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The last email of Stephan Grimm has had more views than any other on this blog. “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed more than 210,000 times. The day after it was posted, the server failed under the load.

Since than, I posted two follow-up pieces. On December 23, 2014 “Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm“. Of course there was no external inquiry.

And on April 9, 2015, after the coroner’s report, and after Imperial’s internal inquiry, “The death of Stefan Grimm was “needless”. And Imperial has done nothing to prevent it happening again“.

On September 24th 2015, I posted a memorial on the first anniversary of his death. It included some of Grimm’s drawings that his mother and sister sent to me.

That tragedy led to two actions by Imperial, the metrics report (2015) and the bullying report (2016).

Let’s look at the outcomes.

The 2015 metrics report

In February 2015 and investigation was set up into the use of metrics to evaluate people, In December 2015 a report was produced: Application and Consistency of Approach in the Use of Performance Metrics. This was an internal enquiry so one didn’t expect very much from it. Out of 1338 academic staff surveyed at the College, 309 (23% of the total) responded
another 217 started the survey but did not submit anything). One can only speculate about the low return. It could be that 87% of staff were happy, or it could be that 87% of staff were frightened to give their opinions. It’s true that some departments use few if any metrics to assess people so one wouldn’t expect strong responses from them.

My position is clear: metrics don’t measure the quality of science, in fact they corrupt science.

This is not Imperial’s view though. The report says:

5.1 In seeking to form a view on performance metrics, we started from the premise that, whatever their benefits or deficiencies, performance metrics pervade UK universities. From REF to NSS via the THE and their attendant league tables, universities are measured and ranked in many dimensions and any view of performance metrics has to be formed in this context.

In other words, they simply acquiesce in the use of measures that demonstrably don’t do what’s claimed for them.

Furthermore the statement that “performance metrics pervade UK universities” is not entirely true. At UCL we were told in 2015.

“We will evaluate the quality of staff contributions appropriately, focusing on the quality of individual research outputs and their impact rather than quantity or journal-level metrics.” .

And one of the comments quoted in Imperial’s report says

“All my colleagues at MIT and Harvard etc tell me they reject metrics because they lead to mediocre candidates. If Imperial really wants to be a leader, it has to be bold enough to judge based on quality.”

It is rather shameful that only five UK universities (out of 114 or so) have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). I’m very happy that UCL is one of them, along with Sussex and Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Imperial has not signed.

Imperial’s report concludes

“each department should develop profiles of its academic staff based on a series of published (ie open and transparent [perhaps on the College intranet]:”

There seems to be a word missing here. Presumably this means “open and transparent metrics“.

The gist of the report seems to be that departments can carry on doing what they want, as long as they say what it is. That’s not good enough, in my opinion.

A review of Imperial College’s institutional culture and its impact on gender equality

Unlike the metrics report, this one was external: that’s good. But, unlike the metrics report, it is secret: that’s bad.

The report was written by Alison Phipps (Director of Gender Studies and Reader in Sociology University of Sussex). But all that’s been released is an 11 page summary, written by Imperial, not by the authors of the report. When I asked Phipps for a copy of the whole report I was told

“Unfortunately we cannot share the full report – this is an internal document to Imperial, and we have to protect our research participants who told us their stories on this basis.”

It’s not surprising that the people who told their stories are afraid of repercussions. But it’s odd that their stories are concealed from everyone but the people who are in a position to punish them.

The report seems to have been commissioned because of this incident.

“The university apologised to the women’s rugby team after they were left playing to an empty stadium when the coaches ferrying spectators back to campus were allowed to leave early.”

“a member of staff was overheard saying that they did not care “how those fat girls” got home,”

But the report wasn’t restricted to sexism. It covered the whole culture at Imperial. One problem was that only 127 staff
and 85 students participated. There is no way to tell whether those who didn’t respond were happy or whether they were scared.

Here are some quotations from Imperial’s own summary of the secret report.

“For most, the meaning was restricted to excellence in research despite the fact that the College’s publicised mission statement gives equal prominence to research and education in the excellence context”

“Participants saw research excellence in metricised terms, positioning the College as a top-level player within the UK and in the world.”

Words used by those critical of Imperial’s culture included ” ‘cutthroat’, ‘intimidating’, ‘blaming’ and ‘arrogant’ “.

“Many participants in the survey and other methods felt that the external focus on excellence had emphasised internal competition rather than collaboration. This competition was noted as often being individualistic and adversarial. ”

“It was felt that there was an all-consuming focus on academic performance, and negative attitudes towards those who did not do well or who were not as driven as others. There was a reported lack of community spirit in the College’s culture including departments being ‘played off against each other’”

“The research findings noted comments that the lack of communal space on the campus had contributed to a lack of a community spirit. It was suggested that the College had ‘an impersonal culture’ and groups could therefore self-segregate in the absence of mechanisms for them to connect. ”

“There were many examples given to the researchers of bullying and discriminatory behaviour towards staff and students. These examples predominantly reflected hierarchies in work or study arrangements. ”

“The researchers reported that many of the participants linked it with the ‘elite’ white masculinity of the majority population, although a few examples of unacceptable behaviour by female staff and students were also cited. Examples of misogynistic and homophobic conduct were given and one interviewee expressed concern that the ‘ingrained misogyny’ at Imperial was so deep that it had become normal.”

“Although the College describes itself as a supportive environment, and many positive examples of that support were cited, a number of participants felt that senior management would turn a blind eye to poor behaviour if the individual involved was of value to the College.”

“Despite Imperial’s ‘no tolerance’ stance on harassment and bullying and initiatives such as ‘Have Your Say’, the researchers heard that people did not ‘speak up’ about many issues, ranging from discrimination and abuse to more subtle practices that leave people feeling vulnerable, unheard or undermined.”

“Relations between PIs and contract researchers were especially difficult, and often gendered as the PI was very often a man and the researcher a woman.”

“It was reported that there was also a clear sense of staff and students feeling afraid to speak up about issues and not receiving clear information or answers due to unclear institutional processes and one-way communication channels.”

“This representation of Imperial College as machine rather than organism resonated with observations on a culture of fear and silence, and the lack of empathy and community spirit at the College.”

“Some of the participants identified a surface commitment to diversity and representation but a lack of substantive system processes to support this. The obstacles to participation in the way of doing things at Imperial, and the associated issues of fear and insecurity, were reported as leading to feelings of hopelessness, demotivation, and low morale among some staff and students.”

“Some participants felt that Athena SWAN had merely scratched the surface of issues or had just provided a veneer which concealed continuing inequalities and that events such as the annual Athena SWAN lecture were little more than a ‘box ticking exercise.’”

The conclusions are pretty weak: e.g.

“They [the report’s authors] urged the College to implement changes that would ensure that its excellence in research is matched by excellence in other areas.”

Of course, Imperial College says that it will fix the problems. “Imperial’s provost, James Stirling, said that the institution must do better and was committed to gender equality”.

But that is exactly what they said in 2003

“The rector [then Richard Sykes] acknowledged the findings that came out of the staff audit – Imperial College – A Good Place to Work? – undertaken in August 2002.”

“He reinforced the message that harassment or bullying would not be tolerated in the College, and promised commitment from Council members and the Executive Committee for their continuing support to equal opportunities.”

This was eleven years before the pressure applied to Stefan Grimm caused him to take his own life. As always, it sounds good. But it seems that, thirteen years later, Imperial is going through exactly the same exercise.

It would be interesting to know whether Imperial’s Department of Medicine is still adopting the same cruel assessment methods as it was in 2007. Other departments at Imperial have never used such methods. It’s a continual source of bafflement to me that medicine, the caring profession, seems to care less for its employees that most other departments.

Other universities

Imperial is certainly not unique in having these problems. They are endemic. For example, Queen Mary, Kings College London and Warwick University have had similar problems, among many others.

Managers must learn that organisations function better when employees have good morale and are happy to work. Once again, I quote Scott Burkun (The myths of Innovation, 2007).

“Creation is sloppy; discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. What’s a manager to do? The answer in general is to encourage curiosity and accept failure. Lots of failure.”

All big organisations are much the same -dissent is squashed and punished. Committees are set up. Fine-sounding statements are issued. But nothing much changes.

It should not be so.


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2 Responses to More on bullying at Imperial College London. What’s being done?

  • “But it seems that, thirteen years later, Imperial is going through exactly the same exercise.”: I find it difficult to avoid suspecting that the system works for the people at the top, so why would they change anything?

    I appreciate your infrequent but incisive posts.

  • @Ralph Haygood
    Thanks. You are right. Only six posts this year. I blame politics. There has been so much of it that I’ve been spending time on Facebook and Twitter (@david_colquhoun). They’re where I do politics.

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