Imperial College London
Between 2015 and 2016, we conducted an in-depth study of institutional culture at Imperial College London, where we developed our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology. Our commission was a response to a series of events involving the men’s rugby team, which culminated in an investigation of the 2015 Varsity tournament on the grounds of sexism and unacceptable behaviour. Together with Professor Humphris, we decided that Imperial should resist the temptation to focus on a few ‘naughty boys’, and instead channel this outrage into a more critical whole-system reflection.
Our project engaged 250 staff and students from across the institution, and we actively encouraged participants who identified as being from minority/marginalised groups. We conducted a survey, focus groups and individual interviews, engaged in observations and documentary analysis, and set up a website where people could submit completely anonymous stories. We then analysed these data and used them to inform four action inquiry groups working on the following themes: authority, empathy, silence/dissent and failure. Our full 40-page report was not made public by the institution but an eleven-page version was drafted by senior staff and is available here. Our key findings was that Imperial’s culture of ‘excellence’ pertained to research rather than other aspects of college life, and that this had a detrimental impact on staff and student wellbeing. We also identified the persistence of forms of discrimination such as sexism and classism, and behaviours such as bullying.
Following the release of the public report, Provost James Stirling issued a statement to staff and students of the college, and published a piece in the Times Higher Education, where he committed to implementing our recommendations.
Between 2017 and 2018, we repeated our model at Sussex University on a much larger scale. This was a response to on-going and immediate concerns such as: reports of bullying in staff survey data, awareness of long-standing institutional inequalities, and the findings of the independent Westmarland report on the Lee Salter case.
This project engaged almost 900 members of staff and students at Sussex, participating in the same range of methods we had implemented at Imperial. We then used these data to inform 12 action inquiry groups working on the following themes: action, agility, consequences, courage, difference, entitlement, learning, power, responsibility, trust and uncertainty (we ran two sets on power). Our 40-page report was made public by the institution and is available here. Our findings focused on a variety of different cultural dynamics observable at Sussex, such as performative radicalism, splitting and siloisation, as well as the ‘wounds’ created by the recent history of the institution. We also noted the immense affection staff and students feel for Sussex, and the great energy for change which was evidenced in our project.
Following our report, Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell issued a statement to the university community in which a number of actions in line with our recommendations were highlighted, and further commitments made.