Danger and grieving in the university

Year: 2002

Author: McWilliam, Erica

Type of paper: Refereed paper

The purpose of this paper is to draw on understandings of danger and grieving as ways to make sense of academics' experience of change in the university. Following the anthropological work of Mary Douglas (1966), we theorise risk as 'danger' rather than 'odds'. We argue that the management of 'risk-as-danger' that is, the danger of waste, of failure, of lowering standards requires that all academics plug in to new systems of communication designed to minimise risk to the university as a large and complex organisation. This involves engaging with and valuing knowledge which is outside disciplinary know-how policy, marketing, ICT development, conflict resolution, and so on. Where academics experience a widening gap between their disciplinary 'know-how' and their 'professional expertise' (disciplinary know-how plus organisational know-how), it is possible that they will grieve the loss of their former claim to expertise. This grieving can appear to university managers to be a symptom of the refusal to change, rather than a part of the process of change. We argue that such grieving needs to be understood as other than simple resistance.