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March 29, 2021 02:38 PM

Academic Freedom under Attack: The Case of Leicester and Beyond

Posted by Charles Cho

A blog by Charles Cho and Hendrik Vollmer

As a follow-up to the Open Letter from the Editors of Critical Perspectives on Accounting posted here last Friday, we share our insights in this blog, as Editorial Board member of the journal and former University of Leicester faculty member, respectively.

When University of Leicester School of Business faculty members entered into their first week of term-two teaching in January, 16 of them received a message from the university’s senior administration that a redundancy case was being made against them. The university was known to have been in a financially precarious position for a while and had been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. After having uploaded their extended materials for another remote teaching term, 16 of them found that they had been ‘selected’ for redundancy.

The selectivity at work in picking those who by now have become widely known as the #ULSB16 had been obvious from the moment they were opening their e-mail on that Monday in January—they had all been working in the areas of ‘critical management studies’ and ‘political economy’ and producing research accordingly, including some that is ‘critical’ of management.

The School, College, and University leadership have since then been explicit and unapologetic in wanting to shed critical management scholarship as part of a ‘strategic reorientation’ of the School towards a more ‘mainstream’ outlook—and made it clear that the 16 faculty members were being targeted not due to a lack of research or publication activity, but because of their engagement in critical scholarship areas deemed not sufficiently congenial with the new vision of the School and contributing little to ‘mainstream’ business school research. The Head of the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Science, herself a sociologist, has also said that management research should not be informed by ‘a sociological perspective’.

Publishing in Critical Perspectives on Accounting (CPA) has been treated as evidence of unsuitable scholarship, hence a basis for redundancy, and even a citation record in the tens of thousands, as in the case of Gibson Burrell, the most prominent among the 16, turns out to be of little help (see his recent open letter to the University leadership here). In fact, the mere alignment of research with the word ‘critical’ but also certain keywords such as ‘accountability’, ‘feminism’ and ‘women's rights’ has turned out to be sufficient to target faculty members for redundancy.

Relatedly, some of our (non-US) colleagues had struggled to believe the fact that publishing in CPA counts against the tenure and promotion research requirements of some US universities, implying that no publication is ‘better’ than a publication in CPA (it is important to note that not meeting tenure and promotion requirements at US universities leads to a systematic loss of job). Some of the anecdotal – yet true – reasons included that CPA published research that was considered too radical, too ‘left’ and/or too ‘Marxist’, which potentially disturbed the ‘mainstream’ (and often right-wing) ideologies of some university administrators living out their nostalgia for a bygone age of the “plain vanilla” business school. The Leicester case is clear and explicit evidence this strain of white nostalgia is gaining ground elsewhere, which is part of the reason why this case has received so much international attention.

Scholars all over the globe in critical management and related areas have been shaking their heads in shock and disbelief. It may well be that the damage done to the University or School has become irreversible, but there is much more at stake than the reputation of individual institutions. What is happening at the University of Leicester School of Business may appear to play out this drama on a small scale and, as communication regarding the redundancy cases made public on social media has shown, as a local farce. But the farcical character of the redundancy cases or the lack of understanding of what nowadays constitutes mainstream business school scholarship should not blind us to the potential significance of what is happening at Leicester to the wider scholarly community, in business and management schools and beyond them.

Like Ken Weir, who poignantly commented on the events at Leicester on the CSEAR Facebook Group, we “care about the direction of Higher Education in the UK. As a special issue of CPA in 2002 noted, we need to pull together as a sector to protect academic freedom and the future of critical research in the UK (relevant pieces are Jane Broadbent's commentary on England, and Christine Cooper's on Scotland)” and, we would add, elsewhere.We are currently witnessing a serious attack on academic freedom, as a whole—it is targeted to critical management and accounting research this time but letting such precedent stand will have an effect not just on the remaining colleagues in Leicester but could be dangerously leveraged to justify future attacks on everyone considering where to publish or even what ‘type’ of research to embark on. Do we now have to nervously observe, if we don’t already, any change in so-called leadership positions for what they may indicate about the future alignment of our research with the ‘strategies’ of the institutions we may have assumed were ours?

More background on the Leicester case can be found at https://www.uculeicester.org.uk/ulsb16/. We encourage everybody to express their support for the colleagues concerned, follow them on social media (look out for and use the hashtag #ulsb16), spread the message, and make yourself heard. We cannot afford to let stand a destructive nostalgia for business schools undisturbed by critical and interdisciplinary scholarship, pursuing an unhinged dream of a world of unfettered industry that never was. And frankly, the world around us cannot afford it either.

 

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About Charles Cho

YORK UNIVERSITY
Professor of Accounting and Erivan K. Haub Chair in Business & Sustainability

Charles H. Cho is Professor of Accounting and Erivan K. Haub Chair in Business & Sustainability at the Schulich School of Business, York University Canada. See full profile here: http://schulich.yorku.ca/faculty/charles-cho/

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