Archive for June 2008

Birthday

June 30, 2008

It is just coming to the end of my birthday – and don’t say anything to me about it, it’s nearly over. On the whole I try to ignore my birthdays and pretend that the years are not rolling by. And typically as I wake up on June 30th, I tell myself that I look and feel younger than when I was 30; we all have a wonderful capacity to deceive ourselves. For all that, I am not given to worrying about my age. However, for a little while (and I won’t say how much of a little while) I have become aware that more than half of my working life is over, and that retirement is closer to me than are my student days. And because retirement is not a favourite item in my toolkit, the thought doesn’t please me.

It is, I think, time that we looked again at the whole concept of retirement. It was of course a great social advance when it was introduced as a social security measure in Bismarck’s Germany, but on the other hand the actuarial calculation that set the appropriate retirement age at 65 is now wholly inapplicable. We live longer, we are active much longer, and materially we expect much more. Therefore it has become quite simply unaffordable to put everyone on a pension, however funded, at 65. Neither private pension schemes nor the state’s social security system can manage to make the sums add up. The result is that increasingly people will have to retire without reasonable financial security, and that is madness. So for some time I have stopped trying to find arguments in favour of the traditional retirement pension framework.

I still do believe that those who really want to retire in their late 60s should be allowed to do so; but we should make that affordable by allowing (and occasionally encouraging) those who do not wish to retire to continue working. This will also help us deal with some impending skills shortages in key areas.

If you have your heart set on retiring at 65 and travelling around the world, good luck to you, and you should be allowed to do that. But if you want to continue as an economically active member of the community, whether in employment, in business or in whatever way you wish, then that should be possible too. We would all be the winners.

Finding our ethical compass

June 28, 2008

This morning I attended a meeting here in DCU at which our new Professor of Ethics, Dr Bert Gordijn, posed some very interesting questions. What, he asked, are the key ethical issues being debated publicly in Ireland, and who is leading the debate? And what are the taboo issues that are not being debated, and why not? This prompted a lively and interesting discussion amongst those present, and one of the recurring themes was whether in Ireland we really debated ethical issues at all.

All of this is worth dwelling on for a minute. We all know that the Ireland of 2008 is a very different country from that of 1978 or even 1988. Back in those days there were strong institutional influences – chiefly the church (or churches) – that fairly successfully entrenched, or appeared to entrench, a code for both private and public life. This code was strongest in what were euphemistically called ‘social issues’, which were really issues of sexual morality. 

This apparently dominant framework came under pressure, first from the various referendum campaigns of the 1980s on divorce and the right to life; the referendum results appeared to reinforce the old order, but not quite overwhelmingly, and the debates opened to public view alternative perspectives that got significant air time. There then followed the era of scandals, in business and in public life and later the church. And all that pushed us into the age of the tribunals of inquiry, which revealed all sorts of doubtful conduct and significantly enriched a large group of lawyers along the way, mostly at the taxpayer’s expense.

In the 1990s I was working in England, and I remember returning to Ireland one June early in that decade on an Aer Lingus plane, and as we were coming in to land at Dublin airport, the pilot (who was in jovial mood) quipped that we could be confident we were landing in Ireland because it was raining heavily and because the newspaper headlines were all about the Beef Tribunal. And in fact, any visitor to Ireland since then can have been confident that they would be able to read about this or that tribunal of inquiry during any given year, and probably still for some time to come. It’s hard to move on.

But is this how we need to behave in order to get a grip on ethical issues in Ireland? It often seems to me that we have started to see ethics through tabloid spectacles, and that we think morality is largely about identifying somebody else’s mistakes and then passing judgement on them. Immorality in this frame of reference is what ‘they’ have done, not what we do or what we tolerate. And so, while we still obsess about what happened in the planning of Quarryvale or whose money was used to buy a house in Drumcondra, we almost completely ignore much wider issues about business ethics, poverty, human rights, racism, and so forth; and this is probably because tackling these issues forces us to take a good look at ourselves, rather than pursuing the much more congenial pastime of condemning others. And despite my legal background, I don’t think that paying large fees to lawyers at the tribunals compensates for these omissions.

I am of the view that these tribunals have long outlived their usefulness, and far from helping us to create a more ethical society are actually serious obstacles to that end. We need to re-establish a sense of community that includes some shared understanding of ethics, an understanding that needs to be relevant to our own conduct in our daily lives. We need to be confident that those in positions of responsibility act in a morally upright manner, but we also need to be sure that we are doing so also, and that we have a society in which ethical behaviour is reinforced and valued. It is my hope that DCU’s Centre for Ethics and its new Professor will play a key role in that task.

Men in suits

June 26, 2008

Do you ever attend gatherings at which you wonder whether you are appropriately dressed? Well, you’re not alone in this.

To the best of my recollection, I have attended six meetings this week at which I was the only person not wearing a suit. That may tell you – though it needn’t be so – that at these meetings no women were present. But it also tells you that, in Ireland at certain meetings, we are all still very traditional in our tastes. As it happens, I very rarely wear a suit; it’s not that I disapprove of them, but I don’t like the air of formality they tend to convey. I do usually wear a tie – though not always – but I don’t tend to put on a suit more than about once or twice a month.

But actually, why are men in senior academic positions still so attached to such formal wear? In the business community it is now increasingly common to see men wearing informal clothes (albeit often very expensive ones). What is it that we feel we need to prove that makes us buck this trend? It is perhaps part of the outward formality that tends to mark out academic life: formal clothing (or if not formal, then usually remarkably old-fashioned) accompanying formal procedures and visible hierarchies.

One of DCU’s most successful student societies is the Style Society. I think I need to get in touch with them to get some advice on how universities can shed some of the excessively traditional image. Or maybe I need some advice just for myself, so that I can confidently start to discard the tie as well as the suit.

Equality and diversity in universities

June 25, 2008

Twenty years ago I was asked by the Conference of University Personnel Administrators (which covers the UK and Ireland) to address their annual gathering then taking place in Dublin on the topic of equality. I told them that, in my view, universities were full of people with liberal credentials and a commitment to fairness and equality; and yet the evidence was that they were amongst the very worst organisations when it came to equal opportunities. This was not only because of unenlightened management, but also because individual academics often behaved in a way that made real equality almost impossible to achieve. So while academics working on discrimination and equality issues often focused on industry as the place where most change was needed, my argument was that in the case of universities we’re not that different after all.

Twenty years on, and what has changed? Some of the statistics are now better, though nothing to be excessively proud of. More women and members of minorities are making it into senior positions. In DCU for example, half the members of my senior management team are women, including the Deputy President. However, there is still plenty of evidence of a glass ceiling, and of a rather macho culture that tends to pervade the organisation at many levels. An equality audit commissioned by DCU a few years ago revealed a number of issues we have needed to address, while also indicating that at some levels we had made some progress.

There is a good deal of evidence that equality and diversity issues are still a major problem for society – although the problem is much more complex than we would have thought in the 1980s. So for example, we are facing a pattern of serious under-achievement by young males at school and in early adulthood, which may create both gender imbalances and also potentially serious social problems. This phenomenon must on the other hand be set alongside the absence of a sufficient number of women and members of ethnic and other minorities in leadership positions. How easy it will be to maintain a stable and just society in such circumstances is something we have not given enough attention to.

In the meantime, universities often maintain a working environment which is unnecessarily aggressive and intolerant – as academics are used to defending their positions in strong terms. This often produces a particularly stressful environment which is not conducive to diversity. Whether university managements always set the right tone could also be debated.

Equality and diversity are important not just because they are morally right, but also because they are efficient and generate a creative environment. Universities must seek to be role models in this agenda. We are not close to that yet.

Higher education during an economic crisis

June 24, 2008

This morning the news was full of gloomy economic facts: Ireland is in (or will shortly be in) a recession. We also know that government revenues are running significantly below target. All of this means that public funding for education (and most other services) will almost certainly be squeezed in the coming year, and we are likely to face cuts. An already under-funded system will be put under further strain.

Higher education has traditionally been an easy target for cuts during difficult economic times. Public emotions are not usually aroused by lowering funding for universities. However, we need to reflect before we go down that road. During the economic bad times of the 1980s, this country was able to plan for a better future on the basis of low taxes, high skills and relatively cheap labour. The boom of the 1990s was largely built on that formula.

These options no longer exist for us. We are no longer a low cost economy, and no amount of recession will change that. International investors will not come back to create call centres and open manufacturing plants in Ireland. We still have low taxes, and they still matter, but other countries have also caught on to that, and on their own they will not get us out of trouble. Finding our way back into steady growth is now more complex than it was in the 1990s, but that’s the way it goes.

What we do have going for us right now is that we have successfully persuaded the international community that we are serious about a knowledge society, and that Ireland has committed itself to significant investment in high value research, and that we are therefore a good location for industrial research and development. This reputation has been earned by the creation of bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland, and by the Strategy for Science, Technology and innovation (SSTI). All of this provides the foundation for high value innovation, and it has been a powerful weapon for the IDA in attracting inward investment, and it has also supported new indigenous start-ups.

This reputation is however easily lost. Even a short pause in research funding in 2002 sent a damaging message to the international community that Ireland was not consistent about research, and it was not until the adoption of the SSTI that this was finally repaired.

In order for us to emerge successfully from the current difficult economic conditions we need to keep a steady nerve, and avoid giving the impression that higher education and world class research are things we support only in good times. If we are unable to demonstrate that now, the future will look very bleak for the country. But if we do remain consistent, Ireland should be able to avoid the worst damage of this recession, and continue to build on our growing reputation as a centre of innovation and growth.

So what does a President do?

June 23, 2008

Today I attended the quarterly meeting of the Irish Universities Association (IUA). Until 2005, this body was called the ‘Conference of Heads of Irish Universities’, known widely by its acronym CHIU (which everyone pronounced ‘chew’). During the current decade, the IUA has increasingly found a role for itself, and has coordinated the universities in their approach to various issues such as quality, funding, capital investments, and so forth. The IUA operates largely through the various university officers, and one university always occupies the chair (annually in rotation). The IUA Council (which was meeting today) consists of all the Presidents (or in TCD’s case, the Provost).

I have to confess that I am the senior university President in Ireland – by which I mean that I have been in office longest. I have seen a few Presidents come and go, and I guess every one of them has had a slightly different approach to the role. But then again, what is the role? We have got used to talking about Presidents as ‘chief officers’ (the term used in the Universities Act 1997), and often they are compared to corporate CEOs. But then again, universities are remarkably complex organisations, and contain strong expectations of collegiality and shared decision-making – as, in fairness, do many modern business corporations.

Traditionally the Head of a university occupied what might often have seemed a largely ceremonial role. While they would experience a good deal of deference in personal interaction, they could not expect much success if they tried to exercise command-style management. In fact, it could be quite difficult to identify where real decision-making power would lie. Before I joined DCU I worked in two universities, and I was never able to discover where the centre of decision-making was.

Many external stakeholders – including the government and industry – have expected universities to reform to the point where institutional strategy and efficient decision-making would become possible. But that has still left a fair amount of uncertainty as to what a President’s role should be.

I sometimes meet groups of visiting schoolchildren when they come to DCU, and occasionally I amuse myself by asking them what they think my job entails. Hardly any of them can even guess – although recently one young girl wondered if I were a ‘tour guide’. Maybe that is not a bad way of looking at it. We are on a tour of learning and discovery, and within the necessary academic autonomy there is room for some strategic guidance. The President – or at least this President – needs to represent the university to its external partners and stakeholders, and needs to ensure that the institution is internally coordinated and strategically focused on its opportunities. In one of my next posts on this blog I may describe my ‘typical’ day a little.

In the end, I doubt there is one model for this, any more than there is one ‘correct’ model for a corporate CEO; I know that we’re different. Different university Heads will have a variety of approaches. But what we all need to have in common is to recognise that what makes a university great is the work and dedication of its faculty and staff, and the qualities and achievements of its students and graduates.

Have we lost the ability to read and write?

June 22, 2008

Probably about once a week somebody will say in the course of a conversation at which I am present that today’s younger generation cannot read and write. The implication always is that it used to be better and that standards have slipped. And then someone will suggest that, when s/he was younger, everybody would have read most of the novels of Charles Dickens and could quote Shakespeare at will, and moreover could write just like the bard.

I tend to take the view that – no matter what the subject may be – there was never a golden age. We develop, and our priorities change, and these changed priorities are reflected in people’s activities, skills and preoccupations. But when I look more specifically at how literate today’s young people are, I find very little evidence that they are less so than their parents.

A few years ago I was chairing an interview panel in my last university, the University of Hull. One of the candidates for the post had attended the local Winifred Holtby School. When we were told this. I turned to my fellow interviewers to see how many of them knew who Winifred Holtby was. In fact, she was a celebrated local novelist, whose book South Riding is a classic. Of the seven interviewers in the room, only one could tell me the name of a novel written by Holtby – and of course the person concerned was the youngest present.

In my experience, people read and write at least as much as previous generations did. In fact, it is arguable that the internet, with its easy access to information and its platforms for correspondence (email) and authoring (blogs), has galvanised a whole new generation of intensive readers and writers. I might add just two caveats: one, the possibly negative impact of the ubiquitous SMS texting, though I also believe that this may be an ephemeral medium; and secondly, the fact that the disappearance of Latin from the school curriculum has deprived people of the basic tools for understanding and correctly applying the rules of grammar.

I do believe that universities should be guardians of literate culture, and should promote opportunities to enjoy and to participate in creative writing and poetry, both for their primary stakeholders and for the general public. But they should not do that from the perspective of nostalgia for an era some may remember but will never have experienced, because it didn’t exist.


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