Changing University Cultures

More recently my work on sexual harassment and violence in higher education has developed into a focus on the cultures of the neoliberal university and how they interact with equality and diversity issues as well as problems such as bullying, harassment and violence. This has given rise to the Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) project, which developed from funded research at Imperial College London. Together with Liz McDonnell and Jess Taylor, I conducted a year-long case study at Imperial which combined sociological research methods and organisational development techniques.

In the first phase of the research we gathered views and experiences from around 250 staff and students, using mixed methods including interviews, focus groups, a questionnaire and an anonymous WordPress blog. In the second phase we used the themes from these data to inform a process of Action Inquiry. Action Inquiry is an organisational development technique in which members of a unit or organisation come together to discuss and act on common issues. We conducted this process in four ‘sets’ of up to ten staff and students from all levels of the College, each of whom met for four two-hour sessions. We used Action Inquiry to interrogate our data more deeply through the themes of empathyauthoritysilence/dissent and failure: these represented either issues we had identified in the institution (authority and silence/dissent) or capacities we believed the institution needed to develop (empathy and an ability to tolerate ‘failure’).

Our final report blended our data analysis with issues emerging from the Action Inquiry discussions, and we made a number of ambitious recommendations focused on helping the College to develop the capacities it lacks and which are lacking throughout the neoliberalised higher education sector (self-awareness, honesty, altruism, political consciousness and empathy). The College has committed to implementing these recommendations and is currently engaged in a process of action-planning with our support. In early 2017 we were commissioned to deliver a similar project at Sussex, which is currently ongoing.

To find out more about CHUCL, you can visit our website.