Academia on best behaviour

Academics may be trained to criticise, but that doesn't excuse rudeness. Lucy Hodges investigates one man's crackdown on bullying
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Professor Thomas, who is a friendly, outgoing soul, decided that something needed to be done to change the culture. "People lose the sense of what the boundaries should be in academe," he says. "They lose the sense of what is valid academic criticism and what is entirely antisocial. It is the nature of academia to dismantle arguments, but sometimes they are not clever at it."

Anyone who has sampled bitchiness in academe will know what Thomas means. Oxbridge academics are famously outspoken, happy to criticise university administrators and, more than that, to believe that they know better how to run their universities.

They wasted no time recently in sticking the knife into Oxford's new vice-chancellor, Professor John Hood, by voting down his proposals for reform. Several years earlier, Cambridge academics had defeated the vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers on a reform that would have centralised decision-making.

Before Thomas's arrival, Bristol was seen as a bit of an Oxbridge clone. But now, that is all changing. One of the first things that the new vice-chancellor did was to talk to the trade unions. "They said that in some parts of the institution there were inappropriate workplace practices - bullying and harassment were going on," Thomas explains. "They said that people who were the victims of these practices were too frightened to invoke the relevant agreed procedures.

"I remember going to one meeting where a member of staff, who was in tears, stood up and said they were being bullied."

The second thing Thomas did was to commission the Work Foundation, the organisation run by the writer Will Hutton, to carry out a survey into staff attitudes at Bristol. This exercise revealed that although the majority of the university's employees (68 per cent) felt proud to work for Bristol University, and that two-thirds of them felt a strong sense of loyalty to their faculty or their division, only a minority (42 per cent) felt a strong sense of loyalty to the university itself. Moreover, only 26 per cent thought that staff were working together towards a common goal.

And the bullying culture was confirmed. Sixteen per cent of the 2,150 members of staff filling in the questionnaire had had personal experience of harassment or bullying over the previous 12 months, while 27 per cent had witnessed what they regarded as inappropriate behaviour. Less than 10 per cent saw the university's reward systems as fair and transparent.

And the top management - people such as Professor Thomas - were widely regarded as insufficiently approachable or understanding of the pressures on staff.

The Work Foundation also questioned employees via focus groups and one-to-one interviews, and met with complaints about the physical environment. Lack of space, overcrowding, poor equipment and a lack of suitable accommodation, such as desks for part-time staff, were cited as issues of concern, says the foundation's report.

In addition, more than half the staff said they were regularly working longer than their contracted hours. Only half of the employees said they were satisfied with their work-life balance.

These were sobering results. A less confident vice-chancellor might have decided to bury such findings, but Professor Thomas felt that he could not ignore them. "I had too much information not to do something," he says. "It would have been poor leadership to ignore this."

So, the pro vice-chancellor Professor Patricia Broadfoot was put in charge of a new initiative called the Positive Working Environment - or PWE. The university also launched a big leadership development programme, so that academics in charge of departments and other managers of university services should know how to lead and manage people.

"In the past, people were plummeted into being head of department with virtually no training," Broadfoot says. "Consequently they didn't do the job as well as they might."

Broadfoot chairs a steering group containing representatives of the academics as well as those of the cleaners and porters. The group has come up with an action plan. A series of leaflets have been produced - and issued to all members of staff - informing them how to deal with bullying, how to manage their time effectively and how to be effective leaders - as well as how to make "internal e-mail a blessing rather than a curse".

People somehow lose their inhibitions when it comes to e-mail, Thomas believes. They write down things that they would not put in a letter. So, in its e-mail leaflet, Bristol University advises staff not to use e-mail to vent their irritations or to administer instant retribution. If staff members have complaints, it might be better to talk to the person, "preferably once you're calm".

The leaflet adds: "Particularly annoying to some people is colleagues' use of capital letters for whole sentences in e-mails as a sort of electronic shout."

In addition to these leaflets, the university has produced a glossy pamphlet, called "Commitments", in which it lays out five things that it promises to do for staff. These include providing support and development, giving training in leadership and management, communicating with them properly, maintaining a decent physical environment, and, finally, monitoring the progress it is making on those four points.

Under each of those five headings, a list of things to be done is specified, such as to offer all staff recreational sport and a series of "wellness days", a PWE week, and a plan to tackle stress at work. The university made the lists very detailed to counter the widespread cynicism that greeted the initiative.

However, neither Thomas nor Broadfoot are fazed by the cynicism. In fact, Thomas says: "The place does feel more relaxed. People know there won't be recriminations if they make a complaint about something they think is wrong. The workplace culture is more modern."

Another thing the vice-chancellor has done is to create a swish new entrance for Bristol's central administration building, where he works. Previously, this looked like the porter's lodge of a 1950s public school, he says - closed in and unwelcoming. Now the space has been reconfigured to let in more light. Marble has been used to make it look stylish, and there is comfortable seating for visitors.

"The message is that you are coming to a world-class 21st-century university," says Thomas. "The message staff are getting is that they are working in a world-class environment that is confident of itself and zingy."

The Positive Working Environment Week took place from 12 to 18 September. It was a success, according to the university. Twenty per cent of the staff took part in activities ranging from a free breakfast for those who cycled to work and a seated massage at the workplace, to a dance workshop that included a salsa class. There were talks on acupuncture, osteopathy, diet and exercise. There were training workshops on handling aggression, work/life balance, managing stress and "working towards a lecturership". Staff had the chance to go on tours of the buildings, laboratories and gardens and take a themed walk on Bristol's riots.

The next thing that the vice-chancellor wants to do is to improve the social facilities for staff. At the moment there is a senior common room for academics, which has largely fallen out of use, and a club with a bar and skittles for the manual workers. The aim is to provide a new modern organisation open to all.

Other universities are expected to study Bristol's experiment in improving staff conditions with interest. It is likely that any survey by the Work Foundation would find other university staff showing similar lack of loyalty to their institution and feeling the same lack of appreciation.

Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham says that Bristol's vice-chancellor deserves credit for finding out about the situation and doing something about it.

"Universities are pretty unhappy places generally," Smithers says. "People were drawn to them initially out of a desire to pursue an understanding of their subject and pass it on to students.

"There was an immense amount of freedom even though the rewards were not great. As universities have become more reliant on government funding and government checks on them have grown, so people have begun to feel that this isn't the kind of place they expected to work in."

E-mail etiquette for academics

Think hard about whether you really want to send an e-mail; face-to-face communication might be better.

Do you need to copy your e-mail to those other people?

Be polite. Include a friendly parting shot, otherwise your message might be seen as cold, if not downright rude.

Don't fire off an e-mail in anger.

Never put in an e-mail something you wouldn't want your boss, your aunt, a lawyer or The Independent to see.