Scapegoating at universities – Ignoring other perspectives

Recent events at my institution have triggered some memories, which in turn triggered reflection about governance issues at academic institutions. Let me start with the memories, a next post will deal with the current issues, and I’ll end with a brief reflection.

First confrontation with scapegoating at universities

In the mid 1990’s, I witnessed a situation with a research assistant (let’s call her X) at one of the smaller universities in Flanders (Belgium). Her position was in an institute that had been founded a few years previously as a merger of two existing departments. The new-founded institute was given the target of being financially self-sufficient after a three-year period. If that target could not be reached, the university management would cut staff levels within the constituant department with the lowest financial gain in the last three years. Anyway, at the moment of reckoning, X’s department – which had done very well previously and had brought the largest dowry into the merger – had been slightly less successful in the previous three years than its counterpart – which had secured a large telecom contract – and so her department had to cut down on staff.

This situation was perceived as very unjust, and the members of X’s department started an internal protest and asked the university management to consider different mid-term and long-term achievements and criteria, but the management team refused to budge. Which is why her department – as a whole – decided to write a letter to the board of gouvernors, on behalf of the whole team, thereby bypassing the university management. As one of the more vocal and more verbally adept members of the department, she was asked to write and sign the letter on behalf of the whole team.

When the university management team were informed of this letter to their governing board, they were ‘not amused’, to say the least. They decided to come to the department to have a ‘chat’. The rector chose to visit on a day when X was absent. In stead of listening to the department’s grievances and suggestions, the rector started a monologue outlining how this letter presented him with a problem, because it showed that he would not be able to trust the remaining staff, and would have a hard time collaborating with them if they chose to persist on this course. He then went on to state: “My perception is that this letter was written by a single individual, and not on behalf of the whole team. If my perception is incorrect, then I need you to speak up now, and correct me.”

Of course, nobody spoke up. By voicing the colleagues’ grievances at their request, X had become the perfect scapegoat (Kent & Boatwright, 2018, Sarkar, 2009). Two months later, her contract at the university was cancelled. Three other colleagues were transferred to different departments, but were able to stay at the university. X left the university with a very bitter feeling of betrayal.

https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NikkoNoEvil4902.jpg#mw-jump-to-license (public domain)

Dealing with diverging perspectives and dissent?

Within all Flemish (Belgian) universities, there is a form of employee representation, formalised as a council in which the official Belgian trade unions are represented, according to the results of employee elections (which are held every 4 years). This council (Ondernemingsraad) is a forum in which a limited set of topics can be discussed, mainly related to HR issues at a collective level (well-being, benefits, etc.).

In Dutch universities the influence of student and staff representatives within the official representation is much more elaborate (thanks to extensive laws in that respect), and the topics that have to be discussed with students and staff include major issues such as strategy, finance, quality, but also HR issues at a collective level. On the surface, this form of institutionalised representation (VSNU, s.d.) should prevent situations such as the one described above, in that it offers a channel for dealing with diverging perspectives or dissent amongst staff or students.

The reality is less straightforward, as I know from personal experience. Between 2010 and 2017, I have served as the chairman of the employee council (ondernemingsraad) and the joint representation council (Gezamenlijke vergadering) at my university, and have encountered situations which were inherently similar to the one described above, though in a more formalised context. The purpose of these representation councils is to provide an official channel for diverging prespectives, and in certain specific cases the university management needs formal council agreement (instemmingsrecht) before it can make a final decision, but in most cases the councils’ influence is limited to an advisory role (adviesrecht).

One would think that these councils provide an opportunity for management to get a feel for staff or student perspectives, and that management would use this opportunity in order to create support for their policies and decisions. In my experience with different constellations in the university management board during my 7-year tenure as chair, managers tend to ignore or at least minimise the input from the councils when opinions and perspectives diverge.

Diverging opinions – even when they are supported by university-wide staff surveys, or scientifically sound student surveys – were easily rejected by management, and were often perceived as opinions of staff or students who

  • (a) are resistant to change,
  • (b) have not really understood what the policy is all about,
  • (c) represent ‘only’ a minority and not the mainstream opinion, or
  • (d) are the usual bunch of negativists and moaners.

This inability to deal with divergent opinions within a university – a professional organisation that prides itself on critical thinking, autonomy and independence – appears counterintuitive and contradictory. The next blogpost will investigate this contradiction in more depth.

References

Kent, M. L., & Boatwright, B. C. (2018). Ritualistic sacrifice in crisis communication: A case for eliminating scapegoating from the crisis/apologia lexicon. Public Relations Review, 44(4), 514-522. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2018.06.006

Sarkar, S. P. (2009). The dance of dissent: Managing conflict in healthcare organisations. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 23(2), 121-135. https://doi.org/10.1080/02668730902920389

VSNU, s.d. How does participation in decision-making work at a university? Retrieved January 8, 2019 from https://www.vsnu.nl/en_GB/participation-in-decision-making.html

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Author: sverjans

Multi-disciplinary researcher and lecturer, currently at the Open University of The Netherlands.

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