On Anniversaries, Serious Fun and Shadows  


by Les Back

03 July 2024

︎ credit : Azi Besherati

Editor’s note : On Monday 1st July 97 staff members across Goldsmiths received letters stating their jobs are at risk of redundancy. This total includes 17 staff working in the Sociology department. 

I returned to Goldsmiths to speak at the 30th anniversary for the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) on 17th May, 2024.  As a former Goldsmiths undergraduate and post graduate student and lecturer of 28 years’ service, it was a joy to see Laurie Grove and New Cross again in the sunshine.  An extraordinary occasion – showcasing three decades of scholarship and research driven by imagination, community engagement and public conscience. 

It was a beautiful occasion honouring the work that has been done to create a community of scholars within the unlikely home of Laurie Grove Baths.  This joyful reverie and playful seriousness had a shadow cast over it.  Many esteemed friends and Goldsmiths colleagues in the room had been threatened with the loss of their livelihoods by the institution that gave them an intellectual home.  This return was more poignant for me as I left two years previously in the last round of redundancies.  In the tea breaks and walking through the exhibition of CUCR’s work in the Kingsway corridor I listened with dismay to the reports on Goldsmiths’ ‘Transformation Programme’, and its plans for the Department of Sociology. It is truly shocking to hear that Sociology is facing a devastating level of redundancies which amounts to a kind of intellectual vandalism. 

The Sociology Department at Goldsmiths has pioneered and retained a reputation for disciplinary excellence and creativity, pushing boundaries through the theoretical and methodological perspectives and innovations it has enabled. This is evident in its development of, and dedication to, the concept of ‘Live Sociology’, and to the discipline-shaping work of its research centres -  the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) the discipline-shaping ‘Methods Lab’, the theoretical interventions of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought (CPCT), Political Economy Research Centre (PERC), and Unit of Play, and the high-impact interdisciplinary work of the Unit of Global Justice, Centre for Feminist Research, and Centre for Global Media and Democracy. Goldsmiths Sociology runs innovative degree programmes of the highest quality. I am truly amazed that Goldsmiths Senior Management have failed to appreciate the qualitative value that Sociology at Goldsmiths has contributed to the development of the discipline and to your institution’s academic reputation.

On Friday 28 March 2014 Goldsmiths Sociology celebrated its half century. Within a decade this intellectually vital department - both in teaching and research terms - has been pushed to the precipice of viability.   The decline and redundancies that will follow from the ‘Transformation Programme’ will eviscerate an incredible body of sociological scholarship and threaten to reduce it to a corpse fit only for autopsy.   It is a source of sadness and dismay that one of the architects of this academic mortification is a sociologist from our own professional ranks.  Under the pressure of this ‘transformation’ Goldsmiths sociology will disappear and be reduced to a mere historical relic. Despite the devastating impact of these changes, academics worldwide have continued to view the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths as one of the most innovative departments in the discipline.

Universities like Goldsmiths have no mechanisms for holding senior management accountable for their actions. The Warden of the institution, Francis Corner, is profoundly unpopular with staff. She has been the focus of multiple votes of no confidence, censure, but the governing Council of the institution is impervious to all criticism.  This is how the management responded to my own letter of complaint: “We recognise and share your appreciation of the distinctive contributions made by our Sociology department both to Goldsmiths and to the field. Though we are having to reduce our costs significantly, we are nevertheless very focused on upholding the academic integrity and excellence that Goldsmiths is known for.” Academic hokum or self-exculpating double speak this sends a message to faculty on campus across the country that no one is safe or secure. 

It matters because the lives of generations of Goldsmiths student have been transformed for the better from studying here including my own.  In the 1970s dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson studied sociology and while the department can’t claim credit for his success, he was encouraged and emboldened by sociology teachers like Paul Filmer.  When I returned to teach sociology here in the nineties, Paul Gilroy had an office downstairs in our building on Lewisham Way. Paul was one of the inaugural speakers at CUCR’s opening conference three decades ago.  The most perceptive sociological interpreter of black experience, Paul was an extraordinary colleague and an inspiring teacher.   In those days I would routinely notice a young black student from the art department waiting outside Paul’s office to see him during his ‘office hours’.   That 19-year-old student was Oscar winning film director and artist Steve McQueen.   

In 2020 Steve McQueen had an opportunity to acknowledge this debt publicly in a podcast with his former teacher who was for once lost for words. McQueen said: I first met [Paul] at Goldsmiths University. And I used to knock on his door… and he was always welcoming, and he was always open to talking to me as a 19-year-old. Could you imagine? He opened his door, and I used to sit down and just talk to him. So, if there's ever a lesson in that, it's just to listen to young people… I think if anyone out there is in the vicinity of younger people… just to give them a bit of time… So, Paul, again, weird me turning the tables on you like this, but thank you sir, thank you so much.”  Steve McQueen speaks for thousands of Goldsmiths students past and present who all have stories this from their experiences with the staff who have nurtured their ambitions. This is what is at stake in these cuts to Higher Education, namely the future of thinking and knowledge itself. The bloodless revolutions of thinking that take place routinely on any given day not only change the lives of students but also create the conditions for the writers, filmmakers, artists and community workers of the future to find their voices and document our culture and knowledge on a horizon that has yet to be imagined.  

Professor Les Back was Director of CUCR from 2017 - 2022 and is currently Head of Sociology at the University of Glasgow. 

︎ Background image : Azi Besherati