My goodness, a symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy recently on the standing of academics in the public sphere seems to have turned into a right old whinge-fest. A report on the event and the contributions made was carried in the Irish Times, and as far as I can tell every one of them used the occasion to moan about how little they were listened to by the general public, the politicians and the great and the good. And I wouldn’t mind, except that virtually all of those mentioned are hardly ever out of the media and are constantly quoted; they included UCD professors Declan Kiberd and Tom Garvin, TCD economist Brian Lucey, QUB’s Liam O’Dowd, ESRI chief Frances Ruane, and NUI Galway’s Donncha O’Connell.
And what sort of things were said? That Irish intellectuals were ‘despised, ignored and denigrated'; that modern universities were run (badly, I think was the implication) in such a way that there was a major growth of ‘silliness'; that academics were ‘failed by the politicians'; that there was an ‘an absence of a strong tradition of media engagement by academics in Ireland over the past 20 years'; that universities were becoming the R&D wing of the state; and more in a similar vein.
Where does all this come from? A quick glance at the opinion pages of Irish newspapers tells you very quickly that they are disproportionately given over to the analysis and recommendations of Irish academics, usually from Ireland but occasionally from the Irish academic diaspora. These contributions cover all shades of academic opinion, but probably with a majority coming from the particular perspectives that were prominent at this symposium. Academics make regular appearances before Oireachtas committees. They are frequently talking to camera during news and current affairs programmes on television. They chair or sit on lots of public committees. Actually, I know of no country where academic opinions are as prominently visible as in Ireland. For heaven’s sake, even I have a newspaper column. Not to mention blogs.
All of this is of course a good thing, and it is right that academic opinions should be heard in relation to matters on which they are expert. It does not necessarily mean that their recommendations must always be followed, but they should get some space. And they do. In spades.
So why all this complaining? What brought on all this hyperventilating? I suspect it is to do with the current state of anxiety about the future of the academy and the ability of universities to maintain a status of autonomy, in a disinterested relationship with key stakeholders. And those fears and anxieties have some substance and need to be addressed, while at the same time we need to look again at how and whether universities should adapt to a changing environment and different external expectations. But they will receive more thoughtful attention if we don’t distort the picture of how academic opinions are received at this time. I doubt, frankly, whether the report of this meeting will do much to advance the cause of the academic community.