Sociology at Strathclyde under the axe due to ‘critical’ stance
Originally published in Network, the magazine of the British Sociological Association.
Sociologists at the University of Strathclyde would like to thank our colleagues and supporters across the UK and around the world (including Professor Noam Chomsky) who signed petitions, wrote letters and spoke out to prevent the Sociology programme from being cut alongside Geography, Community Education and Music.
After university managers proposed ‘disinvestment’ in May 2011, a month-long consultation brought up compelling arguments about the importance of Sociology as a discipline. Supporters focused on its role in helping students develop critical thinking, citizenship and understanding of social issues, as well as highlighting the department’s excellent reputation for public-interest research, knowledge exchange and high-quality teaching.
However, management, Senate and Court were unconvinced, voting in June for a ‘phased withdrawal’ from all four subject areas. Their reasons included a potential loss of income from cuts to the teaching grant, a ‘lack of research critical mass’ and a move to re-brand the university as ‘MIT on the Clyde.’
In his letter of resignation, Professor David Miller (who will move to the University of Bath in January 2012) wrote, “In Sociology we were told that though we might be doing well in PhD numbers, grant income and research trajectory, we were not improving fast enough.”
Between 2007 and early 2011, the department was subjected to several reviews and audits, all of which identified the problem of understaffing. External reviewers and university managers alike recommended additional senior-level research posts to increase ‘output,’ but these never materialised. By the 2011 consultation, such recommendations were re-framed as a ‘high-risk strategy,’ despite funding for dozens of new posts in other humanities and social science disciplines.
Reassurances that Sociology will not be eliminated completely, but ‘reconfigured’ to fit into a new Social Policy degree, offer little comfort. The future shape and staffing of this new programme are still unclear, though the Head of School has insisted that “Sociology will continue, but not in its current format.”
Meanwhile, more than half the Sociology staff are on fixed-term contracts that end 30th June 2012, and even permanent staff have been notified that they are at risk of redundancy. Recruitment of new Sociology PhD students has been suspended, and both first-year Sociology and Social Policy are conspicuously absent from the 2012-13 prospectus.
Ultimately, though, the most troubling piece of news hints at a more fundamental threat to the discipline. The new Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tony McGrew, appears to be the driving force behind the closures. According to Principal Jim McDonald, McGrew believes that Sociology at Strathclyde is “too critical,” and not “mainstream” enough.
What does this kind of attitude mean for Sociology more broadly? In my research on the discipline in Scotland, I found that the vast majority of sociologists consider a critical perspective absolutely central to their practice and teaching.
Again quoting David Miller, “what is the point of an ‘uncritical sociology’ that is unable to conduct rigorous empirical research without fear or favour and to publish the results? This is – in my view – the only way that human knowledge can progress.”