Rites of passage (2): cake and flowers

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On a beautiful spring day, what better way for a retired academic to spend an afternoon? Off to Milton Keynes, where the campus crocuses were looking particularly lovely, for the School Assembly to include my final official farewell. Today’s School Assembly was a new experience for me, one of the features of the restructured Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, within which the various units still known as departments (but about to become known instead as disciplines) are arranged into four Schools. Ah, the joys of university management structures. There’s nothing like adding in another layer of university administration to cheer the heart.

‘School Assembly’ may sound like we’d be wearing gymslips and singing the School Song – no such luck. Despite cheerful bunches of daffodils and piles of cake, it was still a Meeting. And, as one of the factors which drove me to retirement was the amount of time spent in Meetings, and the fact that the resulting actions were never proportionate to the hours of meeting time, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to this.

I was offered a choice of events which could include this official farewell; the other date on offer was for a meeting of the whole Faculty and, as many of the people with whom I’ve had most contact outside my department are no longer in the same School as Classical Studies, this would have made more sense. However, that date clashes with a research event I want to attend, so I chose the smaller of the two meetings. In terms of the process, there was no difference; the Dean made a gracious speech, I responded, and I was given a card, flowers, and some garden tokens – very much appreciated. A fair number of staff from the School (of Art History, Classical Studies, English & Creative Writing, Music) attended and, as is usual at OU meetings, people were also listening and watching via a live feed.

I wasn’t sure if the protocol in the new structure would include a response from me to the Dean, so I hadn’t prepared anything, although I did have some sleepless hours last night thinking about what I could say. In the event, the Dean’s speech gave me the perfect opening. He talked about how I always speak my mind (people do seem to notice this!) and how we didn’t get on at all at our first meeting, when he was a deputy dean: we come from very different disciplinary backgrounds and I was concerned that, when social sciences and arts/humanities were first being merged, it always seemed to be the social sciences ways of doing things that were prioritised. But, as he rightly noted, we came to respect each other and to realise we could work together (well, we could have done, but I left!). He didn’t mention this but, when he was about to be interviewed for his current role as Dean, I was delighted to run into him just as he was about to give his job presentation and to offer him my very best wishes for his success.

So when it came to my turn to say a few words, I thanked him and explained that I have always needed to feel that I can trust those above me in the management structure. I know I’m prone to rely on my first reactions, and so I work hard to move beyond those responses. So, when we first came to know each other, I had a long talk with him about what was then my department, its key themes and its ambitions. And I heard more about his vision and his ways of working. Result? A revised opinion and new respect.

In at least one other case in my final job, attempts at a similar process of understanding were met with a complete lack of response. But that’s history now: as a result of today’s meeting, I’ve moved on, and away, and into something very different.

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