Sunday, 3 October 2010

Blow Your Own Trump-et

A few days ago, while filling in a job application form, I got to the section which asked about my education. For the first time when writing down the awarding body for my degree I was genuinely embarrassed. Over the years I have joked and been somewhat light-hearted about my degree from The Robert Gordon University, but on this recent occasion I was actually unsure whether declaring it would do me more harm than good, given the recent news that the University is to confer an honorary Doctorate on Donald Trump.

My studies actually took place in Grays School of Art, which has long sat uncomfortably with its parent institution from the perspective of both staff and students, and until August this year I was in the employ of RGU working as a technician out of Grays. While I am extremelly proud to both have studied and worked at Grays alongside some of the most committed, hard-working and talented professionals in the arts field whose compassion, integrety and moral fibre are second-to-none, my association with RGU is leaving an increasingly bitter taste in my mouth, given the institution's lack of regard for it's external perception and lowering moral code. It appears that The Robert Gordon University, like Aberdeen City and AberdeenShire Councils, is very much for sale.

RGU this year introduced a "Conflict of Interest Policy" for staff. The timing for this particular piece of legislation was extremelly odd, as it came in at a time when the university's figurehead: its Chancellor, Sir Ian Wood was driving forward a plan for a "Civic Square" (Or garden, depending on which particular demographic is being lectured) on the site of Union Terrace Gardens, which regular readers of this blog will be very much aware. On 19th May this year Aberdeen City Council voted to progress Wood's scheme, backed by economic body ACSEF which meant abandoning a 75% Funded, Fully Planned and previously approved scheme for a Contemporary Arts Centre within the Gardens being brought forward by Peacock Visual Arts.

Peacock was "established in 1974 by a group of artists, led by Arthur Watson" who were all recent graduates from Grays School of Art, similarly the majority of arts initiatives in the North East: Limousine Bull, Project Slogan, Creative Cultures Scotland, SMart Consultants, Vernier Studios and, more recently, the 26 Artists Collective have been set up by Grays Graduates within the city. Most of these are run voluntarily, and are committed to improving the cultural landscape and exterior cultural perception of Aberdeen while providing space and opportunties to Artists to encourage them that it is possible to live, work and maintain a practice in Aberdeen. They attempt to counterbalance and stem the yearly pilgrimage of Grays Grads to Glasgow, Edinburgh, London or the many other cities in the country which have invested in their cultural infrastructures. Each of these organisations, as was Grays School of Art, were intrinsic to the development of Peacock's "Northern Light Centre", and the development of the centre was intrinsic to the future ambitions of these grassroots initiatives. If Peacock, as a business, could develop to the stage it was so close to being, then so could any one of them, and the opportunities and exposure which would come with having a visionary Cultural Centre would only feed into the aspirations of the smaller initiative, encourage others to be established and allow a healthy growth in Aberdeen's Cultural Sector similar to those shown elsewhere.

The conflict, however, comes into play when we consider Sir Ian Wood's aforementioned position as Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University. Wood's initial announcement of his £50 Million investment into a possible Civic Square came mere weeks after Peacock were granted planning permission and a £3 Million grant from Aberdeen City Council, and meant that in its current form, with Scottish Arts Council Funding being specific to the development in the Gardens that the two schemes were incompatible. Part of Sir Ian's roles as chancellor is to be "titular head of the University and confers degrees, diplomas and other awards", this particular role almost led to a direct conflict when this year's graduating group from Grays began to arrange a "Call to request Sir Ian Wood's absence from RGU graduation." Part of this call outlined how the students felt that "After his successful bid to ruin union terrace gardens, and very possibly our futures, showing his face at our graduation would be a very bad idea."

Returning to the upcoming Doctorate being presented to The Donald, a statement from Professor John Harper, Acting Principal of RGU justified the move saying "Given that business and entrepreneurship lie at the heart of much of the university’s academic offering, it is only fitting to award Mr Trump with an honorary degree. He is recognised as one of the world’s top businessmen, and our students – the entrepreneurs of tomorrow – can learn much from his business acumen, drive and focus." To put this statement in perspective, it would only be just to have a closer look at Mr Trump's "business acumen, drive and focus" and see exactly what it is that RGU deems important for its students to learn.

Donald Trump is listed in the Forbes 400 Rich list as the 153rd Richest Man in America (488th in the world) worth $2.4 Bn, having inherited his father's real estate business and managed to steer it to generate further wealth, but the road has not been smooth for The Donald and The Trump Organisation. Trumps business interests hit the skids during the last global recession in the late eighties and by May 1991, found himself "more than $3.8 billion in the hole and sliding perilously close to a mammoth personal bankruptcy" which cost him " his beloved Trump Princess yacht, the Trump Shuttle, the Regency, his half- interest in the Hyatt and his 27% interest in the Alexander's store chain, he will retain the Manhattan trophies he values most: the Plaza Hotel, Fifth Avenue's Trump Tower and a valuable tract of undeveloped Hudson River waterfront." Although Trump "eluded the specter of personal bankruptcy by whittling his debt down to more manageable proportions. The amount of debt that Trump guaranteed personally -- several hundred million dollars -- is breathtaking even by the standards of the '80s." While Trump escaped personal bankrupcy, it was his "Banks and bondholders who had lost millions of dollars due to his liquidation" and The Donald was off to do it all again - a year later.

In 1992 "A Federal bankruptcy judge ... approved a prepackaged bankruptcy plan for Donald J. Trump's Plaza Hotel, giving a 49 percent stake in the luxury hotel to Citibank and five other lenders" allowing Trump to again escape personal bankruptcy and remain in place as CEO at the Trump Organisation. The hotel was unable to make its debt repayments of a mammoth $550 Million Dollars "We're really pleased with the deal," Trump said. "It's 51/49 split with a major reduction in debt. Once again Mr Trump's debt was picked up by others and he was free to continue trading, until 2004 when Trump Hotels filed for Bankruptcy. Perhaps Professor Harper's reference to The Donald's business acumen can refer to the amount of time's hes run a business into nine-figure debt and managed to escape unscathed?

In relation to his "drive and focus" we need to look no further than the Menie Sands and the way the Trump Organisation have dealt with the task at hand, the Trump International Golf Links. Since Trump announced his plans in March 2006, the development has been riddled with controversy. His announcement came with the statement that he had "never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic sea side landscape", which he obviously felt he had to do something about and make sure it was spoilt post haste, despite the area being a recognised Site of Scientific Interest. He put a halt to a planned offshore wind farm as "I am not thrilled - I want to see the ocean, I do not want to see windmills"; He has publicly described a resident as a "loser who is seriously damaging the image of both Aberdeenshire and his great country" and a "village idiot"; His organisation have intimidated Horse riders using the dunes; allegedly Harrassed neighbours; Had two respected Video Journalists arrested, despite granting them permission to film; Intimidated and detained an opponent Councillor, with right-hand man George Sorial saying "Our complaint is that she broke the law – she is a trespasser" (Despite there being no tresspass law in Scotland); Told Local home owners to "clear off" during public exhibitions of the Course plans. Trump's practices have been criticised by Aberdeenshire MSP Mike Rumbles "While this is all procedurally correct, this behaviour by the Trump Organisation is morally unacceptable. Compulsory purchase powers were never designed to aid commercial companies in their pursuit of business advantage." Putting this together, does this sound like a man who should be a role model for students and held as an example to RGU's "entrepreneurs of the future?"

Former RGU Principal, who oversaw the upgrading of the University from a technical college, Dr David Kennedy was one of many who do not think so, having returned his own Honorary Degree in protest. Dr Kennedy was principal of the university from 1987-1997 and was awarded a honourary Doctorate in 1999 for his services to the University now feels that he "would not want to hold the award after Mr Trump has received his" as "he should not be held up as an example of how to conduct business." Dr Kennedy then went on to question the motives behind the conference of the Degree, saying "I think the degree has been given in the hope of receiving some money back in return.”

Robert Gordon University have been courting Trump for several months, with Fashion Students at Grays being commissioned to Design a a new Tartan for the tycoon, as his mother's MacLeod tartan is obviously not exclusive enough. Obviously this may be seen as a "sweetener" in a similar style to Aberdeenshire Council's £5 Million worth of land "gifted" to The Donald as RGU are indeed looking for some ready cash, in a time of widespread recession when most Universities are feeling the pinch, only in March were "Plans for a £170m development of Robert Gordon University's campus at Garthdee in Aberdeen ... approved", which are not to be confused with a previous masterplan which was supposed to be brought forward in 2006 "in the pursuit of improved teaching and research facilities by 2015." RGU makes it clear that "The University’s Masterplan has undergone significant change since the original was submitted for approval in 2006."

In fact, this new development Masterplan is so radical a departure from the previous one that it facilitated the rebuilding of RGU's treehouse nursery, relocated to the site of the Grays School of Art car park on the very western edge of the campus, mere six years after the opening of the previous RGU Nursery which was located at the opposite end of the campus, where the new, new building is now expected to go. Ironically, the day the builders moved in to Grays, RGU's Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and the Built Environment launched a series of lectures about "sustainability." Odd from a University who's commitment to sustainability sees a building constructed, discarded and rebuilt within a six-year period. The construction of the new Treehouse Nursery, being situated on the previous Grays School of Art facilitated the construction of a new car park, taking up a vast majority of the lawn in front of the school, a much loved and much used asset to the campus is now a car park. Originally described as temporary is now a permanent tarmaced compound for staff already taxed £16 a month for the priviledge of getting to work. Spoiling the aspirations of Aberdeen's Artists by building a car park on a garden, RGU's chancellor would be proud.

Grays School of Art, despite its prestige, reputation and 125 year history as one of the worlds leading Arts Institutes (over a hundred years older than RGU itself), regularly gets a bum deal from it's parent institution. Frequent space audits are carried out through the School, and the staff-student ratio is embarrassingly low. Gray's eleven courses are staffed by around 40 members of Academic Staff, most of which work part time, meaning that, in some cases, there can be two or three days of a week when there are no academic staff available for students to visit, the rest of the time these staff members are so stretched with commitments for tutorials, seminars, crits and meetings that often students can go for weeks without having any contact with academic staff. Which is hardly a valuable system of support.

Despite this, and due to the School's mounting deficit a letter was sent to all staff last week inviting them to a meeting to discuss a "restructuring" of the School to combat the "significant financial challenges, including a projected budgetary deficit for 2010-11of some £300k, which would be circa £370k if left unchecked by the end of this academic session.", with members of the University HR Department and Trade Union representatives also in attendance. While the School's budgets each year are given back from RGU from Student fees, the University retains a 46% top slice and should the School oversubscribe, 100% of the fees from the number of students above the "cap" is retained by the University. This money which is retained by the University is for spend on support department, such as HR, Student Services, Marketing, Branding and Estates, who are bringing forward the £170 new campus "masterplan." One would think that in these current financial times the University's focus would be on education, however it seems hell bent on making cuts to frontline education services while making lavish spend elsewhere.

There are so many layers of management within The Robert Gordon University that those at the top are completely unaware of how the University operates at its core, and the priorities are skewed far from that of education and the student experience. As a recent article in The Times Higher Education points out, in reference to the pay of University Vice-Chancellors being similar to company CEOs:

"For those rises in salaries have been accompanied, and facilitated, by the gradual accretion of authority by managers over the institutions for which they work.

This has now reached the point where it threatens academic freedom, damages Britain's reputation and risks impairing the ability of universities to undertake effective teaching and research."

"As this has happened, many vice-chancellors have indulged themselves with all the glories of corporate managerialism, and cutting back on these first of all, rather than on teaching and research, seems to be a low priority."
Indeed, as the title of the article points out "Universities are not Businesses", however as John Harper pointed out in relation to Trump's degree " business and entrepreneurship lie at the heart of much of the university’s academic offering" obviously some of that has rubbed off on the institution, like big businesses, RGU is obsessed with development, and statistics, being bigger and better than other universities, the very fact that the University's Chancellor has been chosen because of his own "business acumen", as have several members of the board of Governors, could suggest that the University wishes to operate like a business, and that this operational method is what should be transferred to its students for the best operational practice.

Indeed Sir Ian's opinion of Universities and the way they are run was demonstrated in a 1994, ten years before his appointment as RGU Chancellor, article in The Independent. "He is delighted he did not become an academic. 'I would have been disastrous,' he says. 'Universities are very political, working by a strange form of democracy. I like straightforward lines of control.'" An odd sentiment, but nonetheless fitting for the University he heads, one could see the implimentation of RGU's "Conflict of Interest Policy" as a way of strengthening these straightforward lines of control throughout the university, as a way to silence opposition and criticism from those Academics for whom it is their job to think criticially, hold opinions, make independent decisions and hopefully transfer that to the student body. This policy introduction could be a way of ensuring obedience from Academics within an Academic Institution which wishes to be a business, but it works both ways, there could be seen a direct conflict of interest between the machinations and intentions of the University's heads, managers and governors and the remits of the Schools to teach and support learning and encourage critical thinking within its students, and of course RGU's coveted "Investors in People" accolade.

Aberdeen Voice has announced that the Ceremony to confer on Donald Trump his honourary Doctorate in Business Administration will happen this Friday (8th) 10a.m. at the Faculty of Health and Social Care, at RGU's Garthdee Campus. Tripping Up Trump will be presenting a petition this afternoon to John Harper asking for the University not to Honour Trump, there is still time to sign.

In order to counter the possible use of Compulsary Purchase Order, the campaign group have bought a piece of Michael Forbes land, The Bunker, which is apparently "required" for the development and are asking people to add their names to the deeds, you can sign up to The Bunker Here.


misssy m said...

As always, Fraser, an outstanding post. If anyone ever asks me what the City Square debacle is all about I just direct them to your blog. I will do the same in the Menie Sands/trump debacle too.

Francis Convery said...

excellent Fraser..

Alexandra (still at Gray's) Kokoli said...

Hi Fraser, this is fantastic -- so much evidence and powerfully argued too. I supposed you've been briefed about yesterday's meeting at Gray's... ouch!

Jaki Sinclair said...

Impressive as always. Factual, truthful, extremely interesting!

Dean said...

Oh boo hoo. There are jobs for people other than art school graduates created thanks to the plans. The increase in tourism that will come directly from the Trump plans will do more for your prospects as an artist staying in Aberdeen than any venue to show off your work.

I get where you're coming from but you've got to look at the bigger picture. Everything and everyone is there to be bought and sold - if it doesn't match your particular code of ethics then tough. Live with the result and don't whine about it. What's been done is not illegal, it may be slightly shady but that's life.

Also; you got a degree - well done.

Schrodinger's Human said...

There are murmurings from current students that a radical percentage of jobs are already on the line. If this is the case then what about all those currently studying at Gray's, on top of those who are at risk of losing their position. These are individuals who have applied with the aspiration to study art and design, not merely to create for 'industry', as the university seems to be headed towards... What of their study and future career paths; how will they be recompensed? In a society where everything is geared towards economic growth simply for growths sake, what are we working towards? Without a sense of culture, of community, what do we need economic resources for, really? Because what would we be living for? The economy is meant to facilitate actual progress not simply be self-facilitating. For anyone who occupies any sense of purpose, who does not believe everything and anything is simply there to be bought and sold, the future's not looking too bright...

Schrodinger's Human said...

Also in response to Dean- "Everything and everyone is there to be bought and sold" That isn't anyone's code of ethics, as what you said is not by any means ethical.

Dean said...

Schrodinger's Human - "Everything and everyone is there to be bought and sold" obviously means public and private land, and the people who govern it. The system is crooked and everyone with a brain knows it. Aberdeen city council are very good at taking money from their friends for projects that will keep them in a job for years to come, it's a conflict of interest. I wouldn't worry about it too much though, it's the same everywhere else.

Schrodinger's Human said...

I'm perfectly aware of everything you just stated; it doesn't make it right, no matter how apathetic society has become. And I'm sure most hadn't expected it to hit education in quite so sudden and crippling a manner.

Fraser Denholm said...

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men stand by and do nothing."

Freddie Ryder said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Freddie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fraser Denholm said...


I removed your comment as it contained some pretty choice language directed at an individual which I did not find appropriate for the comment section. I would have preferred to contact you to discuss, however you left no contact details so I had no choice but to remove it. Far from being a ""negative" comment about the question", your comment was simply making an attack upon an individual person and added nothing to the debate.

I also believe that you are missing the point somewhat with your statement. The very nature of redundancies mean that the role is removed, and therefore the individual staff member cannot be replaced. I'm unsure, given your complaint about you and your peers never seeing your tutor, how you think that shedding 12 Full Time Equivalent Staff members from Grays could improve this situation.

Freddie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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I think the use of 'lol' deems you and your comment pointless.

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