Taking decisions…

Whenever I take part in a discussion about how (and how efficiently) decisions are taken in the world of higher education, I tend to refer people to what I think is the very best book on the subject: Microcosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making – and while it was intended to describe the University of Cambridge around the beginning of the last century, it is remarkably accurate today. Cornford, in a sub-title- dedicated it to the ‘young academic politician’.

The main premise of the book is that academic institutions have elaborate systems for stopping all sensible decision-making – because there is only one argument for taking a decision (that it is the right thing to do), but dozens that can be employed against even the most wonderful proposal. He then lists (largely tongue in cheek) some of these arguments, and they are all easily recognised today.

Here are some:

  • The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
  • The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
  • Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.

However, for all that we can recognise many committee debates here, it is worth saying that universities have become much better at streamlining their procedures and acting rationally, and have become much more capable of sensible reform. And it is also fair to recognise that many academics fear that reform really means removing the capacity of faculty and staff to have a genuine input in decision-making processes; and so it is important that such inputs are encouraged and facilitated. But we also need to ensure that our stakeholders are able to recognise that we behave in an efficient manner and that decisions are taken in a timely way. Reading Cornford’s book may help us to achieve that aim.

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2 Comments on “Taking decisions…”

  1. Greg Says:

    A subtext, it seems to me, of this post is that you are frustrated by the ‘knee-jerk’ opposition of staff to decisions you would like to make. Can you gives us a few examples of things you would like to initiate in DCU but recognise have little chance of proceeding in the face of opposition from staff?

  2. universitydiary Says:

    Thanks, Greg – but no, this isn’t about DCU at all, but about the wider university scene. I have no problems whatsoever with the DCU decision-making processes, nor do I want to take any decisions that would be blocked by staff. In the university sector more generally, however, the complexity of these processes doesn’t help. One university recently estimated it had 1,780 committees – it would be very hard to secure effective decision-making through such a labyrinth…


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