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September 15, 2016

Disaster at Leicester

Posted by Tom Leinster

You’ve probably met mathematicians at the University of Leicester, or read their work, or attended their talks, or been to events they’ve organized. Their pure group includes at least four people working in categorical areas: Frank Neumann, Simona Paoli, Teimuraz Pirashvili and Andy Tonks.

Now this department is under severe threat. A colleague of mine writes:

24 members of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Leicester — the great majority of the members of the department — have been informed that their post is at risk of redundancy, and will have to reapply for their positions by the end of September. Only 18 of those applying will be re-appointed (and some of those have been changed to purely teaching positions).

It’s not only mathematics at stake. The university is apparently on a process of “institutional transformation”, involving:

the closure of departments, subject areas and courses, including the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning and the university bookshop. Hundreds of academic, academic-related and support staff are to be made redundant, many of them compulsorily.

If you don’t like this, sign the petition objecting! You’ll see lots of familiar names already on the list (Tim Gowers, John Baez, Ross Street, …). As signatory David Pritchard wrote, “successful departments and universities are hard to build and easy to destroy.”

Posted at September 15, 2016 12:28 PM UTC

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Re: Disaster at Leicester

More details can be found at Gower’s Weblog: In case you haven’t heard what’s going on in Leicester …, including some administration speak about how cuts will be determined. A key point is

the university is aiming for cuts of 4.5% on average, and mathematics is being asked to make a cut of more like 20%.

Posted by: RodMcGuire on September 17, 2016 1:43 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

This is infuriating. The west has forgotten the value of the very thing - science - which powered its advance.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on September 18, 2016 12:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

My gloomy prediction: even if the current threat is cancelled, many of the better mathematicians at Leicester will leave (because why would they want to stay?). Having lost their best members and — if the threat is carried out — suffered a big drop in the number of research-active staff, the department will do worse at the next REF. Management will point to this as vindication of their initial judgement. They will then use this as justification to close the department or merge it into a larger unit. And this will be exactly what they wanted all along.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 18, 2016 4:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

Thanks for posting about this, Tom. I’m afraid I share your gloomy expectations. As I commented when I signed the UCU petition, “one could hardly destroy morale more effectively if one tried”, and it seems very likely this is a deliberate part of the strategy that the ‘management class’ are now taught to follow.

Either that, or they are genuinely clueless about workplace dynamics, or human nature come to think of it.

Posted by: Yemon Choi on September 18, 2016 7:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

Yemon: you say:

‘Either that, or they are genuinely clueless about workplace dynamics, or human nature come to think of it.’

I’ve been there, ten years ago, and am convinced it is ‘both’. At the same time, they are clueless about human interactions and yet think that this is the right way to improve the future of a department.

One of the big problems in the UK university system is the use of tools such as the REF. That is based on very false assumptions as to how departments actually thrive in a research setting and the value of the research other than grant capture.

Posted by: Tim Porter on September 19, 2016 6:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

I looked at the REF report and wondered at the detailed “scores”, especially on the “Impact”. It is wonderful that they now have the technology to answer Banquo’s question:

“Can you look into the seeds of time

And say which grains will grow and which will not?”

Ronnie Brown

Posted by: Ronnie Brown on September 20, 2016 6:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

Ronnie is absolutely right. Here is the document.

The difference between the main levels of impact are the difference between the words ‘outstanding’, ‘very considerable’, ‘considerable’, and ‘recognised but modest’. These distinctions are absolute nonsense. Yet these kinds of trivialities permeate all of academia: they are also used for grade descriptions of students’ work, for instance.

There is also absolutely no way that any kind of objective opinion will be represented by the ‘expert panels’ making these decisions. I feel that those who agree to sit on such panels should consider the ethical implications of what they are doing. These more or less random decisions are affecting the lives of numerous people, both in the short term and in the long term. Do you really feel comfortable with, and truly have a right to make, that kind of decision? If you do not, then refuse next time.

And try to make a stand, in some way, wherever you see this kind of methodology perpetuated: in grading of students; in hiring;… .

Posted by: Richard Williamson on September 20, 2016 8:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Disaster at Leicester

The REF GPA and impact rankings remind me of the description in Dead Poets Society of how to evaluate poetry.

Posted by: Ciaran McCreesh on September 21, 2016 10:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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