An Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor of Leeds University
Dear Sir Alan [Langlands],
A decade ago, when my late husband, Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, was assembling his Collected Critical Writings, he decided to dedicate the work not to any single person, but ‘To the University of Leeds, in memory of Edward Boyle’.
There was a reason for this. It was the Department of English at the University of Leeds, under the headship of Professor Bonamy Dobrée, that had appointed Geoffrey to a post as lecturer while he was still in his early twenties. It was at the University of Leeds that, for twenty-five years, he established himself as a poet, teacher and scholar of literature. It was at Leeds that he found the security to let his mind range, and to think and write. He was in the English Faculty at Leeds when he published his first four books of poetry; the first essay in the Collected Critical Writings was his inaugural lecture as a professor there, and the Geoffrey Hill archive now resides at the Brotherton Library.
Geoffrey knew how much he owed the University of Leeds, and, reciprocally, the University recognised the degree to which he adorned it. It was Leeds that first awarded Geoffrey an honorary D.Litt. and it was at Leeds that I had the pleasure of meeting you at the memorial event that the English faculty held for him a year ago this month.
All this is in my mind now as I write to urge you to consider changing your mind and your stance on the collective action by the staff of the University of Leeds. One of the precontractual assumptions of the life of a university is that one generation of great and original teachers and scholars will follow another. This is not to be confused with what I fear is the assumption of the managerial university: that teachers and scholars are infinitely interchangeable and replaceable. It would do grievous harm to the future of the University if the conditions that allowed for the work of minds like Geoffrey’s came to an end. It would do great harm to the country if there were to be no more poets, scholars, scientists and, above all, university teachers coming from the working class. Were this to be the case, Geoffrey’s archive in the Brotherton Library would stand, not as an inspiration to students, but as something analogous to the model skeleton of Dippy the Diplodocus which stood for a century in the entrance hall of the Museum of Natural History in London.
Will you not reconsider? Will you not see your way clear to putting your name and position behind an independent review of the USS pension fund? Will you not acknowledge, as so many other vice chancellors now have done that UUK have got this matter wrong? The culture of precarious employment: fixed-term contracts, hourly pay and, now, pensions cut so that they offer no hope of a dignified old age, has meant that the generation of university teachers who should be at their most creative and productive have had to delay marriage, delay having children, delay making homes for themselves. Do you not see how this creates a constant background state of anxiety that inhibits the life of the mind? Had such conditions been present when Geoffrey was at the University of Leeds, I have no doubt whatsoever that there would have been no Collected Critical Writings.
Secondly, may I urge you to reconsider the stance that the University of Leeds has taken on Action Short of a Strike? I refer to the cutting of staff wages by a quarter for ‘partial performance’. Might you, clearly and unambiguously, join Leeds with those universities which have recognised that the action that university teachers are taking in protest at the pension reorganisation is for the good, not just of themselves, but of the future of higher education in this country? It would be brave, wise and honourable if you did.