theCONTEXT is thePipeLine’s occasional opinion feature where guest columnists offer a personal view on a current issue in archaeology or heritage.

This edition is a response to the decision of the Council of Sheffield University to confirm the controversial recommendation of University Executive Board to close the Archaeology Department at Sheffield after fifty years, and to the way that decision was communicated to the students of the Department.

It comes in the form of an open letter written by a Post Graduate Research Student at Sheffield to Professor Koen Lamberts, the University’s Vice Chancellor.

Thursday 16 July 2021

Dear Vice Chancellor Lamberts,

After a few days of reflection, it’s this moment from the postgraduate researcher (PGR) meeting with faculty, held on Tuesday [14 July 2021], that stands out to me.

The meeting was to announce to us the decision of the University Council the day before to uphold the view of the University Executive Board [UEB] to close the Archaeology Department and redistribute some of its activities to, what you describe as, centres of excellence in other departments of our University.

The chair of the meeting was an UEB member who appeared to get more and more indignant and self-righteously frustrated with us for not believing him at face-value when he said the university would take care of us PGRs.

This while ignoring PGR questions and concerns highlighting past university mismanagement of student grievances.

The chair appeared to be genuinely angry that we challenged him.

We’re all jaded now.

We weren’t expecting the UEB or faculty to actually care.

Our problems originated with their mismanagement.

But the juxtaposition of their mantra of “we’ll support you” and their circular responses, that never actually answered our questions, made it hard to imagine how anyone would believe them.

In fact, while we cannot say it is a deliberate policy, that they thought we would believe them makes me wonder how often they get by relying on the principles of abusive relationships: that is, big promises in public, little follow-through in private, and what we see as gaslighting after the fact.

As someone who’s lived through that before, I can attest that the taste this experience leaves in my mouth is the same.

When he asked to speak, our amazing Post Graduate Research director said it best.

I should say, this is a man we PGRs do trust. He listens and gives us the truth—even when that’s hard to hear—because he wants us to succeed. He’s one of the academics who helps to give us PGRs a world class experience in the department every day.

Our success, our excellence, has nothing to do with the transient administration and everything to do with the department. This is why the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield is one of the best in the world.

This is why almost every archaeologist in the UK—and many across the world—have a connection to us and why so many have protested your proposed closure.

We care and we fight for each other.

[My colleague, who is a much faster typer than me, recorded his words.]

“I think that everyone involved in the implementation of this procedure here on out has to acknowledge something that’s pretty basic. And that is, as staff members end up departing for whatever reason…there are gonna be students here who will no longer have the expertise or supervision available to them.

It doesn’t matter how hard you try to give them support and it doesn’t matter who you look for to supervise them. They’re going to have a poor experience. And that is going to affect the beginning of their career.

You can offer all kinds of platitudes and promise all kinds of things…But the fact is, you’re going to fail in that commitment to students. And that is what these students are trying to tell you.”

Please listen to us.

Yours sincerely,

One of your Post Graduate Researchers

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