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An Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor of Leeds University

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Dear Sir Alan [Langlands],

A decade ago, when my late husband, Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, was assembling his Collected Critical Writings, he decided to dedicate the work not to any single person, but ‘To the University of Leeds, in memory of Edward Boyle’.

There was a reason for this. It was the Department of English at the University of Leeds, under the headship of Professor Bonamy Dobrée, that had appointed Geoffrey to a post as lecturer while he was still in his early twenties. It was at the University of Leeds that, for twenty-five years, he established himself as a poet, teacher and scholar of literature. It was at Leeds that he found the security to let his mind range, and to think and write. He was in the English Faculty at Leeds when he published his first four books of poetry; the first essay in the Collected Critical Writings was his inaugural lecture as a professor there, and the Geoffrey Hill archive now resides at the Brotherton Library.

Geoffrey knew how much he owed the University of Leeds, and, reciprocally, the University recognised the degree to which he adorned it. It was Leeds that first awarded Geoffrey an honorary D.Litt. and it was at Leeds that I had the pleasure of meeting you at the memorial event that the English faculty held for him a year ago this month.

All this is in my mind now as I write to urge you to consider changing your mind and your stance on the collective action by the staff of the University of Leeds. One of the precontractual assumptions of the life of a university is that one generation of great and original teachers and scholars will follow another. This is not to be confused with what I fear is the assumption of the managerial university: that teachers and scholars are infinitely interchangeable and replaceable. It would do grievous harm to the future of the University if the conditions that allowed for the work of minds like Geoffrey’s came to an end. It would do great harm to the country if there were to be no more poets, scholars, scientists and, above all, university teachers coming from the working class. Were this to be the case, Geoffrey’s archive in the Brotherton Library would stand, not as an inspiration to students, but as something analogous to the model skeleton of Dippy the Diplodocus which stood for a century in the entrance hall of the Museum of Natural History in London.

Will you not reconsider? Will you not see your way clear to putting your name and position behind an independent review of the USS pension fund? Will you not acknowledge, as so many other vice chancellors now have done that UUK have got this matter wrong? The culture of precarious employment: fixed-term contracts, hourly pay and, now, pensions cut so that they offer no hope of a dignified old age, has meant that the generation of university teachers who should be at their most creative and productive have had to delay marriage, delay having children, delay making homes for themselves. Do you not see how this creates a constant background state of anxiety that inhibits the life of the mind? Had such conditions been present when Geoffrey was at the University of Leeds, I have no doubt whatsoever that there would have been no Collected Critical Writings.

Secondly, may I urge you to reconsider the stance that the University of Leeds has taken on Action Short of a Strike? I refer to the cutting of staff wages by a quarter for ‘partial performance’. Might you, clearly and unambiguously, join Leeds with those universities which have recognised that the action that university teachers are taking in protest at the pension reorganisation is for the good, not just of themselves, but of the future of higher education in this country? It would be brave, wise and honourable if you did.


  1. XopherO says:

    It is shameful that across the sector people like Alice Goodman are having to plead with VCs – begging fat cats to understand how a university really works, and what makes a scholar and good scholarship. As far as I can see Alan Langlands has never worked in a university below the level of Principal/VC. His academic credentials are pretty thin. He worked a lot in the NHS around the time when the UN comparative study (published 2000) of health services in around 150 countries placed the UK at only 19th (and it was in a real mess – though probably worse today)- France was 1st. He spent 4 years as head of HEFCE at the time when student fees were raised to £9000. Of course,this does not mean he is incompetent – some people have clearly recognised something in him. And he is not the only VC having little experience of university life. But it does make one wonder how much he can understand the pressures on academics, never having been one (but as a student in receipt of a grant and no fees), and whether indeed he can be brave, honourable and wise. Now is surely the time for him and other overpaid VCs to show leadership in support of their underpaid staff. New academics now carry a massive debt burden accumulated over up to six years to get their doctorates. So robbing them of their pensions, Sir Alan..?

  2. philip proust says:

    Unfortunately, when XopherO writes “it does make one wonder how much he can understand the pressures on academics,” the answer is that types like the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University understand only too well the difficulties they are creating for academics. The pressure that is being applied is deliberate and strategic. He is trying to extract the maximum work for the least cost, while minimising the possibility of organised resistance. The bureaucratisation of university courses has opened the door to a kind of Taylorism, where academic workers are increasingly manipulable, interchangeable and dispensable.

    The rise of neo-liberal managerialism has also gone hand in hand with an unashamed philistinism. Sir Alan made it clear what he sees as the university’s role when responding to the challenge of Brexit: “We must keep up the pressure to ensure the voice of higher education – as a driver of skills and growth – is clear and consistent, and supported by our political representatives and industry partners.” Professor Sir Geoffrey Hiill’s Collected Critical Writings and its ilk could hardly be of less interest to the Vice-Chancellor. These days, writing poetry in the university’s time probably constitutes a dismissable offence.

  3. XopherO says:

    Writing poetry, or history, are probably beyond his ken. I am reminded that Asa Briggs was Professor of Modern History at Leeds before moving to Sussex which he helped to develop from scratch, becoming a shrewd and sympathetic VC – hard to find today. He became Chancellor of the newly formed OU, helping PM Wilson formulate his plans. He was President of the WEA for years, and truly believed in helping the working man/woman develop themselves through education – a long way from the narrow, philistine instrumentalism expressed by Langlands. He was a proud Yorksireman and would undoubtedly have been horrified at Langlands’ attitude – deducting 25% from salaries while pocketing his near £300K. He even wrote poetry as well! I can only presume Langlands intends to move on fairly soon, because it would be hard to continue as VC when he will be despised and reviled by academics, support staff and many students. But brass neck seems to be a defining characteristic. I am reminded of the old palindrome: DELIVER NO EVIL, otherwise you may LIVE ON REVILED.

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