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Firth Court, the administrative centre of Sheffield University
Peter Barr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

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thePipeLine can reveal that senior managers at Sheffield University have “disposed of” records such as notes and transcripts relating to at least one crucial meeting held during the recent Institutional Review of the University’s Archaeology Department. The meeting in question was between senior managers of the University, external panel members and current members of the student body. The Review itself resulted in a controversial vote by the University Executive Board to end Archaeology as a stand alone subject at the University. However, the apparent disposal of records of the Review process mean that it is no longer possible to scrutinise the decision making by which the Review panel reached its recommendations. As a consequence it is likely that the University Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Gill Valentine who oversaw the Review process, will face some awkward questions from the University’s oversight bodies. This is because such a disposal would appear also to be both contrary to Sheffield University’s retention policy for documents and records and also risks bringing the controversial Review process itself into disrepute by, rightly or not, provoking suspicions that some sort of cover up of the process may be underway.

The revelation that critical primary documents relating to the Review have been disposed of comes in an email from the secretary to the Archaeology Review Group, based at the University Secretary’s Office. The email, which is dated 8 June [2021], appears to have been issued in response to a request from participants in a meeting, which took place on 12 February [2021], asking to see the transcripts and records kept of their contributions by the Review Group.

The request for the disclosure of the material appears to have been made to Professor Valentine who chaired the meeting. She then seems to have passed the request to the Archaeology Review Group secretary for a response.

The e-mail, which has been seen by thePipeLine, and which is understood to have been distributed widely among campaigners in Sheffield, claims that the records concerned had been disposed of after the Review Group used them in generating its report to the University Executive Board. The e-mail claims that the disposal was justified on the grounds that the notes contained “sensitive information” relating to individuals and the performance of the University.

However, critics of the way the University has handled the review into the Archaeology Department are not convinced by this explanation.

They point out that the University retains routinely far more sensitive material than was revealed in the 12 February meeting, for example records of disciplinary processes and staff evaluations. More importantly they suggest that the disposal is contrary to the current University policy for retaining records.

Section 1.1.3 of Sheffield University’s Retention Schedule states that records relating to the
formal review of curriculum, programmes and courses, should be retained for the life of the course/programme, plus ten years.

As the records arose directly from just such a formal review, called by the University, it would appear that they should have been retained and not disposed of.

There is also a process to access University records under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA]. However, under the Act the University could have retained the records and kept them confidential, at least for the duration of the Review. This is because the Act allows exemptions from disclosure to allow a body such, as a review group, to occupy a, so-called, “safe space” to promote open discussion. Pointedly the University did not invoke such an exemption and appears to have gone directly to disposal of the records as soon as practically possible.

thePipeLine asked the Sheffield University media team to confirm if the material mentioned in the e-mail had been disposed of, and, given that the disposal appears to be contrary to University policy, we also asked who had authorised the disposal?

Sheffield University did not answer either question.

The question follows, why would anyone take the risk of disposing of at least some of the primary records of a critical Review process, contrary to University policy and before that review process is even complete? The University Senate and Council have still to meet to sign off on the Executive Board’s decision to axe the Archaeology Department.

In fact, the campaigners opposing the closure of the Archaeology Department harbour suspicions that it is the content of the February meeting which has led to the early disposal.

As part of our investigation into how managers at Sheffield University came to axe a teaching department with an international reputation, thePipeLine, working with the Archaeosoup “Watching Brief” YouTube strand, obtained a full recording of the crucial February meeting.

The meeting between senior Sheffield University staff, review panel members and current students from the Archaeology Department, took place online on the afternoon of Friday 12 February 2021, as part of the Institutional Review of the Archaeology Department. 

As a measure of its importance, the meeting was chaired by the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Gill Valentine. Professor Valentine is seen by many Sheffield insiders as driving the review process.

Introducing the discussion Professor Valentine gave the review a very positive spin, telling the student participants,

“We just really want to understand your experience [ ] students [ ] students  and we really want to do is try to understand your experiences of the department and we want you to be honest and frank with this because, obviously, we want to support the development of the department. So it is both about, being about your positive experiences, but also if there are things that are issues or concerns to you, to share those with us, in fact that does in terms of our review thinking what, you know, what we might need to do in terms of supporting the department going forward, so please feel free to speak openly with us.”

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The issue of the purpose of the review was broached again towards the end of the meeting.

A student participant asked Professor Valentine,

“I was just wondering why is the Archaeology department undergoing this review?  Could you share anything on that?” 

Professor Valentine responded stating that, while there were challenges, the intention of the Review was to support the Archaeology Department going forward. She said,

“The department has identified a number of challenges. It’s been in deficit for over five years.  Obviously there’s been the loss of staff due to retirements and to staff who took voluntary severance during you know during [ ] Covid, and therefore I think it is also an opportunity to review the direction of the department and to work with the department to try and identify positive steps [ ] and that might include a whole range of options and one of the things we want to understand by employing  externals from other departments is to understand the departments performance in the context of the discipline, to understand some of the challenges of the discipline, to work out really what Sheffield’s strengths and selling points, if you like, are, so that we can find and maximise and develop those strengths, but also to pick up if there are issues or problems which might be leading to the department not competing effectively for students or, you know, to try and identify what those are so we can look for solutions. 
We’re trying to give positive support to the department’s future, whatever that might be.”

It is pointed out by campaigners that to suggest the Archaeology Department had identified challenges to the University authorities to which the senior management of the University then responded is somewhat disingenuous.

There are longstanding complaints and allegations that the Archaeology Department has been mismanaged and disadvantaged for some years by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Sheffield and by senior managers of the University. These allegations were repeated in a letter from Professors Emeritus Paul Halstead and Glynis Jones which was sent to the University Vice Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts, in reaction to the Review,

Concluding the meeting, after apologising if the Archaeology Department itself had not explained what the purpose of the Institutional Review was when the students were asked to take part, Professor Valentine told the participants,

“I just want to say a huge thank you.  You have all been the most fantastic passionate advocates for your department. I wish I could put you out there and use you as our recruiting sergeants, because I am sure, I’m sure we could fantastically grow the recruitment to the department if people could hear how much you know, you’ve benefited from the department.  But thank you also for sharing some of your reservations and concerns because that is really helpful for us in thinking how we can support the department and strengthen some of those areas.” 

Students who attended the meeting told thePipeLine that they believe they were not told about the full purpose of the Review by the Archaeology Department because the department did not want to be seen to coach their responses. Besides, it was expected that the Review Group itself would make clear its terms and conditions. Otherwise any testimony offered during the meeting might be seen as tainted.

However, from the recording of the meeting it is clear that at no point did Professor Valentine tell participants in the session that the Institutional Review could and/or would consider all options from supporting and growing the Archaeology Department to closing it down completely. 

On the contrary, the entire discussion was framed by Professor Valentine’s comments that the Archaeology Department was to be “supported”, and given “positive support” because the University wanted to give the department “positive support going forward”.

Of course, Professor Valentine her colleagues in the administration might see closing the Archaeology department after fifty years and dispersing a limited portfolio of its activities across the rest of the University as “positive support”, but others suggest this interpretation is a kind of Orwellian New [University ] Speak.

In the wake of the report of the Review Group, and it’s three recommended options, two of which entailed ending archaeology teaching and research at Sheffield in its current form, we asked how participants now regarded the 12 February meeting with Professor Valentine and her colleagues?

One student participant in particular caught the mood telling thePipeLine,

“I felt like we were going into a sort of workshop that was just to get student ideas on how we could get investment and make the department better.” but our source added,

“There were a few points in the Review where I felt they were trying to get us to speak negatively.”

Summing up our source said,

“As someone who took part in the review I feel uncomfortable they [University senior managers] keep on referring to the fact they talked to students.
It feels like they have misrepresented us to cover their own backs.”

thePipeLine asked Sheffield University how does the University respond to the students who have told us they feel that by her positive language, by speaking of supporting the Archaeology Department, and even by suggesting the enthusiasm of the students for the Department might be used to aid recruitment to the Department, Professor Valentine effectively misled the participants in the discussion as to the true scope, purpose and potential consequences of the Institutional Review?

We also asked, how Professor Valentine’s apparently less than frank and open approach, by not explaining the terms of reference of the Review and the options open to it, could be reconciled with the University’s commitment in its ethical code  that 

“The University and individual members of staff will:
Behave with…honesty and transparency in all our activities.”

Finally we asked how the University responded to the suggestion made to us, that when Professor Valentine said pointedly [our italics], 

” We’re trying to give positive support to the department’s future, whatever that might be.”

…that future had already been decided at senior management level and the Institutional Review, including the meeting with students on 12 February, was an effort by the senior management to “reverse engineer” a decision which had already been made, to end archaeology as a stand alone subject at Sheffield University?

The Sheffield University media team did not offer an answer to any of those questions and instead offered the following statement,

“The University is committed to retaining areas of strength in archaeology teaching and research at Sheffield. The University’s Executive Board is recommending that key areas of strength are aligned to other University departments, with enhanced investment for excellence. We will continue to play a role in our local communities and honour our commitment to all current students who will continue to receive high quality teaching, research supervision and support.”

This is the same statement which has been issued in response to all our enquiries since the Executive Board voted to adopt the option to close the Archaeology Department and retain a few areas of activity within other departments.

thePipeLine understands that “a version” of the report of the review Group will be presented to University Senate ahead of a crucial meeting to discuss the recommendation of the Executive Board on 23 June.

The minutes of the meeting of the Executive Board at which the Review of the Archaeology Department was discussed are also due to be published, but only when the Board has signed them off and it is not clear if that will be done before the meeting of Senate.

It is currently unknown if any other material relating to the work of the Archaeology Review Group has been disposed of similarly.

What is clear is that a process which was already labouring under accusations of being opaque and unaccountable, now also faces accusations that primary records have been disposed of prematurely and contrary to University policy, for reasons unknown, amid explanations which many find unconvincing.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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