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Opinion: Nancy Rothwell has failed us. Vote yes on March 8th

Since September, the University of Manchester has been rocked by scandal after scandal. In October, the University’s Fallowfield Campus, which is home to thousands of students, had the highest number of infections in the country. This was followed by the Fallowfield Fences fiasco – a national scandal which saw students tear down ‘prison-like fences’ that had been erected without any prior warning.

These instances were then followed by the racial profiling of Zac Adan by security guards, another national scandal which saw our Vice-Chancellor, Nancy Rothwell, who is very much the public face of the University, lie on national television. To make matters worse, this took place alongside an occupation of the Owens Park Tower by Rent Strikers. Rothwell initially dismissed this as a trivial non-issue, however, after a two week occupation, more national headlines and a rejected offer which one BBC News presenter described as a “slap in the face” – the University capitulated to the rent strike demands. It turned out to be another preventable PR disaster for the University of Manchester.

What I have outlined here is only a snippet of the scandals, fiascos and numerous ‘-gates’ that the University of Manchester has faced since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there is one common thread that runs through this repeating cycle of scandal, PR disaster and embarrassing apologies, and that is the absolute abdication of leadership by the University’s Senior Management team, led by Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell.

The case for the prosecution:

In my view, Nancy Rothwell’s leadership has been incompetent, inadequate and has contributed to the worsening of relations between students and senior staff. For evidence of this, we should look no further than Rothwell’s Newsnight interview in November which surrounded the racial profiling of Zac Adan by security guards.

In the interview, Rothwell stated that she had written to Mr Adan to apologise for the incident but would not meet with him so as to “not prejudice the investigation”.

However, it was later revealed that she had not written to him. This response was indicative of the slow-motion car crash that the interview symbolised. By refusing to even meet with Zac Adan, Rothwell, made it clear where her priorities seemingly lied. What would it have cost to have had a conversation with him? Would it have prejudiced the investigation Rothwell spoke of? After reading Regulation XVIII, which outlines the procedure for complaints, I don’t think so.

By refusing to meet with Zac Adan, Rothwell sent a message to the students at this institution that she does not care about us. Whether this was intentional or not, an “us versus them” mentality has developed amongst the student body, particularly within the first-year population of Fallowfield, of which I am a part. Nancy Rothwell has done nothing to mitigate it. Instead, she has only exacerbated these tensions. 

Students protest fences at Fallowfield Campus
Photo: Antonio Ross @reflectioness.ross

Rothwell’s lack of leadership

Rothwell is the Vice-Chancellor of the University and oversees its administration and day-to-day operations. Her role is more comparable to that of a CEO in a Fortune 500 company than to the Prime Minister. A Prime Minister is (supposedly) accountable to the electorate – us, the people – because we can actually vote them out. A CEO, however, is only accountable to a select group of shareholders and board members, and with the marketisation of education which the New Labour and Conservative governments have presided over in the last 20 years, it seems a Vice-Chancellor’s role is less to do with education and more to do with maximising profits.

“If education is a product and we are its customers then why should we buy a faulty product?”

We pay £9,250 a year for the privilege of studying at this once-coveted University. Why should we settle for incompetent leadership? If education is a product and we are its customers then why should we buy a faulty product? If this University wants to treat us like customers then we should at least get the same rights as them.

If Rothwell was the CEO of a corporation then she’d have been shown the door months ago. Her failure of leadership has led to the continuation of scandals that have damaged the University’s reputation. It baffles me as to why a prospective undergraduate would want to attend a university they have to shell out approximately £15k (including accommodation) where they are treated like prisoners, scapegoated for the inaction of incompetent leadership and corralled into their halls like cattle by police.

“I and many others have not even stepped foot in a lecture theatre.”

Some may argue that Rothwell is not to blame and that there was no way she could have foreseen the issues the pandemic has exposed in this University’s internal structures.

I disagree. Firstly, the University promised blended learning if we came back to campus. I and many others have not even stepped foot in a lecture theatre as the limited face-to-face teaching we were promised was promptly cancelled during welcome week due to the monumental increase in Covid infections borne from the mass migration of students across the country.

The infection rate was only exacerbated by students partying in their halls of residences – a form of socialising that is extremely undesirable in a pandemic.

However, it doesn’t take a PHD thesis to recognise that students are social creatures. Many of them away from home for the first time and eager to experience the “uni life” that is one of the main draws of a University education.

Instead of attempting to recognise these painstakingly obvious flaws, the University’s Senior Management team seemed to expect everyone to behave like a main character from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay – strictly adhere to social distancing, only keep to their flat, not make friends and just stare at the pixels on their laptop screens in their rooms (some of which are glorified prison-cells) without any complaints.

A sensible policy, especially after everyone had already gotten Covid, might have been to denote blocks or floors as bubbles – or even just provide adequate mental health support to those struggling with lockdown. Sensible is clearly a word unknown to the senior leaders.

The failure to address the Covid-crisis on campus was the first in a chain of events which has culminated in this article and the Student Union’s motion of no confidence in Nancy Rothwell.

Secondly, there was inadequate support offered to students self-isolating. There have been countless reports of students being moved into flats that were self-isolating alongside the absence of meaningful support offered. Students were given food parcels that would expire the next day, they were also told to break the law and go shopping if one flatmate wasn’t as ill as the others. The list goes on.

Thirdly, the decision to erect fencing around the Fallowfield Halls of Residences was the turning point in the deterioration in the relationship between students and staff. The protest itself was reported on extensively however, what this infamous event symbolises is one of the key crux’s of the leadership’s failures: PR.

The PR mentality of the senior leadership is to stick its head in the sand and pretend the room isn’t on fire. This is damning. In a global pandemic and digital age, in which information technology and communication is the foundation of our current lives, the fact that the University of Manchester refuses to acknowledge the importance of clear communication to its student body is shocking. 

Through its disastrous PR strategy this institution has allowed its public image to be one of scandal and incompetence. Its failures have also led to students losing faith in critical services such as mental health support. In January, the University’s official Instagram, which has 62,000 followers, and is one of the primary sources of information for its student body, released a disgraceful infographic on mental health encouraging students to treat lockdown as a retreat.

Infographic: @officialuom

This prompted a flurry of criticism on social media with many rightfully asking why this was ever thought appropriate to post, especially since a student tragically took his own life in his Halls of Residences after experiencing mental health issues. The University eventually deleted the post but by then the damage had been done.

As my colleague Laura Thompson recently pointed out, the Instagram post likely deterred students from seeking mental health support (which is already a taboo subject even amongst young people), thereby endangering lives and also mischaracterising the actual, incredibly important support the mental health services offer. 

Now, it would not be fair of me to pinpoint the blame for this incident solely on Nancy Rothwell because she is not individually responsible for every single Instagram post or press release. However, it is indicative of the management culture she presides over. A culture of scapegoating, of cover-ups, of misconstruing the truth. It is the onus of the leader to set an example and lead the institution in the image they want to present to their onlookers. 

In this case, it is Nancy Rothwell’s responsibility to set an example and actually lead. She has had every opportunity to recognise her failures, admit to her mistakes and implement change. But she hasn’t. Instead, as I have outlined, her leadership (or lack thereof) has led to the complete state of disarray that the University of Manchester is in, and most importantly, has led to staff and students losing faith and confidence in the institution they build their lives around.

Photo: Joe McFadden

What is to be done?

On Monday 8th March 2021 the University of Manchester’s Students Union will hold a referendum on Nancy Rothwell’s leadership. This referendum will take the form of a no confidence vote and only needs a simple majority of votes to pass. While it is non-binding, a successful vote would send a message to the senior management team, the Board of Governors, the press and the public and most importantly the students. A message that says: “We demand better”.

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has already declared no confidence in Nancy Rothwell and her leadership team. There has also been multiple articles in national outlets detailing the unprecedented opportunity University of Manchester students have. We have already made history, thanks to UoMRentStrike, by receiving the largest rent rebate in modern history. Let’s do it again by ousting our Vice-Chancellor and having a chance at building a University that works for all.

Currently, what we have are senior leaders who collect six-figure salaries and preside over a crisis that is only getting worse. Students continue to be ignored, isolated and intimidated by a Police force who have already arrested a student for questioning their authority.

Now, as others have pointed out, Nancy Rothwell is not solely responsible for every bad decision made at the University of Manchester. However, she is the public face of the University, and has the ability to shape and implement policy, thus making her accountable and responsible for the University’s failings.

Nancy Rothwell earns over £200,000 a year. That is more than double the Prime Minister’s salary. Over 4x the average salary of a lecturer. No Vice-Chancellor should earn that much, especially one who is as incompetent as Nancy Rothwell.

Put simply, it is her job to provide the overarching management for the institution, and as I have pointed out, she has repeatedly failed at this. The motion also encompasses her leadership team so it would not just be her that we are declaring no confidence in, but the entire upper echelons of the management which has failed us.

This is unprecedented. Never before have students been afforded the opportunity to oust the University of Manchester’s Vice-Chancellor. If successful, this could mark a symbolic victory for students across the UK. Students who have been treated as cash cows, scapegoated for the failings of Vice-Chancellor’s and the government and, most of all, it would demonstrate that we can do something about it. These protests will not go away. We have the spark that will light a fire. What it burns down is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: ‘the times, they are a changin’.

Tags: bbc newsnight, fallowfield fences, Nancy Out, Nancy Rothwell, rent strike, scandal, student movement, student protest, UoM Rent Strike, Zac Adan

Joe McFadden

History and Politics student | Interested in Film, TV and Politics
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