A Sociological Autobiography: 67 – All Change! UCL Through 2006

2006 was a turning point for me. When I came to what was then the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in 1978, it was John Hinton’s Department of Psychiatry I entered. After Rachel Rosser’s premature and sad death, Stan Newman climbed a short greasy UCL pole and took over. For one reason or another, he subsequently elected to break away to head up a health psychology/medical sociology/medical anthropology ‘Centre for Behavioural and Social Sciences in Medicine’ (I had an input into the title, which could easily have been and nearly was far worse) in Leon Fine’s laboratory-based Department of Medicine. What, I asked Stan before signing up, if Professor Fine stepped down or retired? He was reassuring and agreed to me adopting the (nominal) title of Deputy Director of Centre.

Leon Fine went missing, Patrick Vallance being his replacement. Along with other members of our Centre, I had never met Leon Fine, nor was I to meet Patrick Vallance for a while: how common is it to be ignored/side-stepped by one’s head of department for seven years? I think it suited Stan.

The turning point point came when Liz Wake, Stan’s secretary, mentioned in passing that Professor Vallance wanted to see me. ‘What’s that about?’ I asked. Stan overheard. ‘Come in. We had better have a chat’, he said. I went into his office and a conversation that re-set my bearings ensued. I made detailed notes in its aftermath. I was informed that: (a) it had been decided that I, together with psychologist James Thomson and anthropologist Roland Lirttlewood, were surplus to UCL requirements; (b) in my own case enquiries had been made about my possible re-location within UCL, but that Michael Marmot among others had declined to rescue me; and (c) the then Dean of the Medical School, Mike Spyer, had in effect signed me off. I went home stunned and unsure what the future held.

It is difficult even now to make sense of this conversation. When Stan and I met with Vallance, the latter informed me that he was unable to appraise/assess my academic worth, so would I mind if he took soundings? No. I selected a few items and they were dispached to one of the peers I suggested, Nicky Britten. Nicky, I can only assume, responded with a degree of positivity because a reprieve of sorts followed. UCL professors nowadays, Vallance stated in our follow-up encounter, were necessarily PIs heading up research teams: I should publish in Nature and bring in an agreeable research grant (say, £1m+). There are profoundly clever idiots in our universities. And there it was left for the time being: certainly a latent threat hovered around me, but there was no mention of redundancy or early retirement. When in the meeting’s aftermath I told Stan ‘I’m not going anywhere’, he seemed confused.

Vallance soon disappeared, rumour had it to Big Pharma with a huge salary hike (in fact he now heads research and development at GlaxoSmithKline and is apparently ‘not afraid of bold initiatives’). I found myself doubly engaged, not only in apparent defence of my post but in relation to the REF. Stan declared himself powerless in both scenarios so I resolved to fight on alone. Mike Spyer’s successor, Ed Byrne (brother of Durham sociologist Dave Byrne) again made no mention of my leaving UCL when I met him, but was instead open to my switching departments. At the back of my mind was the possibility of heading up a new centre/unit of medical sociology and anthropology outside of the medical school. I did the spadework but met with obstacles. Maybe predictably, the anthropologists didn’t want us on the cusp of the REF, I guess in case it diluted their submission. Nor were Roland, Sushrut Jadhav and Simon Dein keen to migrate (why, they might reasonably have thought, could I be trusted to lead them to safety?). Moreover Paul Higgs, who was not under threat himself, decided he would be more secure remaining with a Newman-led rump in a contrived faculty of the miscellaneous. I, however, was now set on transferring to another department.

I held a number of discussions with assorted Deans and these should remain confidential. All of them, however, expressed surprise at and disowned Stan’s prognosis of doom and despondency; maybe circumstances had changed? I was resolved to act alone. A conversation with Anne Johnson, whom I knew and with whom I had taught, encouraged a follow-up chat with fellow-sociologist Graham Hart, on whose appointment committee I had sat when he was appointed Professor and Head of the Departmen of Infection and Population Health. And it was in Graham’s Department, happily, that I ended up. I had at least published on sex work and HIV/AIDS. Before I switched I was clear: ‘you do know that I don’t do as I’m told don’t you?’ ‘Yes’. In the event Graham’s management was – from my point of view – exemplary. He both left me alone and was constructive and supportive until I retired in 2013. Given that I was, in my own possibly idiosyncratic way, productive, it was prudent, evidence-based governance. He gained a senior post.

The REF necessitated another personal campaign. UCL had no Department of Sociology of course, so could make no submission direct to the the sociology panel. I was sent an email from HQ stating that I had been deemed inadequate to be returned under the rubric of (something like) ‘community-based clinical subjects’. Recognising that to accept this ludicrous misjudgement would in effect to be to set myself up for trouble later, I responded with what was described as vigour broaching aggression. I said I was also an inadequate performer in radio astronomy and music – I was after all a sociologist – and I ‘demanded’ either: (a) a statement that I was being excluded from the REF for strategic reasons, but that my work was ok; or (b) I was returned ‘as a sociologist’, with a reference across to the appropriate panel. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I won (b).

In a blog reflecting on the REF, I went on to make a few remarks that bear repetition. I accepted that those who devise metrics of appraisal are likely well-intentioned. BUT, I maintained, the pursuit of metrics might well be, and almost certainly is, misguided, inefficient and counter-productive. I also insisted that metrics are a management device: they allow line-managers to manipulate those they can (officially, ‘legitimately’) categorise as under-performers, quite independently of actual performance. I was to avoid the the unhappy offspring of the REF by a week or so, so it is an issue to which shall return.

It is sad that this period altered my relationship with Stan Newman. Bewildered, I felt driven to go it alone. I have said previously that he held institutional ambitions that were alien to me. So did Graham Hart. My own institutional wishes were entirely incidental. Stan and Graham were differently conspicuous in their aspirations, possibly reflecting their different disciplinary bases. Stan was in my view a good successor to Rachel Rosser, and he was generously supportive of me. I was also supportive of him, sometimes behind the scenes (as when I conducting a poll of UCL psychiatrists that I rang through to then Dean John Patterson when Stan was challenged at the time of the merger with the Royal Free HMS by the latter’s chief psychiatrist, Tony Wakeling). Maybe his eye was a little off the ball as Director of the Centre for Behavioural and Social Sciences in Medicine. By 2006 he was not, as I discovered from a Dean or two, flavour of the month within UCL’s Medical School. But he was extraordinarily and enduringly productive and has since climbed further ladders at City University. He and I work by different criteria, which is ok. That initial conversation I alluded earlier to remains incongruous. One of its by-products was an enhanced ‘productivity’on my part. I thought I had better for a while commit less to books and more to peer-reviewed papers. It turned out that these were quicker to get into print than books!

Roland Littlewood, by the way, lived to fight another day, though he is now retired; while James Thompson opted for freedom. I have great respect for both. Roland is a proven and original medical anthropologist while James’ punctuates his third age with an accumulation of enticing blogs and remains an old friend.

2006 was a turning point for me.




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