Imperial College and cultural change

By Dr Tiffany Page

In 2015, Imperial College commissioned Dr Alison Phipps from the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex to undertake a research project on gender equality at the college. This occurred following a series of events involving the men’s student rugby team, which culminated in an investigation of the 2015 Varsity tournament on the grounds of sexism and unacceptable behaviour towards the women’s rugby team. Our own reading of the findings of that investigation points to an ingrained nature of sexism and misogyny and numerous difficulties for students reporting their experiences and making complaints.

The research project conducted by Dr Phipps and supported by Dr Liz McConnell as co-researcher, and Jess Taylor, an expert organisational change consultant, lasted a year and a public report (download from this link)  on the research findings was made available on 9 December 2016. This research is a rarity: it appears to be the first to focus on assessing and understanding institutional culture in higher education and its impact on gender equality, and Imperial College have chosen to make a summary of the report publicly available, which is commendable. While we do not have access to the full report, this work conducted by Phipps, McConnell and Taylor is sector leading and its research findings and recommendations are significant resources for those working in higher education.

In light of this, we ask, what can be learned from this report into gender equality about institutional culture in higher education, how it is defined, and its role in supporting sexism and forms of gender based violence? How might we use this knowledge to consider how sexual misconduct of academic staff can be condoned and sustained within a higher education institution?

In summary, these were the research questions set out by the project at Imperial College:

  • How do we assess and understand institutional culture as it impacts on gender equality?
  • How does Imperial College’s institutional culture impact on gender equality?
  • How do we evolve our culture to promote gender equality?

The report defines institutional culture as “the tool kit of habits, skills and styles with which individuals construct their behaviour” (Swidler 1986), which in the context of a university means “work/teaching/study practices and established modes of interaction.” Importantly the report points out that institutional cultures produce particular modes of working, behaving and interacting that are specific to a particular workplace, and that these can be established in ways that mean not all individuals are equipped to navigate, survive and sustain being in such cultures. Gender plays a part in this, but, as the report notes, the complexity of culture and the ways it is aspired to, inhabited, and experienced by different individuals requires careful thinking about the impact of race, class, sexuality, age, ability, and gender on and within established cultures.

The 1752 Group is particularly interested in the findings of this research in relation to how culture impacts on the experience of students and staff, especially in relation to the increasing uptake of the notion of ‘excellence’ within academia. How this might protect the behaviour of academic staff who fulfill this specific and singular cultural expectation, while violating other codes of conduct? This raises the further and related question of how cultures encouraged by policies of measurement and quantification and financial outcomes might be simultaneously creating, sustaining and masking cultures of misconduct. As the researchers argue “the competitive, individualistic pursuit of research excellence often comes at the expense of other values, which are not held in parity.”

It is important to be aware of the located elements of institutional cultures – different forms of power and acceptance operate in different institutions. These kinds of cultures of excellence impact upon areas far wider than the measured outcomes used to ascertain standards of excellence. In the context of Imperial College it means that to be ‘Imperial material’ becomes both a competitive and exclusionary device of demarcation. The researchers reported there were many examples of bullying and discriminatory behaviour towards staff and students and one interviewee noted the ‘ingrained misogyny’ at Imperial was so deeply entrenched that it was now normalised. When behaviours of abuse are repeated and not reported and stopped, they become part of an accepted code of conduct, whether or not the institution sanctions this. This means that the individual who speaks out about such behaviours then becomes the person who is in violation of institutional practices and in violation of institutional culture. Therefore in any organisational change programme it is crucial to understand first the differences between what policy dictates and how culture operates.

In our experience, and as the researchers noted in their report, senior management within higher education institutions can “turn a blind eye to poor behaviour if the individual involved was of value to the College.” This includes those academics, often male, who bring forms of prestige to the university that support its established culture – funding, network connections, and academic publishing – rather than other forms of excellence that might take the form of student support, mentoring, and ensuring postgraduate completion rates. Leadership at a distance, a problem at Imperial College and elsewhere, can lead to senior management teams stating they have zero tolerance policies on harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct without any real understanding of how culture is impacting at a departmental level to allow and tolerate misconduct if the culture of excellence, and its ability to be measured and assessed, is not threatened.

The fear of speaking out, which would involve speaking out about how the dominant culture enables misconduct, is very real. Those that don’t ‘fit’ the culture are silenced in different ways – through precarious contracts, through power relations where those in senior positions (and therefore those who have successfully navigated and being sustained within the culture) are still often men, and fear that the situation will become worse by drawing attention to the behaviour. At Imperial College, the researchers found that there was a very real fear that meant people did not ‘speak up’ about a range of issues, including discrimination and abuse and more subtle practices. This mirrors what we’ve found through supporting students experiencing sexual misconduct at a range of UK higher education institutions. There is a fear nothing will be done, a fear of losing one’s job, and a fear that situation will be made worse by drawing attention to it. Through this fear, women in particular are silenced. These fears are deeply connected to institutional processes and siloed organisational structures that present critical blocking points for reporting, for providing support, and for changing culture.

It is also important to note that the report mentions that the presence of diversity policies and initiatives, including Athena SWAN, can provide a mask to prevent changes to institutional culture, and that such top-down policies do not denote actual cultural change. The materials provided by Athena SWAN for institutional applications include a section on ‘organisation and culture’. However, in the fairly detailed guidelines for applications do not mention sexual misconduct, harassment or violence. This is not to say that institutions cannot include this data in their applications. However, institutions are unlikely to possess robust data in this area, and therefore there is little incentive to address this area.

So what can be done to change culture within an institution?

Each institution needs to make changes based on a detailed understanding of its own located cultures, which may differ across departments and layers within the organisation. The report takes practical steps to get Imperial College moving towards change. In focusing upon two of these, among its recommendations the report states that the Provost should appoint a Vice-Provost for Student and Staff Equality and Wellbeing, and the college should create a Centre for Emotional Excellence which would house welfare and wellbeing services and a venue for training. With the principle being that positions and prominence are important to any long-term strategies to begin changing institutional culture, we think these kinds of initiatives should be extended to specific roles addressing sexual misconduct. For example, an independent office for gender-based violence could be housed within such a centre, following the model of Title IX officers in US universities.

The report recommends that Imperial College “work to transform the processes which conserve power within the institution in particular spaces and with particular types of people and values.” We know that currently departmental structures can condone and hide sexual misconduct. Figuring out where the power is located, with whom, how it is enacted, and who is excluded from processes of decision-making and forms of representation is a crucial step. The report recommends that Imperial College create or source a leadership programme for all members of the institution. We think that including refiguring what leadership means, and how this is enacted and entrusted within an institution could be highly transformative.

Finally, the report makes an excellent case for creating partnerships with other institutions to enable practices of consultation on policies and procedures, knowledge exchange, and collaborative research projects that all help to support and embed institutional culture change.

We would add that critically assessing what and how excellence is measured could become another step towards institutional change. This is tied to many elements including research, promotional structures, salary scales, and the qualities sought in current and new teaching staff. Connected to this, we are currently looking into mechanisms by which the role of governing bodies in ensuring the protection of students should be extended to tying funding for research or PhD studentships to the condition that universities have adequate measures in place for dealing with and eliminating staff sexual misconduct.

We look forward to how Imperial College and UK universities make changes in light of both the valuable research and recommendations developed by Phipps, McConnell and Taylor in the Imperial College report, and the recent Universities UK taskforce report on the urgent need to address change culture in relation to violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.