From the UK: Latest news from the Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

John Collis (Professor Emeritus, University of Sheffield)

Many members of the EAA will know that for the last eighteen months the distinguished Archaeology Department at the University of Sheffield has been under threat of closure. Many will also have already signed the petition organised by the department’s students opposing the closure (Save Sheffield’s Archaeology Department). At present it has attracted 48,300 signatures from all across the world. If you have not signed yet, please see this link for more information.

The problems originate in the department’s financial difficulties. These have been partly due to the university’s overambitious plans for its expansion some 25 years ago, and partly to a drop in applications to read Archaeology generally in Britain. The decision of successive governments to make students take out loans to cover the costs of going to university rather than receive grants, and especially due to cuts in the Conservative Government’s funding of Arts subjects, generally in favour of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) have also been key factors; in Sheffield, departments teaching foreign languages and culture are also under threat for the same reason. At some point the University Executive Board (UEB) which runs the university, along with the Head of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, seem to have decided the easiest solution to these problems was to close the Archaeology department. To hasten this, the faculty office created a ‘hostile environment’ under which the Faculty started to make decisions without consulting the department – closing courses, calling off open days, and changing the level of qualifications students must obtain to be accepted for the undergraduate courses. This led a large number of applicants to withdraw their applications and opt for lower and safer offers in other universities. Meanwhile, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor talked of encouraging ‘Marks and Spencer’ students to apply rather than ‘Aldi’ (i.e. more middle class as against working class students)! The intake of undergraduates plummeted. Alternative routes for students to enter, such as via courses run by the Institute of Life-Long Learning (mainly mature students), have been blocked and students expecting to enter the university to read Archaeology have been told to apply elsewhere, even though this is contrary to stated university (and the department’s) policy.

By this time, due to staff moving to appointments in other universities and to retirements of senior staff, the department was becoming short-staffed. The university promised to make four new junior appointments, but this was held up due to the COVID pandemic. The university also suggested appointing a new Head of Department from outside the university, but the department declined as this would involve greater debt with no guarantee that it would solve the problem. In any case, they felt they had sufficient talent in the department to appoint internally with little extra cost. This has since been used by the UEB as evidence that the department is unresponsive to offers of help!

In November 2020 the department wrote to the newly arrived Vice-Chancellor (‘Rector’), asking for help in dealing with the department’s problems. They received no reply. Instead, the university set up a committee chaired by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (a Geographer), to inquire into the department’s future and viability. This included two archaeologists from other universities, but no-one from the Sheffield department. The committee made financial projections which were unfavourable to the department and which have since been challenged by one of the university unions, the University and College Union (UCU). The Report also claimed that the department lacked academic leadership. On the basis of the committee’s report, three alternatives were suggested: Option 1: to re-invest in the department; Option 2: to close it and make all the staff redundant; Option 3: to close the department but to identity the areas of strength and redeploy the staff into other departments (Medicine, Biological Sciences, History, etc.) and close down the non-profitable areas, making the staff who taught in those areas redundant. Notably, an increasing number of staff, as in all UK universities, are on short-term contracts and so have no protection from these kinds of redundancy measures.

The department naturally supported Option 1. We hold that splitting up the various aspects of archaeology would take us back to the 1950s. It would ignore the innovations in archaeological training that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and would additionally lose sight of the development of new theoretical and scientific approaches and the professionalisation of the subject, a revolution in which Sheffield had played a prominent part, and which requires an interplay and integration of the varied approaches to archaeology. There was concern that important research collections (such as of animal bones) would be lost without the curatorial staff to look after them, and that the new alternative departments which were being suggested to house displaced staff members had no expertise in archaeological approaches (e.g. putting human bone studies into Medicine because this would allow the autopsy of modern bodies or History which has no experience in providing the sort of professional training and qualifications needed within the profession of Archaeology). We have argued that under this ‘solution’ Archaeology as a viable entity at the university is likely to disappear within a few years.

The university reneged on the promise of the new appointments. Though the report was completed in February 2021, it was not made available until May, six days before the UEB met to decide which option to recommend. Without further consultation of anyone in the archaeological world, the UEB opted for Option 3, splitting up the department which had been so carefully constructed over many years. The staff were informed by the Vice-Chancellor in a virtual presentation in which the staff’s microphones and videos were switched off, at which time he also informed them in a twelve-minute speech that the department was to be closed. One of his assistants then informed staff where they could get medical help if anyone was suffering from mental stress. Keep in mind that this was in the middle of the COVID lockdown, when staff and students were supposed to be helped to deal with the extra pressures of work, especially with regards to adapting courses to on-line teaching. The announcement took place during the climax of the examination and marking period. Nevertheless, in the short time available, the department organised a major petition and a write-in of letters of support that went world-wide. The UEB ignored the petition and letters.

At Sheffield, decisions to close departments have to be made by the University Council, a body that consists mainly of outsiders from the fields of commerce, industry, etc. But, before it was presented to the Council, the UEB decided to have the closure debated by the university Senate, a body of some 80 senior academics that only has advisory powers, and which is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, with the university Secretary providing the administrative back up. These two persons persuaded the Senate that a vote was unnecessary. An electronic form was provided for individual Senators to write their recommendations and to also back those recommendations up with specific reasoning. Some Senators took advantage of the offer to visit the department and spoke to the staff. For once, the Head of Department was allowed to make a 15-20-minute defence in answer to the UEB’s case for closure. Prof. Jackson had no back-up and had to face questioning from the whole Senate--including hostile questions from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor—on her own. In the end, 37 Senators sent their comments, of whom 7 felt they did not have the necessary information or expertise to give a recommendation. Sixteen voted in favour of keeping Archaeology open. Fourteen sided with the UEB, of whom two gave no reasons (presumably both members of the UEB who are well represented in the Senate). Despite this obvious victory by Prof. Jackson and the archaeologists, when presented to Council, the minutes of the meeting record “The President & Vice-Chancellor… considered that the advice from Senate did not suggest that UEB should revise or reconsider its proposal, which was therefore put before the Council for consideration and a decision”. In a letter to me, the University Secretary wrote that the Council is under no obligation to follow the Senate’s advice. But then, why waste the time of 80 busy academics if their views are going to be ignored presumably because they are not what the UEB wanted to hear?

Figure 1. John Collis addressing the rally opposing the closure of the department on Dec 1st 2021. Photo by Umberto Albarella, used with permission.

The meeting of Council was what in English (or Australian!) is referred to as a ‘kangaroo court’. That is, the accused (Archaeology) is not told what the charges are and has no access to the papers and evidence presented until after the meeting. The accused is not allowed to present any evidence in defence, and is not allowed to be present at the ‘trial’ or to be represented. The accused is then found guilty and condemned to death (in this case departmental closure) with no right of appeal. The only document from the archaeologists available to the Councillors was the Department Head’s PowerPoint slides from her Senate presentation. I sent the Pro-Chancellor (a local millionaire industrialist from the steel industry) who presided over the meeting, a copy of the letter signed by all seven of the Archaeology emeritus professors in the university outlining our objections to the process which had led up to the plan to close the department. My colleague Emerita Professor Glynis Jones sent him a letter signed by 43 members of the Archaeology section of the British Academy opposing the closure. Neither letter was presented to Council. A complaint by the archaeology students that they had been misled by the nature of a meeting with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor was dismissed because it had been sent to the wrong committee; it is unclear which committee should deal with complaints about the governance of the university, but the one or two possible committees which could have been approached are all chaired by the person about whom we wished to complain. There is no independent complaints mechanism in the university. The only delegate who tried to offer support was the representative of the Student Union and who was the only person to vote against the UEB proposal. We had no opportunity to challenge the ‘facts’ as submitted by the University Secretary, who presented the UEB’s overview of the department. To my knowledge he, like the rest of the Councillors, has never visited the department or consulted its staff.

To give an impression of the ‘hostile environment’ that Archaeology faced, and the way in which any opinions by archaeologists not only in the university but from the wider profession have been dismissed as irrelevant, I reproduce the summary paragraph of the University Secretary’s submission to Council:

Shortly after the review was shared with colleagues, the University trended on social media for a few hours (likely fuelled by celebrity retweets). However, the issue has been largely confined to the archaeological fraternity, academia and the unions, with limited impact on wider University social media platforms. There have been more than 2,300 separate emails from a wide range of people, including MPs, Peers and current and former students and staff, but very little public comment by stakeholders. Of the mainstream media, only The Sheffield Star has published articles on a regular basis, with limited coverage from other regional and national media. Independent analysis by media monitoring agency Cision Insights found that from 19 May to 1 July just 5% of all media content about the University mentioned the potential closure of the Department: there were 4,083 articles on the University, of which 224 featured the Review/Archaeology. Media sentiment also remained largely positive or neutral, even on the few days when the story first broke.

Quite who the ‘stakeholders’ are and why this does not include archaeologists, I am unsure. The 224 articles appearing in the press is quite a lot for the closure of a small department in a university, and the ‘largely positive or neutral’ sentiment may be true of the university as a whole, but is simply untrue about references to the closure of Archaeology; the dominant reaction was one of shock that a world-renowned department could just be closed down. There were also strong reactions opposed to the university stance such as the letter that appeared in The Times newspaper signed by nine former students and members of staff who now hold major posts in the academic world (e.g., professors in Oxbridge, etc.) headed by Professor Lord Colin Renfrew. In the weeks after the decision local newspapers, The Sheffield Telegraph and The Star ran articles in favour of the department, especially for its involvement in many local projects in Sheffield, such as the regeneration of the run-down Castle area in the centre of the city. The Sheffield Telegraph even published an editorial in praise of the archaeology department as an exemplar of what the relationship between the university and the city should be. There is no local support for the UEB’s plans; quite the opposite.

Figure 2. Students protesting at the rally on Dec 1st 2021. Photo by Umberto Albarella, used with permission.

Just after the UEB had announced its plan to close the department, an advert for a temporary post appeared in the press (June 29th 2021) written by the Faculty Office staff. It included a description of the department:

The Department of Archaeology is a centre of excellence for research and teaching. It is one of the most dynamic departments of archaeology in the UK. The Department is friendly and forward-looking, with a rare combination of science-based and humanities-based staff who work within each discipline. We have a strong commitment to external engagement and work in partnership with a range of local, regional and international organisations to disseminate our research, and to bring social, economic and cultural benefits to a range of stakeholders and to enhance student experience.

This blunder even reached the well-known national satirical magazine Private Eye! It was typical of the administrative chaos that followed over the summer, as the university made no decision about what to do with the department for the coming year (to split it or keep it intact). Neither were there any decisions announced about which courses would be maintained, which staff would continue in employment, nor how to deal with student applications. Finally, about a couple of weeks before the autumn term started, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor wrote to say that the department could not be closed due to the legal obligations to students already on courses or previously accepted; the department would be kept open for another year with no redundancies. Short-term appointments would be made to cover any gaps. This situation has now been extended to 2024 for the same legal reasons, and, with Prof. Caroline Jackson having completed her term of office as department Head and taking a much-deserved sabbatical leave, Bob Johnston was appointed as Head of Department and made professor. The UEB’s timetable for getting rid of the department this year was clearly unrealistic.

To implement the decision to break up the department, the university has appointed an ‘Implementation Group’ of senior academics. Again, initially this group included no archaeologists, though Bob has now been asked to join it after the first major decision had been made to split the department between History and Biological Sciences (Geography was excluded on the insistence of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor even though the department had had useful discussions with its Head of Department). Staff were offered the chance to talk as individuals with the Panel, though this has proved to be less a meeting of minds than an intimidation tactic, and the department has just reaffirmed that we do not want to be split up. Again, our wishes are being ignored. History has no expertise in providing the sorts of professional courses and qualifications that archaeologists are used to. Likewise, Biological Sciences is based on very different interests than those of Archaeology.

Not surprisingly, the UEB’s handling of the problem has provoked resistance. See Figures 1-2. The University and College Union (UCU) has held a series of strikes, mainly over pensions and employment conditions at a national level, but in Sheffield it has included the UEB attack on Archaeology and on Languages. Sheffield students have played a prominent part, occupying buildings and displaying conspicuous banners, pictures of which have appeared in local newspapers. See Figure 3. Some of our graduates have resigned from the university’s alumni organisation, but the most prominent resignation in open disgust at what has happened has surely been of the emeritus professor Keith Branigan who, as Head of Department, oversaw the rise of the Department from its inception in the late 1970s and into the 1990s. Personally, I have preferred to play ‘Banquo’s ghost’, and remain in the university to remind people of the injustice and illogicality of what is happening. The Sheffield-based Hunter Archaeological Society which has had close relationships with the university for over 100 years, has decided to boycott the university, and published a full-page article in The Sheffield Telegraph explaining their reasoning (the current president, Ken Smith, and the secretary Dr. Ruth Morgan are both well known nationally and were early graduates of the department). The incoming President of the Student Union, Liam Hand, is an archaeology student and he has played a prominent part in the conflict with the university, for instance organising the very successful petition mentioned at the start of this article. ‘Save the Archaeology Department’ was part of his platform in standing as President, and he will be a member of Council, so we await with interest what impact he will have.

Figure 3. Student banner at the strike on Feb 14th 2022. Photo by Umberto Albarella, used with permission.

Meanwhile, even in its depleted form, the department still scores highly for its research, teaching, and for the satisfaction of its students. These high scores are still publicly broadcast by the university, in spite of the events described here. Rather than being a department that ‘lacks academic leadership’, I think we have run circles around the university executive, and that is where the lack of leadership lies; Prof. Caroline Jackson was even voted ‘University Head of Department of the Year’ by the university students. We feel that we have won the argument given the views of the Senate, the strike of the lecturers’ union, the prominent backing of the students, and the support from the Sheffield community in general. But, clearly, the battle to save the department is far from over. Unfortunately, the oligarchy that runs the university still controls all the levers of power. So, for me the battle has widened to push for reform of university structures in order to make them more democratic. We may have to approach the Privy Council about whether the UEB and Council are in conflict with the original aspirations of the ‘founding fathers’ of the university. The Faculty and the UEB’s hope that the closing of the department would prove a ‘quick fix’ to the problems has clearly back-fired. As one of my Czech colleagues has said, what we are seeing is the kind of manoeuvring familiar to those dealing with totalitarian and dictatorial institutions; but she could not believe similar tactics would appear in ‘democratic’ Britain. But, ‘the price of freedom is continual vigilance’ even within democracies!

Finally, I must add that this represents my own views of the current state of affairs. As such, I am a ‘loose cannon’ who can say what I like within the bounds of the libel laws as I am an individual living on my pensions, who is not paid by the university. I am not fearful of losing my job or career which is an obvious threat for those still in the university’s employment. My generation was allowed to work from the bottom up within the broad parameters set by the university. We were able to innovate in ways that are denied the present generation. We were able to ride the financial problems (especially those of the 1980s) and come out stronger as a department through our own decision making. We do not deny the department has major problems in recruitment and finance, but the environment has changed substantially since the report was written a year ago. Just one example is in the Government’s recognition that leaving the EU has led to a major shortage nationally of trained archaeologists and that it now accepts that Archaeology is a science-based STEM subject which will lead to a higher level of funding. The financial projections need to be re-worked and agreed upon by all concerned. Top-down attempts at micro-managing by overpaid senior staff working outside their areas of academic expertise are, not surprisingly, unlikely to produce the innovation for which our British universities used to be known. In Sheffield we must hope that wiser, more flexible and innovative approaches will finally prevail, although, I suspect we shall see no immediate climb-down by the establishment. My request to send round a note presenting the archaeologists’ views to the university staff in the university’s internal newsletter where the UEB’s views were announced has been refused, so perhaps archaeologists around the world will be better informed than the members of the university!

Meanwhile, we must use the only weapons we have: the likes of strikes, occupations, newspaper articles and social media to try to shame the university into rethinking. I recall the famous battle over the Dreyfus affair against an intransigent and unresponsive establishment. I hope the vindication of my views will not be posthumous, nor will I expect (or hope for!) burial in Westminster Abbey, but I borrow the famous expression of Emile Zola, “j’accuse”!

John Collis was elected as Fellow of the Societies of Antiquaries of London (1978) of Scotland (2011), Member of the Chartered Institute of Archaeologists (1983), Corresponding Member of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (1999), Professor emeritus of the University of Sheffield (2004), Honorary Member of the European Association of Archaeologists (2013) and Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France (2017).

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