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Heads of Schools controversy

The reorganized selection process provokes Sussex academics

The selection of the new Heads of Schools at the University has begun but the process has attracted fierce criticism from Sussex academics. Many are enraged by the management’s attitude, which one member of faculty described as “high-handed, patronising and inflexible.”

The reorganisation of the University’s academic units into 12 new Schools is part of the Vice-Chancellor Executive Groups (VCEG) Strategic Plan for 2008-2015. The Heads of these schools are to be closely engaged with the VCEG.

There have been several contentious aspects of the selection process, which one member of faculty told The Badger seemed “designed to cut faculty not just out of the decision making process, but also to deny them any consultative role.”

The advertisements, which appeared in the Guardian Education supplement and on the University website, had just a 2 week deadline, during September- a quiet time in the academic world. This leaves a much shorter window for potential applicants – including academics from overseas – to apply than is usual for a post of such importance and for which there is a five year contract. This point was raised with the management, who said that there were ‘teaser’ ads placed earlier in the summer in order to generate interest. Staff were not consulted on the advertisements themselves, which had omitted important information on the academic make-up of each school – for example, it was not made apparent that Chemistry is included in the School of Life Sciences- which could have prevented potential candidates from realising their suitability.

The Appointment Panels have only three department representatives, of which two must be members of Senate and one a professor. These representatives were contacted directly with no consultation taking place within departments or via the Heads of Departments. Yet 6 members of the VCEG have been included on every panel.

Initially, the short-listing process was also to be done entirely by the VCEG. After pressure from members of faculty, they conceded that department representatives could participate – but gave them less than a days notice. This denied many the chance to take part if they could not come into the University during the holiday period.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the process has been the decision not to allow candidates to make presentations to their potential School. Most academic posts in higher education institutions in this country are filled after candidates give presentations to all school members, as stated in The University UK’s guidelines. This allows each member an opportunity to give feedback, and is a chance for both the candidate and current staff a chance to meet possible future colleagues. This will not happen for the new Heads of School at Sussex on the grounds of equalities and confidentiality.

As one academic told The Badger, “You simply cannot make meaningful academic appointments without participation of faculty in the selection and interviewing process, and no serious applicant would be prepared to take academic responsibility for a department or school on such a basis.”

Jane Sommerville, Director of Human Relations, stressed to The Badger that the appointments process has been done in accordance with the University’s Regulations on the appointment of Deans, which does not make reference to informal methods such as presentations. She contends that “this is a properly conducted, fair and vigorous appointment procedure.”

However, this will do little to quell the worries of some faculty members that the excuses of equalities and confidentiality will be rolled out in the selection process for future academic appointments, with the VCEG’s conduct during the appointment process this time having set a precedent of an authoritarian style of governance.

One member of faculty told The Badger “This process has been handled in such an unprofessional way that it could endanger the good name of the University. The VCEG urgently needs to put its house in order.”

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