The Last Post

Posted April 30, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: blogging, higher education, university

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Nearly eleven years ago, in June 2008, I published my first post on this blog. Just a little earlier I had joined Facebook and Bebo (remember that?), and I was about to join Twitter. I was at the time President of Dublin City University, and I had become convinced that university heads needed to be more visible to those whose lives they affected, whether faculty or students. They should come clean about their views so that these could be challenged or discussed, and indeed so that there could be conversation and debate about the strategic educational, cultural and social role of the university and the wider sector.

So here we are, then – 2,318 posts and some one-and-a-quarter million views later, and I’m trying to figure out how much of it ever mattered. Well, nothing in this blog changed the world, and I’m afraid it didn’t start a trend. Some university heads now use social media (and many of these use it more wisely than I did), but few present their views in detail and invite comment, which is what I hoped might follow. But if it didn’t change the world, it did get noticed: over these 11 years this blog has been quoted in newspapers and magazines around the world, in at least 12 countries. And as is absolutely appropriate, it has been criticised here and there, with someone quite reasonably suggesting that it was all ‘unbelievable drivel’ written by someone with an ‘incredible ego’. Who could argue with that?

Well, you may have noticed that I have framed all this in the past tense – this will be the last post. I retired from university leadership eight months ago, and what I might say now would be increasingly uninformed. There are other interests and goals that I am now pursuing, and while I will continue to watch what happens in higher education (and may occasionally tweet), it seems a little silly to think that I have something especially valuable to say about it. So there will be no new posts published here, though the blog, as long as WordPress continues, will remain online.

I am grateful to the unexpectedly large number of people who have read this blog or subscribed to it, and to those who occasionally wrote guest posts for it. I am grateful to the many people who wrote comments – over 16,000 comments were contributed. I have learnt from these and occasionally changed decisions on the basis of comments here that had persuaded me. I am more grateful still to the many women and men who work in higher education, as students, teachers, scholars, information professionals, support workers, technicians and others. I have noted from time to time that most of these people do not get the credit they deserve, and unfortunately they often do not get the support and security that reinforces integrity and freedom.

I may, in time, reach for my pen (or my keyboard) to start another blog; but if I do it will be on topics other than higher education. But as I leave this blog behind, here are my hopes for universities and the higher education community: that there will be a greater appreciation of the value of our institutions; that they will have access to the resources that will sustain scholarship and learning; that people studying and working in higher education will be given the respect and working conditions that is their due; that there will be no abuse of power or bullying in future; that no one will ever again feel abandoned and lost in the system to the extent that they despair of life; that scholars will continue to change the world with their discoveries and critiques; that universities will engage still more with the wider communities that they serve; that university leaders exercise (perhaps to a greater extent than I always did) a degree of humility and recognise the value of collegiality.

When I demitted office as President of Dublin City University in July 2010, I said in my farewell address to the DCU community that, in the end, we manage best when we remain optimistic. So that is my parting wish to all of you who engage in higher education: that you will always end up believing that the values of higher education will win. We have to believe that.

The age of reason

Posted March 14, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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Here are some extracts from a newspaper article this week:

Iain Conn, 56, chief executive of the British Gas owner Centrica, predicted at an event in Houston, Texas, that Britain would secure a delay past March 29…

Greg Clark, 52, business secretary, addressed business leaders on a call yesterday after the government revealed that 87 per cent of imports would not face duties under a no-deal Brexit…

Leo Quinn, 61, chief executive of Balfour Beatty, said the construction sector stood to benefit once uncertainty was eradicated…

Carolyn Fairbairn, 58, director- general of the CBI, called on ministers to seek a delay to Brexit that is “as short as realistically possible”…

Don’t worry about which newspaper this is, it could have been any of them. But why exactly are we being told the ages of the dramatis personae referenced here? Is it to show that key business figures all come from the same general age group? Or is it because that is what newspapers and other media outlets do, for no good reason at all?

I would suggest that it is time for this subliminal ageism to come to an end. The age of a particular person in no way either validates or invalidates what she out he may are saying, and indeed is irrelevant in almost every case to a story. If we have to qualify the person in some way, why not choose something different and much more interesting? Why not, then, refer to Joseph Freeman (favourite vegetable: asparagus), CEO of Traytime plc? Or Frances Mapton (motor cyclist), Finance Director of Traytime plc? That would be less ageist and more entertaining.

And again: what is higher education actually for?

Posted February 28, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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There is a wonderful caricature of higher education, Microcosmographia Academica, which was written in 1908 by the Cambridge classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford. In this, with his tongue somewhat in cheek, he offered advice to the aspiring young academic. Much of it will not seem dated to contemporary readers. Amongst the nuggets of advice is this:

‘The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect.’

Cornford is said to have inspired some of the dialogue in the BBC series Yes Minister, which indeed also offered some analysis of the academy in some of its episodes. Not that we need to look outside the universities to find a cocked eyebrow at what goes on inside – there novels of David Lodge are but one example. But are we really all so cynical about higher education, and does this matter?

It does matter, because all joking aside, higher education matters. And the moment you say that, everyone goes off in search of the one true purpose, meaning and objective of the university system, something that can be boiled down enough to satisfy both Cornford’s Cambridge and Laurie Taylor’s Poppleton University.

There are many reasons why universities struggle so much to get proper public and official support (not excluding the preference of policymakers for anecdotal rather than empirical evidence when they go forth to bash institutions), but one of them is that all of higher education cannot work to the same vision and strategy, nor should it. But if we pretend that it does, or manoeuvre excessively to make it seem that way, we open up all sorts of chasms of incredulity that separate universities from their hinterland of natural support. We also slide into increasing discontent by members of the academy itself, as the very compelling article recently in the Irish Times by my former DCU colleague Greg Foley sets out.

Universities, individually even more than in higher education sectors as a whole, need to discover or re-discover a sense of mission that works specifically for them and is shorn of the cynicism that often accompanies such exercises, and to remember that this mission, whatever exact form it takes, is all about the educational, social, scientific, cultural and scientific empowerment of societies; which is what unites all of higher education.

In his advice to the young academic, Cornford offered the following insight:

‘There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’

That’s a good place to start.

Bullying in universities

Posted February 19, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Most universities make a genuine effort to maintain a culture and atmosphere in which people – students and staff – can thrive and in which intellectual debate and challenge is encouraged in a setting of personal respect. Most students, staff and faculty also do their utmost to maintain this culture. But a few don’t, and so in some institutions there may be individual cases of bullying, and sometimes a more widespread problem. In a small number of universities there may even be a pattern of people feeling that they need to leave in order to escape from an oppressive atmosphere. Sometimes this atmosphere may be either tolerated or even promoted by people in positions of authority.

In order to get a better sense of people’s experiences with this problem, I have invited anyone affected to contact me in confidence, to allow me to analyse the problem and to see how those in authority can correct it where it is in evidence. I published the invitation on Twitter, and within hours I had received numerous messages and individual stories. I will be renewing the invitation this week in order to get as big a sample as possible.

What have I detected so far? First, institutional culture is definitely a factor. A significant number of those contacting me are attached to a small number of institutions, in which many people appear to have been victims, not of the same bully, but of several in different parts of the organisation, including some at or near the top. These are institutions that will need to look very closely at their values and how these are maintained in practice, and how the institutions are led. There are also cases of powerful individuals who, moving through different stages of their professional lives, leave a trail of bullying behind them, with others reluctant to stop them for fear of becoming targets.

This also leads me to another feature of bullying where it exists: the inactive bystander. In most cases other people in the organisation are fully aware of what a bully is doing, but do nothing (or not enough) to stop them.

Finally, external pressures on universities are clearly sometimes contributing factors to behaviours that can be classified as bullying, and higher education may need to be reviewed with a view to ascertaining whether excessive or inappropriate pressures are creating unnecessary human misery.

It is worth stressing again that this is not a problem everywhere, and that many institutions make a real effort to provide a supportive and effective framework, for students and for staff. But this makes it all the more important that the academy as a whole is seen to offer a good place to study and work.

It is my intention to write a more detailed report on what I am finding in due course, protecting the identity of those who have provided me with their stories. My intention is not to shame institutions, but to encourage much better practices where these are called for.

I can be contacted, in total confidence, at the email address you can find on this page.

Heroic villains called to judgement?

Posted February 15, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: history

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I know a thing or two about defending historical figures generally held to be villains. As a boy I once borrowed a book from a library on Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, about whom at the time I knew little or nothing. I was aware of my own German heritage, and perhaps because of that I became irritated at the tone of the book, which painted Wilhelm as a cartoon villain with no redeeming features. I started to read other books, in German as well as in English, and began to defend Wilhelm, particularly in the presence of those who I suspected would be horrified at my attempts. In my circle of Anglophone juvenile friends, and some adults too, I became quite notorious for my Wilhelmine attachment.

In 1940, as the Netherlands (where Wilhelm was in exile since his abdication) were about to be overrun by Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill offered the Kaiser sanctuary in Britain. He refused. He died a year later, having spent the final months of his life under house arrest.

Kaiser Wilhelm might be a little less the subject of popular vilification these days, but what about Churchill? Last month the Scottish Green politician, Ross Greer MSP, expressed the view that Winston Churchill was a white supremacist and mass murderer. It was certainly a good way of attracting attention, and soon enough others got into the game. The British Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, when asked to say whether Churchill was a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’, judged him to be the latter. This might be seen alongside the attempts in some British political circles of the left to argue that Churchill’s some time ally, Stalin, was an heroic historical figure.

What do we take away from all this? First, it would be good advice to anyone asked to offer a summary judgement on political leaders of any generation to hesitate. Most people, whatever their significance or role, are not cartoon characters, and good and bad traits are not rarely discoverable together in the same person. Secondly, history is complex, just as our present circumstances are also. Kaiser Wilhelm was not a hero, but neither was he necessarily a villain. Winston Churchill may have been (and actually was) a white supremacist, but his being so made little impact on history, while his decision to stand firm against Hitler indisputably did.

Finally, we do well to remember that what matters more than your evaluation or mine of Great Men is what happened to the millions of men and women whose names we do not know and whose lives were made better or worse by what these leaders did. That judgement too will never be easy.

Centrifugal discourse?

Posted February 5, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

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Generally I like to be informed about the opinions held by people and groups with whom I disagree. I may hold the views I hold, but I am interested to hear from those who think differently, and occasionally I change my mind.

So, I do not support or like Brexit. I think it is a stupid idea. I think it exposes the United Kingdom to huge economic risks, and perhaps more significantly, it will lower its standing in the world. But as in all things, I could be wrong, and so I like to listen to what Brexiteers are saying, and in that spirit I follow the Twitter accounts of various people and groups who think it’s all a great wheeze and who anticipate the sunlit uplands of the post-March departure of the UK from the European Union. One of these accounts is that of the lobby group ‘Leave Means Leave’. If you are not familiar with them you can find their Twitter feed here and their website here.

At first I just read lots tweets and opinion pieces and, while disagreeing, thought no more about them. They didn’t come across as persuasive to me because, in truth, they weren’t trying to persuade me. Leave Means Leave is not really dedicated to changing anyone’s mind, its key strategy is to make those already committed to Brexit really angry that it’s not happening quickly enough and that it may involve compromises. And if you’re tempted to follow them also, let me warn you that their Twitter strategy is one of non-stop buckshot sprayed across your screen. I might describe their relationship with the world of facts as, shall we say, edgy. In their world, Europe (not just the EU) is about to be shown as a busted flush, everywhere else is great, and the WTO (under whose ‘rules’ the UK should in their view trade) just brilliant.

Why am I going on about the good folks at Leave Means Leave? Well, I think they are fruitcakes, but that’s not the point. It is perfectly possible to advance persuasive arguments for Brexit (even if I mightn’t agree with them). But actually what’s going on here, and to be fair in a lot of other camps and arguments as well (sometimes including those pushing for remaining in the EU), is a drive not to persuade but to radicalise. In a lot of this discourse, the ‘middle ground’ is now the most despised terrain (here and elsewhere in the world), and those arguing for a balanced view are often the most vilified people. Looking at social media, I am often astonished at the bile thrown at those who raise polite questions or indicate mild scepticism about some idea or other cherished by committed ideologues of left or right.

And it’s not just social media. Watching the BBC TV’s Question Time exposes you to audience interventions delivered in expressions and tones of the raged fanatic. Debate is now about shouting and drowning out the other side, not persuading them. We are all the losers for that, and those who govern us will be pushed, more and more, to take unreasonable and dangerous decisions.

So, as some have suggested, is the centre ground dead? Are our politics destined to shift from an angry view on one radical side to an angry view on the other? The last time that happened some 90 years ago it didn’t end well. So, I would plead, let us pause and think. On all sides.

Free speech in universities: a new guide for England and Wales

Posted February 5, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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As readers of this blog know, the issue of freedom of expression in universities has frequently been in the news over recent years. It has been alleged repeatedly that university communities have become bad at ensuring that a variety of views on controversial topics can be expressed without hindrance, for example views that support conservative politics, or certain arguments regarding transgender matters.

This has prompted a new guide on freedom of expression in higher education in England and Wales, prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and supported by a variety of organisations, including the UK government, Universities UK, and the National Union of Students.

The guide points out that higher education providers have a legal duty to protect freedom of expression, and that while some restrictions may be lawful, ‘the right to free expression should not be restricted just because other people may find it offensive or insulting’. It adds:

‘An intolerant point of view, which offends some people, is likely to be protected if it is expressed in a political speech or a public debate where different points of views are being exchanged and are open to challenge.’

Universities have found it difficult on occasion to balance free speech with the respect for those who find certain opinions offensive. It his however important for students (and indeed the wider society) to hear views with which they may disagree, or even disagree strongly. This does not of course mean, as some have suggested, that there is some sort of epidemic of intolerance in higher education, but it does mean that there is an issue here that needs attention.

Whether the guide will help institutions to navigate these tricky waters remains to be seen, but the guide does a good job of setting out both the legal obligations involved and the reasons for them. It should be welcomed.

Going in deep

Posted January 28, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

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Depending on your personal wealth and investment habits, you may not have heard of the American magazine Investor’s Business Daily. I cannot comment intelligently on the reliability of its investment advice, but I might suggest that, based on the soundness of its political commentary, you might want to step carefully if inclined to follow its other recommendations. In 2009 the magazine suggested that if Stephen Hawking, suffering as he was from motor neurone disease, lived in the United Kingdom and were relying on the NHS, he ‘wouldn’t have a chance’ of getting treatment. Of course Hawking did live in the UK and was treated by the NHS.

This egregious nonsense may give you a hint as to where the magazine’s political sympathies lie. So it may not surprise you that, on an almost daily basis, Business Investor’s Daily right now is pushing the suggestion that Donald Trump’s presidency is being thwarted by ‘Deep State sabotage’. This sabotage is allegedly being carried out by various arms of government, including the FBI and the Justice Department, and indeed the CIA. In fact, the ‘Deep State’ has become a key feature of American rightwing conspiracy theorists. Whole books are now being published with breathless ‘revelations’ about a liberal elite running (or ruining) everyone’s lives – see for example the recent oeuvre The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and Is Working to Destroy the Trump Agenda, by Jason Chaffetz.

But before you start some eye-rolling about what Americans are willing to believe, bear in mind that the Deep State has also shoved its way into British political discourse. Just a week or two ago Boris Johnson warned that a ‘deep state conspiracy’ was aiming to frustrate Brexit. This might not be so surprising, given Mr Johnson’s recently expressed admiration for Mr Trump. But he is not a lone voice in Britain either: last September Andrew Murray, an adviser to the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that the deep state was undermining efforts to secure a Labour government.

I am not really intending to suggest that there are no establishment forces within this or any society that might have their own inclinations as to what political direction is appropriate and be willing to act on those inclinations, though for all that I tend to believe that democratic processes keep these forces reasonably in check. My point here is that the ‘deep state’ concept is being used not to thwart a secret establishment, but to secure one. There is no better argument in favour of authoritarian action than the (usually uncorroborated) allegation that there are secret societies undermining government. Conspiracy theories are the enemies of democracy, not its defenders. Their fruits have not been freedom, indeed they prompted genocide in the 20th century.

It really is time to stop peddling this nonsense.

Citizens of somewhere

Posted January 23, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: politics

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Not long ago a senior politician in the United Kingdom suggested that those who saw themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ were, in reality, ‘citizens of nowhere’. I tend to take the view that Brexit has encouraged, on all sides, contributions to debate that those making them may subsequently have regretted, so I don’t want this to be personal. But the ‘citizens of nowhere’ jibe does raise some questions which merit further  discussion.

After the Second World War the widespread nationalism of the 1930s was discredited, and there followed an era of internationalism, in which there was a growing emphasis on communities and on alliances that were more global in nature. The idea of seeing one’s own country as uniquely excellent and others as less admirable was against the spirit of the age, and this contributed to the collapse of colonialism and also undermined the US in its prosecution of the Vietnam war.

For me, and maybe for others of my generation of a liberal persuasion, the current trend to re-assert nationalist principles (even ones far less toxic than those of the 1930s) is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the Brexit and Trump and Orban era. It is not that I would condemn patriotism; but patriotism in its proper sense is about supporting the wider community in which we live and which supports us, and not about about elevating our nation above others.

It is difficult to pinpoint where this resurgence of nationalism started. In 2014 the Economist magazine traced it back to India and its political system. Others have looked back further to the 1990s and argued that nationalism has been a response to the economic effects of globalisation, which itself was a product of sorts of post-War internationalism. But it is clear that nationalist messages have started to resonate more widely with electorates in various countries. Some economists now link this trend with the risk of another global recession, as major countries toy with protectionist policies that support their leaders’ nationalist rhetoric.

Maybe I am just sad that my own set of values isn’t universally shared and that these values no longer, perhaps, attract majority support. Or maybe we really are losing something that secured social and economic progress for the post-War generations. In the end, I still hope we can be citizens of the world.

The rise of the ‘smart university’?

Posted January 15, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society, technology, university

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A few years ago for this blog, I interviewed the then Irish Minister for Education and Science, Ruairi Quinn. He was one of those relatively rare examples of an education minister with a real understanding of and sympathy for higher education, and indeed a set of civilised and cultured values.

However, at the time he was trying to think through what needed to change in the university system, and he offered the following thought. If one were to take an early 20th century surgeon, he suggested, and transfer him to a 21st century operating theatre, all he would be able to do that would be of any use would be to mop the patient’s brow and sweep the floor. Take a professor from that era and put him in a 21st century lecture theatre, and he would mostly feel at home and get on with the lecture. So, what had happened, or not happened, that made universities so immune to the passage of time?

One could of course argue, and indeed argue emphatically, with his premise. Most 21st century university lecture venues contain all sorts of new technology, not least the screen with its egregious Powerpoint slides. Our 20th century academic would have been astonished at, and probably not that pleased with, all the paperwork and audit trials and so forth. He (and it would be ‘he’) would have noticed a much better (though not perfect) gender balance. But then again, if in his home era he had just purchased and read F.M. Cornford’s 1908 book, Microcosmographia Academica, he might well have found that much of its satire on academic life was totally apposite a hundred years later. The argument might therefore be that the technology and bureaucracy and demographics had changed, but the basic methodology and the academic outlook had not; or something like that.

It is in this context that I wonder about concepts such as the ‘smart university’, which has been explored in recent literature such as the book Smart Education and e-Learning 2016, by Vladimir Ustov et al (Springer Verlag). The authors explore the concept of the smart university and suggest that it must have a number of key elements to quality as such, these being adaptation, sensing, inferring, self-learning, anticipation, self-organisation and configuration, restructuring and recovery. They see the new university as being technology-driven with far fewer boundaries between branches of scholarship, reflected also in more fluid structures.

As we look into the higher education future, we are bound to experience some tension between a defence of intellectual integrity and intellectual autonomy on the one hand, and a system that is driven by new concepts of knowledge acquisition and processing on the other. What impact will this have, and what are the implications for higher education regulation? What  will it do to the student experience, and even more importantly, to the graduate’s understanding of what she or he has experienced and acquired in their studies? Perhaps of equal importance, can this democratise knowledge (and undermine the value of elite networks), or will it support societal authoritarianism?

The future of universities is, for all sorts of reasons, one of the most important topics for society in the coming era.