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Reorganisation at University College Utrecht after critical report

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Utrecht University College will reorganise its own structure after a university committee’s remarkably critical assessment of UCU’s ambiguous organisational structure. It cripples the organisation and causes resentment amongst employees. The plans will not involve any forced redundancies.

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University College Utrecht teachers will face a reorganisation in the upcoming academic year. Support staff will remain in the clear. In total, the plans will affect 58 staff members, 37.5 fte. These employees may be moved to different positions, or the content of their position may change. The UCU board guarantees no one will lose their job.

The reorganisation comes after the advice of a committee led by Joop Kessels, ex-director of the UU’s Corporate Office. The committee’s assessment doesn’t pull any punches, stating that employees’ high level of involvement in the study programme has its downsides.

There are, for example, varying and contradicting ideas about what’s important for UCU and what isn’t. In speaking to the committee, employees – who, in many cases, have worked for UCU for a long time – clearly voiced their criticisms about colleagues and the organisation itself. There’s a risk that UCU is mostly preoccupied with its own sorrows, the committee thinks. This is further supported by the culture of us-versus-them between the college’s own staff and the other hired teachers, according to the committee.

In that light, it’s even more problematic that it’s unclear how the decision-making progress works within this organisation, the committee states. This situation occasionally leads to great discontent and strong emotions.

Furthermore, the committee observes that in the past few years, University College has been outpaced by other UU faculties in terms of educational innovation. If UCU wishes to keep its status as a pioneer, including for instance in terms of attention to highly-talented students and internationalisation, it needs to improve its connections with the faculties.

Frustrations
UCU Dean James Kennedy commissioned the report himself. He says it made sense to study the organisational form, because UCU recently decided to renew its curriculum to a more interdisciplinary approach. Additionally, the college plans to provide research time to all teachers, in order to strengthen the connection with research. “You want to know, then, whether the organisational form still matches these ideas.”

But Kennedy also acknowledges that there was some frustration, both for himself and his UCU colleagues. “Isn’t it all too complicated?” I wondered regularly. “How do we make decisions? Who decides things? It’s often unclear. I know this causes friction.”

For that reason, the findings of the committee-Kessels don’t surprise the dean. He does lament the fact that the report could give the impression that UCU is stagnating, or that there’s an unpleasant atmosphere for employees. “Most people here whistle as they go to work, and we’re still doing an incredible amount of educational innovation. The visitation committee was full of praise only recently. All that remains a little underexposed. But yes, there are indications that we – precisely because the people here feel so incredibly connected to their work – risk spending too much energy on internal affairs. The challenge, now, is to avoid that.”

Simplified organisation
Kennedy has decided to adopt the committee’s most important recommendations. He wants to simplify the organisational structure and the way the college discusses things.

To do so, the College Board will be abolished. The board was technically only an advisory body to the Dean, but was ascribed much higher power by many employees. The management team will be reduced in size. The educational director will work outside of the management team, and will have an advisory role as president of the Board of Studies.

Furthermore, the faculty council and programme committee will be separated. The current College Council is a combination of these two bodies. The committee says that given UCU’s small scale, the decision to combine the two is understandable, but hinders decision-making.

Next, UCU will abolish its three departments, replacing them with a larger number of clusters of tracks that are related in content. Kennedy says the department heads were overburdened with staff-related sorrows. “The new cluster heads will be responsible for a smaller number of people, and will have more room to truly aim for curriculum innovation.”

To strengthen the ties with the faculties, an advisory council will be established, in which representatives of the faculties will be members. Kennedy will not implement the committee’s suggestion of turning UCU into an inter-faculty study programme. “UCU’s autonomy is a great good; without it, you become the plaything of the faculties.”

Understanding amongst employees
This past Tuesday, Kennedy informed the UCU staff about the decisions. In the next few months, the college will discuss the consequences of the changes. The presentation of formal reorganisation plan is scheduled for late November, and UCU is planned to switch to the new organisational structure by August 2020.

At first glance, it seems like the UCU staff is understanding of the announcement of the reorganisation. Teacher and member of the UCU Council Bas Defize recognises the feeling of an abundant and unclear organisational structure. “The great appeal UCU had in its early years was, of course, the organic way we could handle everything, but there comes a time when you have to start trimming. No one could answer the question of who does what and when anymore.”

He’s not surprised to hear UCU employees were critical in their conversations with the committee. “We’re a small organisation. One person says this, the other says that. Things take on a life of their own, and is then put on the table for a committee like this.”

But, Defize says, he’s got the impression that most of his teachers have a positive attitude to the proposed plans. “Still, there is a level of scepticism. Will we succeed in changing the organisational structure while simultaneously working on a renewal of the curriculum? Given the lacking internal communication in the past few years, it’s not exactly guaranteed to succeed.”

Things are often unclear
Christel Lutz, Director of Faculty Development, also understands the UCU Board’s decision. She says it’s in line with the recent decision of allotting more research time to all permanent employees. Teachers are enthusiastic about the possibilities that this decision creates, she sees. “I truly hope there’ll be more room for the content, for discussions about our different disciplines, and for renewal of our curriculum and our lectureship.”

But she also felt the necessity for change in daily affairs: “Those who’ve been with UCU for a longer time, like me, know who to go to when you need something. But for people who are new, or come from outside the college, things like this are often unclear. Partially because many people fulfil multiple positions at the same time here. There’s room for improvement in the logic here.”

Kennedy himself describes the atmosphere during the meeting with his staff on Tuesday as “hesitant to positive.” “I was impressed by the openness and the willingness to contribute.”

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