As the muted rows about the new processes for appointing heads of academic departments rumble on, it is worth reflecting on just how fundamental those changes are. The traditional Lancaster approach was, broadly, to allow departments to devise their own procedures, with the expectation that at some point all senior members should take their turn at the helm. The new process, which follows on from last year’s HoD Review, introduces two new features: that the HoD should ‘normally’ be a professor (if necessary, an external one), and that final approval of the candidate is to be made, not by the department or the faculty, but by a central appointments panel chaired by the VC.
While Lancaster is second to none when it comes to the quality of its professoriate, it does not follow that exemplary scholarship brings with it the skills and understanding required to run an academic department. (Why, we know of some professors… but that’s another story). There is also an equalities issue to consider. Currently, there are 295 professors in the university, of whom 69 (23%+) are women. However, the academic workforce is 36% female, so there is more chance that a professor will be a male. It follows that if the opportunity to head a department is restricted to an unrepresentative professoriate, there is indirect discrimination against women academics.
The situation becomes more worrying when one considers the composition of the HoD Appointments Panel. In a recent case, the panel included the Chief Administrative Officer and the HR Director. They were not there ‘in attendance’, but as fully-participating panel members. This is unprecedented. Never in the past have senior administrative officers had a direct say in academic appointments. There is the argument that a departmental headship is a management post, not an academic one. If that is the case, then there should not be a requirement that the holder be a professor, an academic title. The role of the HR Director in the process is particularly problematic. HR has the responsibility for monitoring and reporting on compliance with the University’s diversity and equality policy. If a complaint of discrimination should arise, who could be confident of the impartiality of an HR investigation if the boss was directly involved in making the decision? Finally, there appear to be no arrangements for oversight, as there are with other appointing bodies. Is the VC to report to himself?