FATE OF ARCHAEOLOGY DEPT UNCERTAIN AS SHEFFIELD UNIVERSITY CHIEFS SIDESTEP VOTE IN SENATE

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A speaker addresses the Rally for the Arts and Humanities at Sheffield University
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One week on from the the meeting of Sheffield University’s Senate to discuss the controversial proposal to close the Sheffield’s Archaeology Department, thePipeLine can reveal previously unpublished details of the meeting. In particular, it is now possible to report elements of the administrative and financial case made to Senate by the Archaeology Department as it argued to retain its current status. Awkwardly for the University’s senior managers, the Department’s case contained fresh accusations about the way the Institutional Review of the Archaeology Department was conducted and the way data cited in the Review report was interpreted. These fresh reports come as it has also emerged that members of Senate have been denied the opportunity to vote on the proposal, in spite of Senate standing orders allowing for a vote when a consensus is not possible. Instead members of Senate have been asked merely to submit individual advice on the purely academic aspects of the Review report. This decision appears to prevent members commenting on controversies over conduct of the Review Group under the leadership of Sheffield’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Gill Valentine. Conduct which, campaigners allege, has rendered the Review irredeemably tainted to the extent it has damaged the reputation of the leading Russell Group University.

Senate, an advisory body made up of members of Sheffield’s management, teaching staff and students, met on the afternoon of 23 June [2021] under the chairmanship of the University Vice Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts. Top of the agenda was the object of advising University Council on the controversial proposal to close the Archaeology Department, teaching out existing courses and subsuming a few subject areas, described by the University as areas of strength, into other teaching departments.

Under Sheffield University’s governance rules the University Council is the body which votes on the final decision as to whether or not to adopt the proposal.

Senate’s discussion began with a presentation from Professor Valentine, which is understood to be similar to the one which she gave the Archaeology Department, when the review first reported in May, but containing considerably more detail.

Essentially the case of the Review Group is that the Archaeology Department is not sustainable in its current form because, in an increasingly competitive market; it recruits too few students; it has run at a deficit and, that loss of staff has degraded the Department’s ability to deliver, especially in certain areas like Pre-History. The loss of senior staff is said also to have led to a reduction in income from research grants.

The Review also claimed that the Department has suffered from poor leadership.

However, there are complaints that in presenting the case Professor Valentine glossed over slides so quickly, it was hard to see the data she presented in detail.

The Head of the Archaeology Department, Professor Caroline Jackson, was then made a presentation putting the Department’s case.

As she spoke it was noted by some present that the Senior Management Team had brought in the University’s Director of Planning, Projects and Business Intelligence, Al Carlile, apparently to check the figures and data quoted by Professor Jackson, so that Professor Valentine could respond later in the debate.

Professor Jackson’s submission first questioned the premise under which the review was undertaken in the first place.

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The department alleges that the review came after a serial non-replacement of vacant posts by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the imminent closure of undergraduate programmes (which represent half the departmental income), and the alleged rejection of the Department’s initiatives to address issues around teaching, research and income-generation.

The Department claims that it requested a discussion regarding these issues with Sheffield University Vice Chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts in November 2020.

However, rather than discuss the situation, the Department claims, the University chose instead to instigate an Institutional Review chaired by Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Gill Valentine.

During the Review the voice of Department staff and students was largely silenced the Department claims. Symptomatic of this, sources in the Department say, is that there were no meetings between staff and the two external members of the review team.

Faced with the conclusions of the Review that the Archaeology Department was no longer viable in its current form, thePipeLine understands that the core of the Archaeology Department’s case to retain its current status is that,

• the Archaeology Department has in fact all but eliminated its deficit over the past 3 years.

• The Department has a credible plan for sustainable growth and remains committed to developing and evolving this plan in collaboration with senior leaders and external partners.

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• There is currently a severe UK shortage of trained archaeologists, who are defined as ‘key workers’ by the UK government, meaning Sheffield graduates have a good chance of gaining employment in archaeology if they chose to enter that career. A key consideration when Government is concerned about the non repayment of tuition fees.

Finally,

• Archaeology has local, national and global appeal and is central to economic development and the exploration of key environmental issues such as climate change and its impact.

All of which mean, Professor Jackson argued, that Archaeology should have a future at Sheffield.

Following Professor Jackson, the Students Union also made a presentation regarding the practicalities and impacts of the implementation of the Review going forward as they affected students.

The Students Union submission also discussed concerns over the wellbeing of students given the uncertainty surrounding the proposed changes.

That a Review, causing so much anxiety among staff and students alike, should go ahead amid the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has been a cause of particular anger directed at the senior management..

Archaeology Department insiders suggest that Professor Jackson and supporters of the Department did face awkward questions regarding foundation year students and the impact of the Government’s Auger Review, which made a series of recommendations on the funding of post 18 education.

There was also discussion of the entry requirements at other university archaeology departments, with some present suggesting that the review quoted incorrect statistics for total archaeology entrants as the figures presented lumped all ‘archaeology’ students together.

There was also considerable debate on levels of research income – and the Department’s alleged lack of it- including suggestions that Early Career Lecturers [ECL’s] were not bringing in funding. Supporters of the Review are also reported to have claimed that the Department was unrealistic in its expectations for gaining such funding.

This was countered with the observation that there were research themes for which Early Career Lecturers were a good fit, and that the department had, in fact, had success with ECL’s gaining substantial research grants.

Professor Valentine also suggested that the Archaeology Department had rejected Faculty plans to bring in an external Head of Department.

However, Professor Jackson stated that account was not correct. The issue that members of the Department objected to was about the process the University had proposed using to fill the vacant post, not the principle, and opposition was not a rejection of the University’s position that an outside appointment could boost the effectiveness of the Department. In the event, Professor Jackson observed, the University had appointed her to Head the Department in any case, once the recognised and accepted process had been followed.

Meanwhile, a member of Senate suggested that if management was worried about the performance of the Archaeology Department over time, why wasn’t the Department put into “performance management”, as would be done if a staff member faced similar criticism following an appraisal?

Professor Valentine responded that the Faculty of Arts and Humanities had indeed taken such action regarding the Archaeology Department.

However, Professor Jackson pointed out that the members of the Department had no knowledge of being put into performance management, besides, she said, the department had met all the performance objectives set by the Faculty.

In the course of a long discussion, [other business was cancelled] a number of academic staff on Senate are reported to have asked searching questions of Professor Valentine.

However, one observer commented that, while much of the early part of the discussion was directed at Professor Valentine, she simply,

“…trotted off the usual points and avoided many questions.”

Nonetheless, it is also reported that questions were asked about the level of involvement of people who actually understood the discipline of Archaeology in the decision making/report writing, and over the actual make-up of the Archaeology Review Group and its relationship with the University Executive Board [UEB] which would make the initial decision as to which proposal the review brought forward to adopt.

Of particular concern was the fact that the Review Team included five members of the University Executive Board (the DVP, the VP for Education, the VP for Innovation, the VP for Research, and the University’s Director of Academic Services). That is one-third of the membership which was to vote on the Review Group’s proposals.

It was also alleged that the University was already taking a series of steps to close the Archaeology Department even before Senate and University Council had voted to adopt the proposal.

In particular, the Archaeology Department claimed that no mechanism have been put in place to appoint Professor Jackson’s successor as Head of Department from September 2021.

In addition the Archaeology Department claim the future of the department has been undermined by,

• the Department of Lifelong Learning foundation year 2021 intake being stopped in November 2020.

• By letters sent by the University central registration to UCAS applicants implying approval of the ‘recommendation’ to close the Archaeology Department.

• By current Department of Lifelong Learning foundation year and Under Graduates being warned of poor student experience and with small cohorts being directed to take alternative degrees.

• By Department summer open days being cancelled, and,

• By Post Graduate research students being told alternative supervisors would be found in other departments.

The fear is such actions are designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, to restore the Archaeology Department to the status quo ante, even if Council were to vote to reject the Review proposal.

However, these concerns are reported to have been dismissed by management during the Senate meeting.

Looking back on the meeting one witness suggested that University management were moving so quickly to push the review through that there were significant gaps in the plans.

“What was very clear throughout is that they haven’t really thought through – or even thoroughly researched – what will happen if they enact Option 3 [the option adopted by the UEB to end teaching archaeology at Sheffield in its current form].

They have no idea what these areas of strength are, where they will go and who will be retained.”

The witness said.

The same witness considered that the senior management are still focussed on promoting the idea that the new, so called, centres of strength, would thrive in better funded, and in management’s view, more academically sound departments.

However, it was claimed that Senate was offered no clear sense by management regarding how the ‘teaching out’ of current archaeology courses will be accomplished, let alone where the surviving centres of strength would be lodged. A key concern of the Students Union.

For example, one question left unanswered just a few months ahead of the new academic year, is whether existing staff with subject expertise and experience in designing and teaching the courses would be retained, or whether teaching would be carried out by new staff on short term contracts.

Indeed, a member of the Archaeology Department is understood to have told colleagues,

“So poorly researched and no clear forward plans (hmmm, isn’t that what they are accusing us of?).”

However, regardless of the criticisms of both methodology and data employed in the Review, the University management is understood to be standing firm in its view that the Archaeology Department is not viable in its current form, leading to the bitter comment that,

“I think whatever we present, there will always be an answer. We are not viable in size, there’s no reason for the investment we choose, and the UG [Undergraduate] market is too small.”

With the discussion concluded the question remained as to how to communicate Senate’s advice to Council.

Sheffield University Senate standing orders state that Senate should ideally proceed by consensus. However, those same orders contain a provision that,

“Voting decisions shall be made on the basis of a simple majority based on a clear
recommendation. A formal vote can be held where the Chair deems it appropriate because a
consensus view or clear majority view cannot be reached and a decision is required.”

With Senate facing a clear recommendation, to adopt the Review proposal to close the Archaeology Department, the almost certain lack of a consensus among Senate members regarding the issue, and the need for a decision to be reached before University Council meets to take the final decision on the Review on 12 July, all the criteria were met for a vote.

However, the Chair, Vice Chancellor Lamberts, did call a vote on a substantive motion to adopt the Executive Board’s recommendation, let alone entertain proposals from the floor.

It is not known why this is the case, although it is speculated that the University senior management did not want to risk revealing the level of opposition to the proposal to axe the Archaeology Department, let alone take the risk of the motion being defeated on the floor of Senate. The University’s most representative governing body.

Instead, members of Senate were asked to submit their advice via a written question.

thePipeLine has been sent a copy of the question, which is framed as “Advice on the future academic direction of Archaeology”.

The questions essentially restates option three as recommended by the Archaeology review Group, reminding members of Senate that it is proposed to retain, what the University terms, key areas of strength by aligning them with other parts of the University. The question also points out that the University management claims it has a strong commitment to identifying other areas of strength where there may be “scope for innovative collaborations”, as well as to supporting the transition to the new, reduced role for archaeology and to targeting investment in the further development of the “areas of excellence”, including extending inter-disciplinary collaboration.

However, campaigners are concerned that responses to the question are bound by this instruction [our italics]

“In response to this proposal please comment with your advice on the following: Please comment on the academic elements of the proposal

In other words the members of Senate are asked to respond to the debate as if the statistics quoted in the report have not been questioned, as if the members of the Archaeology department had not pushed back strongly against accusations the Department had not been led effectively and had not engaged with the Faculty and University’s criticisms, and, most of all, that the way the review was undertaken by the Vice Chancellor and her team was not the subject of potentially significant criticisms.

For example, there is currently at least one official complaint to the University’s Ethics committee over the way a meeting with students during the Review was presented to its participants and there are also accusations that the Archaeology Review Group Secretary had been “instructed” by one of his superiors to withhold the Review Group Report from the Archaeology Department. An action which drew a furious rebuke from the Sheffield branch of the University and College Union.

There are other claims that notes and other documents gathered in the course of researching the review, have been “disposed of” in apparent contravention of the University retention policy for documents and records.

Of course, those are not the only issues which members of Senate might feel are relevant as they put forward their advice to the University Council.

While the widely reported comments of Deputy Vice Chancellor Valentine categorising students by supermarket chains might, strictly speaking, be out of bounds in terms of the actual review proposal, the reputation of the University is clearly an issue Senate and other governing bodies of the University must have regard to.

Since in recent weeks the reputation of Sheffield University has veered from Kafkaesque dystopia to national laughing stock it might be argued that the University Council would be negligent not to consider the review in the round, taking into account also issues of process and the possibility that adopting the review proposal might open the University to the risk of both significant industrial action on the part of the University staff and perhaps even legal action on account of what the campaigners see as a deeply flawed, opaque, and unaccountable process.

Such a risk is real.

Even without the allegations that records relating to the review were disposed of contrary to University policy, in its case to Senate the Archaeology Department alleges that the proposals made by the Review Group were based on,

• Limited ‘consultation’ with staff allowed just four hours input to the Review team and students one hour (the Review meeting 12 Feb where students alleged they were misled as to its purpose and which is now subject to that complaint to the University Ethics committee).

In addition Archaeology Department insiders claim there was,

• Difficulty in acquiring data in a timely fashion.

It is also claimed that,

• A data pack, which was sent to the Department just 6.5 working days before a critical meeting, contained major errors, misleading information, and cherry-picked negative data.

• There was only a short verbal feedback to the Department on the Panel’s findings (on 19 May), with no further opportunity for staff to address concerns or consult on the options sent to University Executive Board.

• A Request for a copy of Review Panel report to be released to the Archaeology Department was refused until a redacted version in Senate papers was released (This was just four working days before Senate met).

• The verbal feedback on Panel findings and the University Executive Board’s report to Senate also contained errors.

It is these issues, and a general sense among many that the outcome of the process, the closure of the Archaeology Department at Sheffield, was decided some time ago, which has led to the widespread suspicion among campaigners that the senior management of the University are now focused purely on the delivery of that decision.

This has resulted in a widespread lack of trust in the process among staff and students in the Archaeology Department and increasingly elsewhere across the University.

Indeed, such is the lack of trust that thePipeLine understands some members of Senate have requested that they are allowed to see the ‘report’ of the Senate meeting before it goes to council on 12 July.

It is not known currently if that will be permitted by the University management, or indeed if there is even going to be any such formal report, or single expression of advice.

Sheffield University has been contacted for comment. However, up to the time of publication no response has been received.

However, the University has published an advertisement for a Teaching Associate in Roman Archaeology.

The advertisement claims that,

“The Department of Archaeology, is a centre of excellence for research and teaching.  It is one of the most dynamic departments of archaeology in the UK.”

Presumably nobody bothered to tell HR that, by the time the successful candidate takes up their post, “one of the most dynamic departments of archaeology” in the UK may no longer exist.

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