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Weapons of choice for tree huggers

Outraged by Lancaster's links with an arms firm and the prosecution of activists, academics went on a word offensive. Adam James explains

In January, a peeved vice-chancellor e-mailed Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, to complain that "tree-hugger" academics were opposed to his university's partnership with a major arms-dealing company.

The e-mail read: "Some of the staff are worried that the military tie-in will alienate a section of our customer base (or 'students' as they insist on calling them). But I've been talking with our marketing people and they assure me that weaponry is 'sexy'."

"Outrageous!" you cry. But you may be relieved to know that the vice-chancellor in question is fictional. He is Nigel Wallups, the creation of a group of Lancaster University lecturers behind subtext , a fortnightly e-newsletter.

In best satirical tradition, Wallups's ramblings contain elements of truth. Lancaster has indeed established a "strategic partnership" with an arms firm, QinetiQ - a "leading defence security and technology company", as its in-house publication, LU News , puts it. In a climate in which such partnerships are no longer rare, subtext is the result of its creators' escalating concerns about the impact of corporate culture on academe. At Lancaster, nothing embodies this more clearly than the conviction of the so-called George Fox Six, students found guilty of aggravated trespass last year after a peaceful protest at a "corporate venturing" conference held on Lancaster's campus and attended by multinational corporations.

In fact, it was in a flurry of outraged e-mail exchanges over the protesters' trials that the idea of publishing an e-newsletter was floated. "The George Fox Six case stirred people up for reasons such as freedom of speech and the commercialisation of universities," explains Ian Reader of the university's department of religious studies, one of nine members on the subtext collective. He says staff are extremely annoyed how little information they were given about the decision to press charges against the George Fox Six and decision-making at the university in general.

In the past, dissenting voices might have used Inkytext , a now defunct e-newsletter collated by the late Gordon Inkster, a European languages lecturer, to express their fears. It took the George Fox Six case to highlight the void left by its demise in 2000, when Inkster became ill and died a few months later. It took just one meeting to assemble a subtext collective. In December 2005, the first issue of a publication intended "to be an alterative source of information about university governance and politics" and to "encourage a culture of questioning and speaking out" was e-mailed. The collective decided that subtext should land heavy punches.

Hence, its first editorial highlighted "the remarkable levels of distrust, anger and resentment" felt by staff over the George Fox Six case and signalled "the awakening of a certain solidarity and activism" among Lancaster staff. The first issue also criticised the centralisation of university management, payments to "branding" consultants, planned links with QinetiQ and pay.

Reader says the threat to independent academic pursuit, exemplified by the university's link with the arms firm, was significant in his decision to become involved. "Part of the problem with the QinetiQ issue is that no one knew what was happening," he says. "It raises questions about what the university is getting into. It is symptomatic of a wider relationship with commercial institutions. For me, there is a danger of academic standards being replaced by profits."

Subtext , now in its fourth month, has evolved into something of a cross between Private Eye for academics and a critical discussion forum run almost entirely via e-mail by people who, Reader says, almost never meet in person. As well as covering generic Lancaster politics, subtext has not shied away from targeting individuals, including two pro vice-chancellors: Bryan Gray, criticised for leading the university's controversial corporate governance plans, and Cary Cooper, ribbed for his plethora of media appearances. Moreover, astute readers will have deduced that Nigel Wallups is an anagram of the vice-chancellor's name, Paul Wellings. Subtext 's "Wallups' World" column is a platform for the leader of Lune Valley Enterprise University (Lancaster is in the Lune Valley) as he endeavours to model his university on a supermarket.

Such is the popularity of subtext that it has more than 600 subscribers, including senior managers. And despite its sharp criticisms of Lancaster, its website is hosted on the university server. It was because of subtext 's questioning of management that the decision to form an editorial collective was made - in particular, to shield individuals from possible management reprisals. The move to name collective members was deliberate. Apart from Reader, it includes Bronislaw Szerszynski, Lenny Baer, Steve Fleetwood, Patrick Hagopian, Gavin Hyman, John Law, Maggie Mort and Rhona O'Brien. "If we put out subtext anonymously, it would have fed into the very culture we were trying to oppose," Reader says.

Members of the collective believe this is because even though management may strongly oppose the editorial position that subtext takes, they recognise it has wide support within the university and is a medium for a legitimate voice, as was Inkytext. "There would be an uproar if management tried in any way to censor subtext ," Szerszynski says.

Even the university's public relations department insists that it takes pride in its institution's alternative publications. Vicky Tyrrell, the press officer, says: "Throughout its history, Lancaster has had unofficial newsletters, the most famous being Inkytext."

It seems generally accepted that subtext could be good for the university's health, so, does the university allow the collective to toil on the editorial in work time? "It is a lot of work," Reader confesses, but adds:

"It's never done during my working week. In fact, we have focus groups and consultants to do most of the work."

Subtext snippets

"Oh, the frustrations of being a dynamic, forward-thinking vice-chancellor in the hidebound world of the English university system! Honestly, Bill, what is it with academics? I announce a major deal with an international company - and do I get any thanks for it? Do I, Vegemite! Admittedly, the company concerned, Bombs-R-Us (mission statement: 'Clearing the ground for reconstruction') might not be to everyone's taste, but to listen to the squeals of the tree-huggers you'd think I'd signed a contract with the Prince of Darkness himself."

E-mail from Nigel Wallups, fictional vice-chancellor, to Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister, January

"Cary Cooper was NOT featured in the following media outlets on January 26: The Guardian, Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman and the Radio One Thrash Metal Hour "

'Not In The News' column, January

"Lancaster University needs people in positions of power, such as that of pro-chancellor who understand that academic activities are not the same as boilermaking"

Editorial referring to Lancaster University pro-chancellor Bryan Gray, deputy chairman of central heating firm Baxi Group Limited, December, 2005.

www.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/

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