As a fifth year PhD Management researcher, sometimes it is a welcome change to give someone else’s research some feedback. Recently, I volunteered to review several papers for the annual conference of the Academy of Management, a professional association of around 20,000 management and organisation researchers from around the world. I have been stuck staring at a second review paper for nearly two hours. It is not the content of the paper, which is well written and researched and addresses a key gap in the field. One thought keeps gnawing at the back of my mind: University of Leicester wants to ban this type of research simply because it was submitted with the label ‘Critical Management Studies’.
There is not a universal consensus about what constitutes ‘critical management studies’ (CMS). Certainly, it can be scholarship that is critical of management, but it is much more than that. Businesses and organisations in general have faced a host of challenges over the past few decades. Issues stemming from changing technology and the nature of labour itself, climate change, gender, race, identity, culture, privacy, and many others have brought into question what worker welfare and managerial responsibility is or should be. CMS scholarship has attempted to address many of these issues drawing on a host of different academic disciplines. It is a loose confederation of scholars that are perhaps linked mainly by the common belief that the workplace should be better than they are.
At present, sixteen faculties within the School of Business are threatened with redundancy and many have been singled out due to past, present, and hypothetical future involvement with CMS. Using CMS as an identifying marker is problematic for a host of reasons. Here, however, I would like to share my own journey as a self-funded postgraduate research who has chosen to burn years of my own meagre savings at the university. And it all leads back to CMS.
I had been an international business lecturer in South Korea for four years before beginning the program at Leicester. It was a job I was not fully prepared for due to an academic background in literature, history, and conflict resolution. Still, happy for the chance to move beyond the usual English language teaching positions in the country, I dug into research to help mainly Korean students prepare for careers on the front lines of one of the world’s most educated workforces. Many students’ feelings of exclusion from the business course material quickly became apparent. American norms dominated the curriculum. Korean ways of thinking and behaving were rarely addressed, and when they were it was rarely positive. One textbook used openly disparaged Koreans by asking questions like ‘where have all the reasonable Koreans gone?’
I immersed myself in business-related books and journals hoping to find a way to include students in a subject that ignored their world. When I ran across the Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies, I read it cover to cover. Although none of the chapters dealt with Korea, important questions were posed. The more CMS books and articles I read the more interested I became in pursuing my own research on how the continued American military occupation and cultural influence impacted Korean business education. The question was what university would be interested in my research. Looking back at the Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies, author affiliations with the University of Leicester widely outnumbered other institutions. It was a clear signal that this was the place for me.
Friends tried to convince me that I should find a funded program, but I knew what and where I wanted to research. I was accepted to the Department of Management in 2016 and through many frustrations and organisational changes, I did not waver because of my belief in my research which was constantly encouraged by my supervisors. Nearing the end of my thesis writing, I may not identify my research explicitly with CMS but it remains the catalyst for choosing a PhD at Leicester. CMS has provided the interdisciplinary connections to challenge traditional research that doesn’t account for race, gender, and other inequalities within organisations.
If the University of Leicester’s historic role as a centre for CMS research wasn’t enough, the present #LeicsDecolonise campaign by the Leicester Students’ Union and the Colonial Countryside project seemed to indicate an institutional stand against oppression and racism. Consequently, it was shocking to hear how university administration wants to cut CMS scholarship: perhaps the greatest concentration of management and organisation scholarship concerned with calling out oppression in its many forms.
CMS is a vital part of the intellectual ecosystem at the School of Business. The proposed redundancies of CMS affiliated faculty send a message that researchers committed to asking difficult questions about oppression and discrimination are not welcome.
For me, it means Leicester leadership are rejecting the spark that inspired my research and informs my pedagogy. For my Korean students, it is a dismissal of scholarship that supports their ownership of knowledge production and practices within Americentric business curricula in their country. And that is unforgivable.
Ben Gross is a fifth year Distance Learning PhD researcher at the School of Business.