Towards collective academic governance at Edinburgh: Interview with Michael Barany

Interview conducted by Sean McMahon

Academic staff do the work that defines a university: teaching, scholarship and research. But too often in British universities the voices of academics are marginalised by undemocratic forms of governance. Top-down, unaccountable, corporate-style management has increasingly replaced collegial decision-making, stifling the autonomy of academics and impeding rather than facilitating academic work. Although the “ancient” Scottish universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St. Andrews operate under special institutional and legal arrangements, they are certainly not immune to these trends. Dr Michael Barany, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at the University of Edinburgh, has been leading efforts to revitalise the Senate at Edinburgh and restore the academic voice in governance. For this blog post, I asked him to discuss these efforts. At Michael’s request, the contributors’ fee for this post will be donated to the UCU Edinburgh Hardship Fund.

Q: What have you and your colleagues been doing to try to ensure the academic voice is heard by Edinburgh’s senior management? Are there many academics involved in this effort?

Many thanks for this interview and for drawing attention to what we have been doing in Edinburgh to try to realise the principle that the academic mission of the university is properly the responsibility of the university’s academic staff.

I joined Edinburgh’s Senate in 2020 as part of the first cohort elected under a new structure to Senate membership. This structure implemented changes from 2016 to Scottish law that were meant to make academic governance more democratic and responsive to universities’ academic communities. Starting in 2020, Senate has had 200 seats reserved for at-large academic staff elected by our peers (divided evenly between professors and other ranks, and among the university’s three colleges), 30 seats for elected student representatives, and up to 80 for office-holders designated by University Court, such as vice-principals, deans, and heads of schools. Previously, all holders of professorial chairs sat in Senate, together with senior managers representing the academic divisions of the university and a smaller number of staff and student representatives. This old structure reflected the longstanding principle that professorial chairs were the designated stewards of their specialist subjects at the university, and collectively responsible for academics. In practice, Senate operated more as a sounding board, with most powers delegated to management-dominated committees and the rest executed in ways that many felt were not conducive to asserting an authentic academic voice on issues that mattered.

With the new structure and its clear mandate to at-large elected academic members, academic staff had the chance to rethink what we took for granted and how we engaged with Senate processes. We had a large majority and the power to win votes where academics had a clear consensus that differed from management’s view, if only we could establish that consensus and find a way to translate it into Senate decision-making. (In practice we have had a much narrower majority than intended due to unfilled seats, especially those reserved for professorial chairs.) There has been a slow process of learning how to maneuver with formal procedures, from the initial shock of starting to win narrow procedural votes to developing a capacity to bring substantive policy and strategy priorities of our own to meetings.

For me, the breakthrough came at dinner after a seminar I gave at Durham. My hosts happened to be academic members of Durham’s Senate and were preparing for an upcoming meeting. I had spent the prior year in Edinburgh’s Senate asking a lot of questions and raising a lot of concerns, without really seeing much difference made to the facets of university life that Senate supposedly governed. My Durham colleagues raised the with-hindsight-obvious idea that at-large Senate members could only hope to make a dent in Senate activity if they did not wait until the stressful and formalized meetings organised by management to work out what they wanted to do and how to do it. I came back to Edinburgh and put together a mailing list, which eventually became a group on our university’s virtual collaboration platform, and began scheduling meetings just ahead of the formal Senate proceedings where, on the Durham model, academic staff could make sure we collectively understood what was on the table. The idea was not to form a voting bloc or establish a party line, but to prepare for the difficult setting of the formal meeting so that any points academic staff thought important to raise had a chance of being raised. Since then, we’ve made greater use of the collaboration platform to share ideas, answer each other’s questions, try to understand issues and procedures, and (most importantly) build a sense of community among Senate representatives to support each other in advocating for academic priorities.

Realising that we had to depend on each other to develop the ability to understand and intervene on Senate business opened up a lot of possibilities. We have started bringing proposals of our own to meetings, initially as amendments to management-driven offerings but more and more on our own initiative. Once we proved that we could reliably win votes in Senate meetings, senior managers have been a lot more interested in pre-empting formal Senate decisions—sometimes in suppressive ways that I’ve argued are really questionable, but sometimes by actually trying to collaborate and compromise with elected academic members before things come to a vote. One such compromise was placing at-large academics on each of the Senate standing committees where a lot (I would say far too much) of Senate’s formal power is still delegated (a holdover from the earlier Senate structure). Staff in these positions have been much more able to make smaller scale interventions that represent academics’ views.

This approach only works if it makes space for the full array of academic perspectives present among elected Senate members. I have been very careful to make all of our organising and collaborating as open as possible. That means that a little over a hundred elected academic members are part of all these activities, and we see in Senate votes that there is a large consensus in this group, including many who prefer a more passive approach to the background work. A smaller portion (perhaps a few dozen) are more active in preparing briefings, co-authoring formal papers, representing elected members on committees, and intervening in formal meetings. This is a big step beyond where we were in 2020, but there is still a long way to go to make Senate an effective instrument of the university’s academic voice.

Q: Do the university’s leadership typically respond appropriately and in good faith to criticisms and objections from academic staff, for example in Senate meetings?

It may be surprising to hear that behind the scenes I have had a lot of positive interactions with senior leadership (our Principal included!) around the renewed interest of at-large Senate members in academic governance. Senior leaders in this sector come in for a lot of suspicion and criticism, much very well deserved, and I am always trying to make the case to Edinburgh leadership that respecting and supporting academic governance is one of the best ways to demonstrate and shore up their legitimacy in the academic community. That’s not a view they have appeared to embrace outwardly, but backstage they recognise (at least some of the time) that nothing really gets accomplished in institutions that are so dependent on collegiality and good will unless a critical mass have bought into policies and initiatives. It tends to be easier to bring interested people into the fold than to fight to keep them out.

I have a lot of criticisms of our Principal’s approach to Senate, and I have been quite public about these. To his credit, he has set a model among our senior leadership always to take criticisms graciously (if not always as substantively as we would like, but we all have to prioritise according to our capacities and values). I know chairing Senate is not his favourite part of his job, and it certainly isn’t easy. His preference for informality and for deferring to others can be frustrating at times, but leaves plenty of space to explore and to challenge. We would be having very different conversations here if our executives took more locked-down, suspicious, or punitive approaches that we hear about from other institutions. I try not to take our circumstances for granted.

The last couple years have seen a small but noteworthy uptick in leadership interest to meet outside of formal channels to work out compromises that can avoid a formal showdown. Even where I think we have the votes for a preferable version of a proposal that management would rather avoid, I’ve tried my best to facilitate these kinds of compromises in the hope that we can get to a place where managers are more willing to work openly with elected academic representatives. The results have been mixed, but we’re trying.

It has been disappointing to see our Principal use his position of trust as chair of Senate meetings to put obstacles in front of good faith efforts to participate in governance. Most concerning has been a practice over the last year-and-a-bit of selectively blocking consideration of motions and papers from at-large members. The university’s lawyers have supported this practice, on stated grounds that I have a lot of trouble reconciling with how I read the laws and regulations regarding Senate conduct. The Principal regularly forces members to take up meeting time to formally move pre-submitted corrections to meeting minutes when they aim to record facts and statements from previous meetings that he may find inconvenient (we invariably win these votes), for example when we asked to minute an observation from an inquorate meeting that attendance had been affected by the denial of requested access accommodations for covid-vulnerable members. At-large members have been critical of his time management, which seems disproportionately to affect consideration of the substantive papers we have brought to Senate. Meetings definitely take longer when at-large members are engaged and prepared to make real proposals instead of just reacting to what we are given. We see this as a good thing, even as it has inevitably raised the stakes and increased the responsibility of the chair role.

I think my colleagues see through attempts by leadership to tar recent Senate developments as obstructionist or overly concerned with procedure. The fact is, we spend time wrangling over Senate formalities in precise proportion to the chair’s unwillingness to accommodate good faith interventions when they are offered less formally. I would have had to spend a lot less time over the last 12 months learning about what Scottish law says about universities if the chair had simply been willing to allow that academic travel policies affected our research and teaching in ways Senate was entitled to have an interest in. My very first clash with the Principal as a new member of Senate was over the deeply questionable practice of counting non-participation in an electronic consultation as affirmative (and quorum-conferring) assent, as a way of avoiding discussion of a contentious issue. (This came to a head later when a motion was deemed passed with zero yes votes and around half a dozen objections.) I am pretty sure he would have gotten the same formal outcome with a lot less fuss by just allowing a moment to discuss concerns before considering the matter settled.

Some people in leadership roles do appear to see academic interest in governance as the great resource for bettering the university that it is. I don’t think it is outlandish to hope that our leadership colleagues will develop a new consensus that this is worth supporting.

Q: What is the Senate at the University of Edinburgh supposed to do by law and custom? Does it make meaningful decisions or is it just a rubber-stamping body?

Universities are some of the world’s oldest continually operating corporations, and they have always had to navigate how to join financial sustainability and public responsibility with the various dimensions of scholarship that make up their academic missions. As far as I’ve come to understand it, universities in Scotland have since the nineteenth century operated in an evolving legal environment that respects those older customary prerogatives by dividing them among two entities for governance. University Courts see to the university as a corporate entity, including managing assets and auditing expenditures. University Senates take responsibility for the university as an academic entity, including matters of teaching, research, and discipline (to borrow some of the statutory language). Of course, as universities are corporations organised for academic purposes, these remits will necessarily intersect, with Court and Senate having different functions to fulfil where decisions have both academic and corporate ramifications.

As currently conducted, we see this legal framework in action most clearly in Senate’s formal oversight of teaching and discipline arrangements, reflected in periodic reviews and updates of policies as well as periodic regulatory exercises and consultation on reports. Our function as the body that grants degrees from the university is essentially symbolic, though we do get chances to think critically about the rules and conditions for those degrees. Other aspects of university work where Senate is customarily or legally required to be consulted tend to play out in ways that invite and accommodate a minimum of substantive scrutiny. I try to offer a few words of congratulations so that motions granting emeritus professorships do not pass completely without comment, for example, but nobody really expects these to be debated.

A hangover from the old Senate structure is that it has been very hard for elected members of Senate to be involved in developing or really seriously engaging with university policy and strategy in the way I think we are legally and morally meant to be. Instead, Senate formally has the ability to pass a lot of its powers to committees that are unrepresentative of the Senate’s full membership or the wider university academic community. (A particular dimension of this unrepresentativeness, the lack of racial or ethnic diversity on these committees, was the subject of a Senate motion adopted last year that university executives in committee leadership roles flatly declined to implement.) Management have shown themselves strongly committed to continuing the old custom of using delegation of powers to the maximum extent available, so that committees whose membership is controlled by university leadership and mostly made up of people in formal university roles can act in Senate’s name without having to seek or demonstrate engagement or support from the full membership of Senate, much less the university academic community as a whole. This feels to many of us like a way to make Senate a rubber-stamp on what are effectively committees of management. Such management committees definitely have a place in university administration! But they should be working with Senate oversight and engagement, not displacing it.

I have been very concerned by a recent development that threatens Senate’s integrity as a decision-making body. Ever since the full Senate started taking independent (i.e. not management-led) positions on policy and strategy issues about a year ago, the Principal and his team have shown us that they do not consider themselves bound (legally or morally) to respect or implement those decisions. University lawyers, again (and still in a way I find impossible to reconcile with the laws they tell me govern the situation), have supported this with formal findings that appear to imply that Senate has no authority to expect its decisions to have force if management do not want to implement them. I think it is short-sighted, independent of the question of legal authority, to treat Senate as a nuisance whose views can be safely ignored, and we have had to take independent steps even to inform the university community of what we are doing as its elected representatives. Without more support from University Court (we’re working on it!) we do not have much formal capacity to ensure that our decisions are carried out.

Q: How have your academic colleagues in Edinburgh reacted to your campaigning efforts in the University Senate? Have they been supportive? 

Support from colleagues has been resounding and very encouraging. By training and temperament, academics tend to favour approaches based on evidence, inquiry, collaboration, and a commitment to learning. This is what we’re bringing to academic governance here. There is also a strong sense of lacking a voice in how the university is run, with management-led consultations and initiatives struggling to convince staff at large that our engagement makes a real difference. Senate is definitely a work in progress, but it feels as though our approach is at least giving members and the wider community a source of hope that the university could work otherwise.

The one bit of scepticism I do encounter is the view that our approach has been too confrontational. My own tendency is to go into situations with a hefty presumption of trust and good faith, but to take seriously the accumulating evidence about the extent to which that presumption is justified. I often end up being at or near the noisy end of confrontations when they happen because that’s a role I’m relatively comfortable taking on, and it helps free other engaged colleagues to try to make things happen by other means. Confrontations are often the most visible aspects of engagement around governance, and I think our efforts come across to those viewing from a distance as more confrontational than they actually are. All the conversations and compromises behind the scenes are easy to miss. At the same time, when the university executive try to shut initiatives down instead of engaging I think we owe it to our academic colleagues to call that out and to use what few tools we have to push back.

At the same time, I also hear from colleagues who want to see Senate be more confrontational and do more to test what our legal powers can produce. I think all the behind-the-scenes work has made clear how dependent we are on certain kinds of cooperation from management, and how much this depends on a balance of constructive engagement, limited deference, and appropriate pressure. It’s a balance we’re still working on striking to the greatest effect.

Q: Where did your motivation to be involved in governance come from? Why should academics spend time and energy on matters of academic governance?

My own comfort with and interest in governance goes back to my childhood. When my grandparents arrived in the United States as refugees of the Hungarian Revolution, they decided to teach my young father and uncle about American democratic institutions by adopting a family constitution and holding regular family meetings with votes, minutes, and other democratic rituals. As scientists, my grandparents’ model for this was academic governance. With my own generation, they revived the custom during family gatherings, and I guess I caught the governance bug.

I carried that with me in university as part of the Telluride Association, an American not-for-profit (public charity) founded in 1911 by an industrialist-philanthropist who made his fortune supplying electric power to mines in the American West (including Telluride, Colorado) and was interested in the era’s grand ideas about liberal democracy. Telluride Association is a wonderful and very unusual organisation run by a large volunteer board of directors, most of whom are students or early in their careers (academic and otherwise). Everything in Telluride Association is, in principle, decided and executed on an egalitarian democratic basis. But to get things done in an organisation of that size one very quickly learns that in-principle democracy takes a lot of in-practice work and adaptation. A crucial feature of Telluride Association that I’ve tried to bring to Edinburgh’s Senate is the priority placed on peer education as a condition for meaningful democratic governance in a large decision-making body attempting to deal with complex issues. It’s a value that academics, as scholars and educators, really intuitively appreciate, but can sometimes struggle to implement in formal settings outside of the laboratory or classroom.

My own research on the history of modern scientific institutions has also helped me with the technicalities and the big picture of Senate. I do not research governance directly, but academic governance produces a lot of documents that are useful for what I do study, so it is a familiar genre in my work. It helps to go into settings like Senate with the conviction that we can understand them.

So much of good academic governance boils down to putting our academic values front and centre. We cannot let ourselves be bullied or mystified by the forms and norms of governance, which are perfectly capable of supporting the values of inquiry, rigour, collaboration, and understanding that we bring to our disciplinary specialisms.

For me, governance really speaks to a desire to understand and make sense of the institutions that matter to me. Universities can be tremendously alienating institutions. Even if governance is not (yet) giving us a strong sense of ownership of these institutions, it goes a long way toward making sense of them and counteracting the feelings of alienation many academics acquire. Working with colleagues in Senate is an energising chance to commit to our university as a collective academic project, and to get to know peers from across the institution in the process. It is a real affirmation of what is special about being an academic, of the distinctive privileges and responsibilities that come with pursuing knowledge in these ancient and evolving spaces.

I have to keep returning to those kinds of principles because, unfortunately, it remains to be seen how much of a difference academic governance may make on the kinds of policy, strategy, and operational questions we are meant to be engaging. Happily, these interests dovetail: the more widely the university community is able to commit collectively to our academic mission, the more we will be able to accomplish through collective governance, not just in Senate.

Q: Is it naïve to think that academic staff could achieve fundamental reform to the governance structures of their own universities? Should they try?

I’m cautiously optimistic. In Scotland, we have the example of Aberdeen University making major strides in governance through a broad-based effort of academic staff focused on their Senate. Colleagues in Cambridge have shown remarkable courage with some of their own comparable entities recently. The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act of 2016 that prompted our Senate restructuring was a major achievement by those interested in reforming university governance. In institutions this old and large, change is necessarily frustratingly slow, but it does happen and sometimes even happens for the better.

I think many of the tools are there already. The will is there. The time and energy needed has to compete with many demands on overburdened colleagues. But I have seen governance become a sustaining source of motivation and energy in its own right, and academics have plenty of practice juggling impossibly stacked time demands. Universities do not work without academics, and that is ultimately the hope for academic ownership of universities.

Q: Edinburgh was badly affected by the bungled transition to a new financial system, “People and Money”. How did this issue affect relations between academic staff and senior management? Have academics been able to hold the executive to account over this issue?

The botched People and Money (or ‘Pain and Misery’ as some have termed it) implementation has been a major rallying point within Senate, across academic staff, and uniting academic with professional services colleagues in seeking reparation and accountability from leaders who pushed ahead in spite of many worries and warnings of potential disaster. Our still-ongoing state of crisis has been a prominent reminder of the costs of central change projects that do not do enough to take on board the perspectives and experiences of the whole university with all its wonderful variations.

Elected academic Senate members came together during the early months of the crisis to demand that the obvious system failures be noticed, in contrast to a narrative of excusable ‘growing pains’ advanced by management who seemed to define success by having the software in place rather than whether it was fit for purpose. The massive outcry from colleagues surveyed independently by Senate members showed the outrageous stakes, with senior managers showing an unacceptable willingness to tolerate errors and delays in payments to our students, partners, and vendors, as well as a shocking apparent indifference to the new obstacles the system created for the diversity of academic work at the university. We now have an independent Senate-led mailing list with over 2000 staff to follow governance developments around People and Money, and Senate’s most effective intervention on this has been to provide an alternative to management narratives that clearly are not being adequately informed by the challenges colleagues see firsthand.

Elected members have also attempted to use our governance process to seek accountability. We passed a motion of no confidence in senior management over their handling of People and Money (it is still unclear to what extent University Court has been made aware of this; management have not acknowledged it to the wider university community), and asserted Senate’s right to be informed and involved in ongoing accountability and remediation efforts. Unfortunately, these are decisions that the Principal has been effectively content to ignore, although there are indications that they have had a nontrivial effect on Court’s own accountability work.

I don’t think staff trusted senior management very far with centralisation projects before, but we now have a shared point of reference for just how bad it can get. Whether and how that translates into real accountability or real efforts to mend staff-executive relations remains to be seen.

Q: Edinburgh has also been hit by the marketing and assessment boycott organised by the UCU in connection with their campaign over staff pay and conditions. What’s your take on this issue? Do you see a role for the Senate in helping to prevent or resolve employer–employee disputes?

Back in January I drafted a paper and a set of Senate motions that summarised the overwhelming consensus among academic staff members, that the executive’s practice of relying on mitigations to limp along from industrial action to industrial action was not sustainable and was not serving students, staff, or indeed the university well. Staff at Edinburgh have been disappointed by the reluctance of our leadership to make public displays of evidenced commitment to a viable negotiated national resolution to the industrial dispute. For obvious reasons, there is not a lot of trust in assurances they have given that they are doing everything they can behind the scenes.

Senate has formally asked our executive to recognise that the industrial action and its consequences are fundamentally academic issues, and the long-term failure to resolve the underlying issues represents an ongoing obstacle to fulfilling our academic mission. Well before the first joint UCU-management statements calling for a return to bargaining, we were asking our leaders to commit publicly to a negotiated resolution and to prioritise this over unsustainable local mitigations. It is now an officially established judgement of the university’s responsible academic body that the strategy our managers ultimately pursued is not consistent with the university’s academic priorities. I think it is important for Senates everywhere to be able to say this clearly and unequivocally, as we have: universities are failing in their legally enshrined and societally enduring academic obligations when they put strike-breaking ahead of resolving the underlying disputes.

The approval process for the mitigations and exceptions that have been put in place was a major point of contention during the second semester. Time management and related chairing decisions denied the full Senate the chance to discuss and decide at either of two meetings in advance of the start of the marking boycott how we would handle in an academically responsible manner the inevitable situations where students’ degrees or progression were affected. That left the formal authority in the hands of the management-dominated committee that handles routine reviews, updates, and exceptions to academic policies. Many of us feel that this committee rushed through a suite of under-studied exceptions (above the objections of our elected academic representatives on the committee), possibly departing from our regulations and related requirements, ahead of the Senate meeting where we were finally able to take up the delayed process questions. With the first set of major exceptions already in implementation under these questionable circumstances, we narrowly did not have the votes to restore fuller academic ownership of exception-making and mitigations. It was a hard loss, and the university has suffered mightily in the eyes of students and the public for management’s approach that bypassed the chance for full Senate consideration and legitimation. I think it is a real tragedy that Senate missed this opportunity to show our university and the sector what student-centred cooperation between management and elected academic representatives around academic standards could look like.

Going forward, we have yet more confirmation of the stakes and consequences of how Senate exercises and delegates what power it has. I think the full Senate will be a lot more cautious about how it allocates responsibilities and what roles committees may play to support rather than pre-empt thoughtful decision-making by academic representatives. It is important to the future of employer-employee relations and to universities as academic institutions that ownership of academic standards be in the hands of the university’s academics as a whole, and that academic standards and policies not become a management-owned escape-hatch or cudgel for employers to use against academic workers. Senate should be a proactive steward of academics’ shared responsibilities, and this may help those responsible for the corporate operation and corporate governance of the university to take an approach that prioritises enabling and supporting the vital academic work at the heart of the institution.


Dr Michael Barany is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. His research relates to the modern global history of mathematics, as well as mathematical, numerical, and algorithmic thinking in social and historical context. At his request, the contributors’ fee for this piece will be donated to the UCU Edinburgh Hardship Fund.