temptation to stay within your ”in group”.
  • Try not to be a bystander.’  (ibid)

One powerful mindful practice that can increase your empathy with and understanding of those outside your ‘in groups’ is ‘Just like me’, where you explore what you share with another person and come to see how much the two of you have in common (https://www.mindful.org/just-like-me-compassion-practice/). Though not for everyone, of course.

Among the suggestions from trainer Jenny Foster (2004) for looking after your fellow workers are these questions (which follow the recognition that mistakes are an essential part of our learning):

  • What specific positive feedback have I given to colleagues today?
  • Colleagues are learners too; how do I respond to mistakes they make? How do I support their learning?
  • What am I modelling for my colleagues? How useful is it? (Foster, 2004:18)

To the last question, you might extend your thoughts to the community as a whole. How useful is the way you, for example, model respect for caretakers and caterers? Staff wellbeing ‘can be gauged by the extent to which everyone at work, irrespective of their background, identity or circumstance, feels valued, accepted and supported at work’ (CIPD, 2019:3). We have a lot to do. But, oh, yes, it’s worth it.

Afterword

Trainer Judith DeLozier (Owen, 2001:51) tells of a visit US President Kennedy made to NASA, Cape Canavarel in the early days of the space race. He saw what there was to see and spoke to the scientists, technicians and managers. At the end of his tour he came across an old African American with a bucket and mop. ‘And what do you do?’ Kennedy asked. ‘I’m doing what everyone else does here,’ was the response. ‘I’m working to put a man on the moon.’


About the author

Ray Martin is a specialist in specific learning differences (SpLDs), who supports postgraduate art and design students. She also lectures on the UCA Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Education, for which she has been compiling an inclusivity guide for staff. She has conducted research for UCA on an integrated approach to contextual studies; developing the contextual studies VLE to enhance inclusivity; transition into university for autistic students; and rethinking reading/resource lists. She has written articles on NLP, mindfulness, presentations, the wellbeing of the university and embroidery.


References

Ackerman, C. (2022) What is gratitude and why is it so important?  Positive Psychology (28.3.22) Accessed (Accessed on 3.5.22)

Ahmed, S. (2019) Mind the Gap: complaint as diversity work. Baltimore (Lecture at Dresher Center, UMBC, 11.3.19) (Accessed on 26.6.20)

Berg, M. and Seeber, B. (2016) The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy Toronto: University of Toronto Press

CIPD (2019) Health and Wellbeing at Work: CIPD Survey 2019. (Accessed on 30.4.22)

Devlin, H. and Marsh, S. (2018) Hundreds of academics at top UK universities accused of bullying. Guardian 28.9.18 (Accessed on 30.4.22)

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Public Sector Equality Duty. (Accessed on 30.4.22)

Forum for Sexual and Gender Identity Equality in Post-School Education (2016) Pride and Prejudice in Education. (Accessed on 30.4.22)

Foster, J. (2004) Self-esteem Edinburgh: Barrington Ward

McCarron, J. (2020) Inclusive Working workshop (UCA Farnham, 5.3.20)

Mahony, P. and Weiner, G. (2019) Getting in, getting on, getting out: Black, Asian and minority ethnicity staff in UK higher education: in Race, Ethnicity and Education 23(2), 1-17

Morrish, L. (2019) Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. HEPI Occasional Paper 20

Morrish, L. and Priaulx, N. (2020) Pressure Vessels II: an update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK. HEPI Policy Note 23

Murphy, S. (2019) UK universities pay out £90M on staff “gagging orders” in past 2 years. Guardian, 17.4.19 (Accessed on 30.4.22)

Oppezzo, M. and Shwartz, D. (2014) Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 40(4), 1142-1152

Owen, N. (2001) The Magic of Metaphor Carmarthen: Crown House

Simpson, R. and Cohen, C. (2004) Dangerous work: the gendered nature of bullying in the context of higher education. Gender Work and Organization. 11(2) (Accessed on 30.4.22) UCU (2012) The experiences of black and minority ethnic staff in further and higher education. (Accessed on 1.6.20)

Unison (2013) Tackling bullying at work. (Accessed on 1.6.20)

White, M., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B., Hartig, T., Warber, S., Bone, A., Depledge, M. and Fleming, L. (2010) Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.  Scientific Reports, 9: 7730

Williams, M. and Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: a practical guide for finding peace in a frantic world London: Piatkus

Wood, A., Joseph, S. and Maltby, J. (2008) Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: incremental validity above the domains and facets of the Five Factor Model. Personality and Individual Differences. 45: 49-54

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