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May 30, 2015


Being Head of School

by Jess Guth

I have been Head of the School of Law at the Unviversity of Bradford for nearly a year now. I have on and off thought about blogging about that and have started one or two drafts and then deleted them again. Now though, it seems to me, is a good opportunity to reflect on the last year. Being Head of School was never part of my Master Plan (as far as I have one). I always saw myself, and still do, as an academic, not as an academic manager. I applied for the interim post out of necessity rather than because I really wanted the job. If it hadn’t been me it would have been someone external and I don’t think at the time that would have been the right thing for us.

So, what’s being Head of School like? Hm, it’s bloody hard work, that’s what it is. It is frustrating on so many levels. There’s so so much pointless admin; there’s the impossibility of herding academic cats (says the worst anti-hearding academic cat ever); there is meeting after meeting with no time between meetings to follow up on things discussed in meetings; there’s only really seeing students for the wrong reasons – for plagiarism, for behaviour issues or when they have serious problems… there’s other people not doing their jobs (or my perception of them not doing their jobs, let’s try and be fair) and then there’s people doing their jobs perfectly well but just not doing things my way (yep, control freak).

Being Head of School is also rewarding on all sorts of levels. There’s something really amazing about shaping the School, it’s programmes, its research and in a way there is also something amazing (if insanely infuriating) about having to justify, explain and fight for that vision. A visison which is so common sense to me and so alien to almost everyone else in the Faculty/Institution: That of a liberal legal education that is focused on learning, skills and personal growth not employability, labour markets and making money. A vision that has thinking about social justice on all sorts of levels, well actually that has thinking – full stop – at its heart. It’s a battle, every day is a battle to try and keep true to some key principles – people and their academic freedom are the most critical thing in a Law School. Freedom to shapre their careers, do their learning and research, interact with each other and learn from each other (I mean both students and staff here) – freedom to not be constrained by corporate PowerPoint slides and uniform VLEs, freedom to think and challenge and freedom to be wrong. This might sound great but then the realitiy of day to day and disengaged students and overworked colleagues hits and dumbing down, not questioning templates and processes etc is just easier. Not fighting every singly idiocy (and there are many) is easier. Not forcing your students to think is easier. Add that a lot of this goes against current university policy – Corporate PowerPoints are a must – and you can perhaps understand that I have very mixed feelings about the last year and the future.

If I am going to be Head of School for any longer (shortlisting for the post takes place Monday) I need to think really carefully about which principles are red lines and I need to think really carefully about how I can protect colleagues and students from the far too prevalent neo-liberal crap we are spoonfed daily and I need to think really carefully about how I look after myself. Because this is personal, this is about everything I believe in as an academic and a law teacher and as such, I can’t just leave it on my deskΒ  on a Friday to come back to on Monday; I can’t just stop thinking about it so I have to find a way to deal with all the crap that I will inevitably take home with me… I don’t know whether I want the job for any longer but I do feel like it’s a job I have to keep doing for a Law School I passionately believe in, for students who are for the most part amazing and for colleagues, academic and administrative, who are an inspiration every day

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. lenandlar
    May 30 2015

    Neo-liberal ideologies pose the greatest threat to middle level managers in academia. Too often top level management thinks of education purely as business. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Britsrundisney
    May 31 2015

    Sounds like you are the right person to be leading the law school because you want it to remain about the education and research! I am currently studying for a masters degree in International Criminal Justice from Portsmouth university, with a view to hopefully completing a phd in the future and starting a career in research and academia. From my point of view your vision of a school that continues to be about learning and personal growth rather than about money and employment is exactly where I would want to complete my education and begin my career, and it saddens me greatly that so many places are loosing that focus on learning. Keep leading your school the way it should be πŸ™‚

    • May 31 2015

      Thank you! Wow – PhD. Actually doing a PhD is a bit like running. You just have to keep going and going and going and sometimes it’s awesome and sometimes it’s horrible but the sense of achievement at the end is absolutely worth it! I completed mine in 2011 and I’m sure I’m still in recovery! Good luck with it all.

      • Britsrundisney
        May 31 2015

        Thank you πŸ™‚ I’ve still got a year left of my masters (as i’m part time) but I’ll have to start applying in the autumn I guess. I find the application process rather daunting (especially the funding stuff) I don’t really know where to start, but hopefully with a bit of advice from tutors i’ll get there!

      • May 31 2015

        I’m sure you will. Start applying as early as possible and the PhD project proposal is always the most important. Be really specific about your research question and your proposed methodology/method. Get in touch if I can help at all

      • Britsrundisney
        May 31 2015

        Shall do thanks πŸ™‚ we are doing a research methods module for my course at the moment so that’s been really helpful as i’ve got to write a proposal for that, so atleast I have some idea of how/what to now πŸ™‚

  3. Paul Duckett
    Aug 20 2015

    Dear Jess,
    Many thanks for this. I found it wonderful to read. I have just come out of a 2.5yr Associate Dean role and I can relate to your experience. Your posting has made me feel less lonely. p πŸ™‚

    • Aug 20 2015

      Thank you for your comment Paul – makes me feel less isolated. I hope you manage to take some time for yourself and re-charge your batteries.


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