Thursday, January 21, 2010

Departmental Merger

As with most things in most places of work, we had rather a lot more rumours than hard facts about the departmental merger being "suggested" by university management. I find Lancaster to be a very interdisciplinary university anyway, but I think there was a little friction that this merger wasn't allowed to evolve organically but was a rather top-down affair. Some people see this as a good move, others are pissed off. Hopefully, a really good "super department" will come out of all of this. So, the first Religious Studies department (as opposed to Theology departments which focused on the Christian tradition) in the UK, founded by Ninian Smart, pioneer of the discipline since the 1960s, is merging with the departments of Philosophy, and Politics and International Relations to form the Department of Philosophy, Politics and Religion or PPR.

Following a meeting with the students on Jan 14 (which I couldn't get to), a recent email states that this merger is the most viable way to:

  • "maintain the best student experience";
  • protect the existing disciplines of philosophy, politics and international relations, and religious studies;
  • take advantage of interdisciplinary crossovers and opportunities both for new courses and for research staff; and
  • create a department that "can prosper in the coming period of UK-wide financial constraints."

The email tells us that the staff who will fulfil the main departmental roles are as follows:

  • Head of Department: Robert Geyer (P&IR)
  • Research Director and Deputy Head: Chris Partridge (RS)
  • Undergraduate Director: Graham Smith (P&IR)
  • Postgraduate Director: Andrew Dawson (RS)
  • Human Resources Director: Mairi Levitt (Phil)
  • External Relations Director: Neil Manson (Phil)

Support staff haven't yet been finalised, and I'm concerned for both our departmental support staff (Wendy Francis, Departmental Officer, who has been with the department since 1983!, and Gillian Taylor, Departmental Assistant, who has been there for nearly 12 years now). I've no idea what is going to happen concerning all three departments' support staff and I'm too scared of asking either Wendy or Gillian in case it upsets them. It must be so hard at the moment. Decisions about support staff are going to be sorted out in February.

In relation to the identities of the existing departments, the email states that "Although the former departments will be housed in one over-arching unit, the identities of the disciplines will be maintained. All three departments have clear strengths and the merger is a move to reinforce and preserve these. These approaches and traditions will be further strengthened by the prestige that a larger unit can bring. In addition, research councils are increasingly looking for proposals which cross disciplines; and employers are increasingly looking for employees who have a broader and more comprehensive grasp on the world around us. All departments evolve over time - and this can be viewed as a part of the evolution of the three departments in response to the new challenges of the 21st century."

This means in practice that single discipline degrees will be maintained (the RS and Phil departments already recently introduced a cross-discipline degree, "Ethics, Philosophy and Religion," but I know that the balance of responsibility for that programme was an issue). Also, all three departments are moving (by the end of 2010, if not before) to a common location. As RS only moved relatively recently, I imagine another move will cause some (minor?) annoyances.

But, hopefully, there will be more advantages than disadvantages. There are a number of possible new crossover modules or degree programmes that would benefit new students, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (e.g. Religion and Conflict MA). I'm sure this will also increase the vibrancy of the research community as well, for both staff and PhD students. It is the kind of department that would be really great for my postdoc ideas (I'm currently looking at Manchester's Centre for Religion and Political Culture). So, all in all, I think this is good. But I'm worried about Wendy and Gillian.

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