The Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge cannot operate without its administrators. Our research cluster depends on the energy, the experience, the skills, and the dedication of its support staff, and for the past seven years we have been lucky enough to work with someone who has done a fantastic job. In addition to being talented, knowledgable, and committed, this person is also creative, compassionate, considerate, open-minded, witty, and gracious, and for many of us is a friend as well as a valued colleague.
This week we were shocked to learn that as a consequence of our research cluster being demoted to the status of a ‘fluid informal group’, our administrator is being threatened with redundancy. This news could not have come at a worse time – we were in the process of making vital changes to our Centre’s priorities and values, and our administrator had been a key part of our ideas generation stage and our implementation plan. We wanted not only to hold our community to higher, braver ethical standards, but also to increase and diversify our output, amplify other voices, and build out our public platform so that we could have a direct, collective impact on our academic field. We were excited at the prospect of growth and change – and although we were daunted by the new challenges ahead, we felt we could look to our administrator for support and guidance on how we could bring our grand vision of a more just, more inclusive Centre into being. Now we risk not just losing someone whose contribution to our research group is invaluable, but also losing our vision for a better Centre.
The deeply problematic assumption on the part of the Faculty that graduate students will simply pick up the organisational slack left in the absence of a paid administrator reminds us of the same ‘CV building’ rhetoric that is used to justify unpaid internships. The truth is that unpaid internships are never justifiable: they are always unethical, unequitable, and exploitative. We know from firsthand experience what the negative effects have been on members of our centre who have provided unpaid and unrecognised student labour for the department. Instances of burnout, mental and physical illness, and financial loss have been directly linked to students doing necessary work for the Centre without compensation. If the Faculty really wanted to ‘build our CVs’, they would provide us with the administrative support we need to write excellent articles, to set up outreach events, to organise conferences, and to conduct effective research. The fact that the Faculty admits that this administrative work must be off-loaded onto graduate students suggests they recognise that this work is essential. Going forwards, graduate students will no longer do essential work for the department for free: this work must be compensated.
We are very aware that it is not just our administrator who is facing the threat of redundancy. We are our colleague’s best advocates, but we would like to make it clear that we stand in solidarity with other cluster’s administrative staff.
Below is a letter we have written in support of our administrator. If you would like to add your signature to this letter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to use this letter as a template to advocate on behalf of your support staff.
If you are affected by this post and would like support, please reach out to your Faculty’s union representative and consider joining UCU.
Demand more, and watch standards rise. Make trouble, and make change.
In solidarity, and with love,
Dear Prof. Robertson and Kate Allen,
We, the undersigned, are writing to express our support for our colleague Lucian Stephenson, and our opposition to the plan to impose redundancies on research support staff in the Faculty.
As the administrator for our research cluster, Lucian is an invaluable member of our department and our community. His enthusiasm, dedication, creativity, and expert knowledge are unique and irreplaceable. Last month at the business meeting for the cluster, his involvement was incorporated into future plans. The threat of redundancy, therefore, goes against not only the wishes of the Centre but its agreed long-term aims. We are currently in a transition period with our Head of Department retiring and a new professor taking over from September – we need Lucian, with his in-depth understanding of the department’s infrastructure and protocols, to ease this transition. With a high turnover of administrative staff, Lucian’s seven years of experience are vitally important at this critical juncture.
Without Lucian, the huge amount of administrative work that currently falls to overworked staff such as Dr. Jaques, would become wholly unmanageable. Furthermore, Lucian does a significant amount of pastoral care which would otherwise, again, fall to Dr. Jaques. From the running of wellbeing events to offering informal advice and a listening ear to students who are struggling to find their place within the Faculty, Lucian makes the Faculty feel like a more friendly, open, and inclusive place to work and study.
The ‘Impact of revised Research Strategy’ (see appendix) implies that without Lucian, the administrative burden of running research clusters will be allocated to PhD students. This is absolutely unacceptable, and the exploitation of graduate students within the Faculty is an issue that must be urgently addressed. Since students are not formally considered members of the research clusters, graduate students would essentially be being asked to take up – for free – the organizational and administrative burden of running clusters that the Faculty refuses to actually admit them to in any meaningful way. In solidarity with Lucian and the other administrative staff threatened with redundancy, all unpaid student labour for the cluster will be withdrawn from August 1st, and will not recommence until it is appropriately valued.
We would like to remind the Faculty that the MPhil in Children’s Literature for next year is over-enrolled – a condition that was only agreed to on the basis that the centre would receive additional support. This was agreed to by Geoff Hayward, in the presence of witnesses and is formally minuted. In threatening to withdraw Lucian’s support from the cluster, the Faculty is essentially suggesting that a group of 3 paid academics, 30+ PhD students and 27+ MPhils can be self-administering. This is ludicrous, and will likely have a disastrous impact on both programmes.
These redundancies have been proposed at very short notice, at a time of year when many staff and students are away from the Faculty and are thus less able to coordinate a response within the small time-frame of this consultation period. Furthermore, the period in which Lucian’s meeting was organised was less than a full week, and as such he was unable to secure union representation.
We consider this timing to be unethical and underhand.
As Lucian’s colleagues, we are his best advocates, but we want to be very clear that we stand in solidarity with the other employees whose roles are also at risk. Making part-time roles into full-time roles – especially when one staff member is a single parent – is indirect discrimination, and is illegal. We find this deeply concerning.
We hope you will seriously consider the case presented in this letter regarding the value of Lucian’s institutional knowledge and experience, especially during this time of transition and upheaval at the centre, in addition to his ongoing contributions to creating a vibrant, inclusive community in the Faculty.
Jen Aggleton, Ph.D Graduand
Sarah Hardstaff, Ph.D. Graduand
Julie Blake, Ph.D. Graduand
Anna Savoie, Ph.D. Graduand
Amy Webster, 4th year Ph.D. Student
Catherine Olver, 3rd year Ph.D Student
Madeleine Hunter, 3rd year Ph.D. Student
Vera Nellek Veldhuizen, 3rd year Ph.D. Student
Maya Zakrzewska-Pim, 3rd year Ph.D. Student
Anna Purkiss, 2nd year Ph.D. Student
Emma Reay, 2nd year Ph.D. Student
Breanna J McDaniel, 2nd year Ph.D. Student
Michelle Anya Anjirbag, 2nd Year Ph.D. Studen
Madison McLeod, 2nd year Ph.D. Student
Lisa Kazianka, 2nd year Ph.D. Student
Nicol Hilton, 2nd year Ph.D. Student
Lindsay Burton, 1st year Ph.D. Student
Stella Pryce, 1st Year Ph.D. Student
Victoria Mullins, 1st year Ph.D. Student
Carrie Spencer, 1st Year Ph.D. Student
Gabriel Duckels, Incoming Ph.D. Student
Appendix A: Impact of revised Research Strategy
“The 2.4 fte general administration roles were allocated to what were called Academic Groups and provided administrative support to those groups. These groups no longer exist in the Faculty. Following consultation within the Faculty, and in response to the recent Strategic Research Review (May 2017), the academic staff have agreed to disband Academic Groups and to replace them with fluid research groupings which are administratively self-supporting and which include opportunities for PhD students to gain experience of aspects of the groups’ administration and organisation. As a result, the associated administrative roles are now at risk of redundancy.” (emphasis added)
Appendix B: Student Impact Statements
The following are detailed examples of instances in which Lucian has gone above and beyond his job description to improve the experiences of Faculty members:
“Lucian does so much that’s extra to his job. As solid examples of how he has consistently given back to the faculty: he runs an LGBT group that people specifically asked him to start and he does craft lunch times (both of these are done on his own time/in his lunch); he has also said that he will run welfare craft sessions for the FERSA student welfare representative, for which he will personally provide materials from his own resources AND he’s not charging for these sessions – as he would have every right to do. PLUS he has offered to run a zine class for new PhDs to create zines based on their research, which in fact means he’s actually helping our students to think about their research in new ways and promoting new ways of discussing said research!”
“We have seen firsthand how harmful to students mental and financial wellbeing it is for them to take on unpaid labour on behalf of the centre. Under the guise of being ‘CV building’, students are being duped into devoting a significant part of their already limited time into doing thankless administrative tasks. The time-cost of these roles cannot be overstated – where these students (who already experience financial precarity) could have been working for money, or could have been working on articles or publications that would actually boost their CV in a meaningful way, they have been working themselves to the bone doing unrecognised work that is often unseen and always unappreciated.”
“Lucian has been a huge support for the LGBTQ+ community in the Faculty. From chaperoning some students’ first trips to Pride to being a font of knowledge about LGBTQ+ support systems available through the university, Lucian is the one to go to.”
“Over the last year and a half, I have taken on additional administrative duties relating to the operation of the centre and its outreach and while I have gained many valuable skills from this experience, it has put in me in situations that were not appropriate for me as a student to be placed into. The fallout from these situations has been both emotionally and physically taxing, seriously affecting my health and my ability to do the research that I am first and foremost here to do. I took on these roles because as a self-funded international student, the huge financial outlay that my attendance here necessitated made me feel I had a lot to lose in the pursuit of an academic career; with the benefit of hindsight, I see how this financial precarity made me vulnerable to exploitation. This cannot be the way forward for the faculty, and Lucian’s insight, generosity, and professionalism have been key to helping me assert a more realistic and healthy work-life balance.”