Archive for July 2008

Please talk

July 23, 2008

Earlier this year I had the privilege of being present to support the launch by all the Irish universities of the ‘Please Talk‘ campaign. The purpose of this is to encourage students to talk to their friends, family, counsellors and faculty about any problems they may have. For many, a university can be a lonely place; before they get to us, they will usually have been in a school setting where much more attention is paid to them individually, and where social networks are highly developed. But when they get to university, they are expected to be self-motivated and autonomous; many thrive in that environment, but for some the transition is difficult.

Even later in their studies, some students may find that they are facing worries or concerns – whether in their studies or in their personal lives – that become a burden for them. The ‘Please Talk’ campaign aims to make them aware of how they can access people who will be able to offer them support and listen to their problems and issues. 

In fact, not long after arriving in DCU I took the view that being accessible to those who need help is a vital part of my role also. Every year I write a letter to all incoming undergraduate students to reassure them that if they need advice and support they will have access to help, and inviting them to email me directly if they are unsure about whom to contact. A number of them do, and I am usually able to get them in touch with someone who can help – or else I will talk to them myself. Similarly, university staff with personal issues get priority in my calendar.

My point here is not to suggest that I am doing anything special – it’s just my job. Rather, it is that we all still need the personal assurance that someone is always willing to talk with us and to support us during difficult times. Large organisations – and all universities are large organisations – have special responsibilities not to let anyone get lost in the system and find themselves in despair.

So, to be true to my claims, my email address is Please talk.

The future of books

July 22, 2008

I confess I am a gadget freak. If there’s a new gadget, I feel I absolutely need it. Put an iPhone on sale, and I’m in the line to get it. New and better satellite navigation? Let me have it! An electronic corkscrew? Absolutely! So for a while I have been eyeing up e-book readers, and oddly enough I still haven’t made a purchase, despite on the whole wanting to. How convenient to be able to bring the entire collection of Dickens novels, Shakespeare plays, books on university leadership and poetry anthologies on to the plane with me!

So I look at eBay offers, Amazon reviews of the Kindle (not yet for sale in these parts anyway), Sony devices and so forth. But I don’t buy. Even for me, there is something about books in their paper version that still attracts me. There is something satisfying about putting the paper bookmark in the pages as you close the book, that even the best electronic memory cannot match. And if you’re that way inclined, something beautiful and sensual about a leather cover of an antique book.

Sooner or later I know I shall buy an e-book reader. But I bet any amount of money that, in 10 years time, I shall still be buying paper-based books, admiring them, and reading them. Even in this age of fast-paced technology, some things will stay the same.

Has Karl Marx left the university?

July 22, 2008

The last two decades have not been good for the status of Karl Marx in the university system. As communism fell in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, institutes of higher education named after its founder were quickly re-named, and university programmes focusing on Marx’s writings and theories were either dropped or had their frames of reference changed radically. Some academics who used Marxian (or more likely, Marxist) analysis in their teaching or research either recanted or made subtle changes to show awareness that the world in general had abandoned Marx and moved on. And then Francis Fukuyama, in his book The End of History and the Last Man, finally suggested that the ideological warfare in which Marxism had been one of the key perspectives was irreversibly over.

Karl Marx, who was born 190 years ago this year, had actually intended to be an academic, and was prevented from following this career path only because he had already acquired the reputation of being a radical. But it is in universities in particular that his influence was most keenly felt in Western European countries after the Second World War. Quite apart from the scholars who devoted themselves to studying Marx and the theories which he initiated, many others used Marxism as a tool of analysis in a whole host of other areas and disciplines, including sociology, law, literature, politics, arts – even science and engineering. This cluster of academic Marxism within the academy was able to observe various campaigns, parties and movements in the outside world that were heavily influenced by Karl Marx – in the trade union movement, in politics, in voluntary organisations and elsewhere. If you lived your intellectual life inside this cluster, you could easily believe – say, in the mid-1970s – that the final victory of Marxism was only a short distance away.

But even then, if you were at least a little detached from the movement, you could see signs that it would not be quite that easy. For a start, Marxism (and in particular the Marxism that was visible in universities) was extraordinarily faction-ridden. Every Marxist movement had its disciples, its martyrs, its heretics, its detractors, its traitors and its sworn enemies who were all also Marxists, or said they were. Marxism had its parties, its societies, its ‘tendencies’ and so forth, often serving up a bewildering array of impenetrable theory and with a strong body of demonology – of people and groups who had betrayed the faith. 

And yet, Marxism was a powerful intellectual force. When I was a young lecturer in industrial relations in the 1980s, some of the academic writers I most admired were Marxist. Richard Hyman, for example (then in Warwick, now at LSE in London), wrote accessible but extremely well argued books and articles that influenced generations of academics, most of whom would not have adopted Marxism as a frame of reference. Where Marxism itself often appeared intellectually forbidding, Marxist academics were able to stimulate debate and sharpen discourse in a way that benefited higher education very considerably. So for example, Marxist analysis of literature by writers such as Terry Eagleton produced a rich intellectual rejuvenation in that field; and Helena Sheehan produced a fascinating history of Marxism and the philosophy of science.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall the fire largely went out in the Marxist camp, and many Marxist academics actually quietly abandoned Marx and moved on. Every so often, someone pops up to suggest that there is now a brighter future for Marxist analysis – see e.g. Andrew Levin in his 2003 book A Future for Marxism? - but the question mark betrays the continuing lack of confidence in the project. Some others argue – like the feminist academic Nancy Fraser – that there is a future for Marxism in a post-Marxian context that will focus on gender and race rather than class.

I suspect that Marxism will never return, either to the universities or indeed to political life, and that the analysis of Marx and the theories he influenced will mainly have an historical dimension. But a significant part of me regrets that – not because I am in favour of Marxism, but because Marxism was a good framework for the assessment of alternative views of a number of branches of learning. Higher education without ideology loses a lot of its analytical punch, and scholarship loses out in that setting. Politically, I would never wish to turn the clock back; but a part of me feels nostalgic for the old days of fiery debates. Maybe we need to find some new frames of reference that can restore some of the edginess that gives academic discourse its real energy.

Languages – deconstructing the Tower of Babel?

July 22, 2008

As you might have suspected from my name, I am not Irish by birth. In fact, I was born in Germany. I lived there for the first seven years of my life, until we moved to Ireland. When we arrived here I spoke no English at all, but with the help of my father (who had been learning the language, with mixed results) I acquired what I thought was a perfectly idiomatic phrase, ‘I can’t English’. Only six months or so later, I ‘could English’, and from about a year later English became (and has remained) my primary language. But I still speak German reasonably fluently, and can get by in French. But because of the odd sequence of languages that accompanied my childhood, I learnt most of them in a very grammatical way, so that I speak with greater precision (or pedantry, depending on your outlook) than most would. To my regret today, I was never really given the opportunity to learn Irish as a child, but I am intending to fill that gap shortly.

A year or two ago, while on a visit to China, it occurred to me that the time was right to consider learning Mandarin Chinese. All our hosts in Beijing were able to speak to us in English, in some cases with extraordinary ease and elegance of expression. On our side, absolutely nobody had a single word of Chinese (except the one member of my team who actually came from China). It seemed to me to be both ineffective and somehow discourteous that we would expect them to speak English, while we made no effort at all to acquire Chinese.

But this is part of a wider problem. Those of us who speak English have got used to expecting everyone else all over the world to do likewise. We no longer even think about it. And sometimes it seems as if they don’t think about it, either. The great cultural expansion of English continues, threatening all other languages in its wake.

A decade or two ago it was suggested that English might actually be eclipsed by Spanish, courtesy of the growth of Latin America and the migration of Spanish-speaking people into the US. That is all forgotten now. Perhaps one of the major causes of this about-turn was the growth of the internet, with the total hegemony of English there.

But if English does become the world’s lingua franca, what will that mean? Will it be possible to maintain the distinctive cultures of nations and regions, or will everything become standardised along with the language? Well, for a start I doubt that distinctive cultural characteristics will go, regardless of the linguistic issue. After all, Ireland – even with the dominance of English here – has retained and further developed a culture which, in many important respects, is quite different from that of other English-speaking countries, and even our English is full of expressions, words and colloquialisms that separate us from others, including the bigger island across the water. But also, I cannot see other countries just letting their languages go.

Instead, what seems to me to be obvious is that we should pay more (rather than less) attention to the capacity of different languages to give expression to national attributes and aspirations. Even if, say, every German were to be fluent in English by 2020, I still believe that their language of personal and domestic expression will be German. And therefore, to connect fully with someone from Germany will require an understanding of and familiarity with their language. A person wanting to be successful in trading with Germany will need to speak some German, both in order to communicate better and in order to understand the local business culture.

Most universities have found it much harder to attract language students in recent years. But it is still true that languages provide us with important tools of international communication and business. We need to persuade more of our young people that studying languages (and the cultures of the countries from which they come) is a very smart career move. A world that has become smaller and more immediately accessible to everyone is not about to become uniform. As a trading nation, we need to take very seriously the need to speak to the world, not just in one language, but in its many languages.

In many ways, the growth of English across the world is a benefit. But it is not the answer to all questions of communication.

Too many lawyers

July 21, 2008

Some time ago I managed to attract some attention by saying that Ireland didn’t need any more lawyers. My starting point was that too many parents were pushing their children into law as a career choice, and that the glut of lawyers would make us a more and more litigious society. Now that we are experiencing an economic downturn - temporary, we hope and trust – my fear is that this trend will accelerate, as people imagine that law is a safe choice.

As I am a lawyer myself by background, I don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong as such with wanting to be a lawyer. But while there are a number of good reasons for wanting to go into the legal profession, having the right number of points isn’t one of them. And a country that has too many lawyers pays a high price – in the cost of insurance in particular.

This country needs more people who will take risks and start things – who will be entrepreneurial and innovative. We need more start-up businesses, more social entrepreneurs, more scientific innovators, more people in independent trades. These are the people who will help us to the next level of success and prosperity. We know very well what skills are needed to achieve that, but the pattern of higher education choices doesn’t match that. This is something we shall have to address, or we shall all pay the price.

In the newspapers – universities in crisis

July 20, 2008

Today’s Sunday Times carries an article on the situation facing the Irish universities, and on plans by the Irish Universities Association to put some options to the government that might allow them to look again at tuition fees, in a way that would not disadvantage students from less wealthy backgrounds. On the other hand, the Minister for Education is quoted in the article as saying that universities will need to accept a 3 per cent cut. It is to be hoped that this is part of a negotiating position, rather than a considered response.

Irish universities made a key contribution to the Celtic Tiger. To cut their resources now, just as their contribution becomes vital to finding a way out of the economic slowdown, would have catastrophic consequences. The Taoiseach has shown in the past, while he was Minister for Finance, that he understands the significance of higher education and research. I still feel optimistic that his government will take imaginative steps at this time to steer us out of crisis. Certainly the university Presidents will work constructively and positively with him and the government to achieve this.

Going online

July 19, 2008

Today marks the 20th anniversary of my very first email. I used a friend’s computer (mine wasn’t ‘online’ and wouldn’t be for two more years), and to ensure that the person I was addressing would actually read what I was writing, I had to call her first to tell her the email was coming and to get her in turn to seek out a computer that could receive it. She then rang me to confirm she had received it and to ask if I had seen her reply. And so I was introduced to the wonders of electronic communication (well, not quite – I had sent internal messages on TCD’s mainframe computer for the previous 6 years, but only to the college’s computer centre; this was the first off-site message I had tried – indeed it was an inter-country one).

Back on that day in July 1988, I sent one and received one email, while on the same day (according to my records) I typed out and sent five letters and four internal memos, and received three letters, two memos and one fax. Yesterday, nearly 20 years later, I sent 38 emails and received 96 (not counting some 45 spam emails). I received three letters and sent none. And in addition I read various other online communications on websites and blogs. Indeed, I am networked into a web of local and global communication which, 20 years ago, was still unimaginable.

What does all of this mean? One way of looking at it would be to say that I am in instant touch with people and with ideas and that, working in an intellectual environment, this gives me an extraordinary opportunity to communicate and receive analysis and insight, to be well informed and to assist and support others. Another way of seeing it might be to say that the sheer volume of all this – I estimate that last year I wrote about 350,000 words in emails – must detract from other important tasks, such as actually seeing people and talking with them. 

Email has certainly changed my life. I count many men and women all over the world as my personal friends, despite the fact that I have never met many of them and probably won’t. I know much more about other people’s thought processes and cultures than I could have imagined in the 1980s. But also, how I work has changed dramatically: my working day never ends before midnight, and often considerably later, because the late evening is a perfect time to write in an undisturbed environment and to catch up on my work. So the day and early evening are largely for meetings, and the late evening is for writing; in this way I can (I hope) continue to meet the need to see people and talk face to face with them, while also having the opportunity to exploit the full advantage of online communications. But it is at a cost, as no day of the year and no time of day would now be considered by me to be work-free. That may work for me, but it could not possibly be a model for everyone.

The world is now online, and will continue to develop online. But perhaps we need to think more deeply about how we manage this, and how we ensure that online communications help and support people rather than intimidate and overwhelm them. I think it is wonderful that there will be people in other continents who will read this post in this blog – but I hope many of you will also feel able to switch off the computer and go out and do something in your ‘real’ world.

Off to the Olympics!

July 19, 2008

No, not me – though with some practice, maybe next time…:). No, yesterday we had a little ceremony here in DCU to ‘see off’ the two DCU students who will be competing in Beijing: Fionnuala Britton (steeplechase) and Darren Sutherland (boxing). A recent DCU graduate, Ciara Peelo, will also be competing (sailing).

DCU’s sports academy, which we are in the process of building up, is designed to ensure that we put the appropriate resources into training young sportspeople who will achieve international success. We are initially focusing on athletics, GAA (Gaelic) football and tennis. Sporting success tends to have a major positive impact on national pride, and this can be particularly useful during challenging times.

Let us hope that the Olympic Games are a great success – and it would be great if a medal or two were to come back to DCU afterwards…

Apples with everything

July 18, 2008

This blog is brought to you with very significant inputs from Apple Inc. The computer on which I am writing right now is an iMac. On my travels, I carry with me an Apple MacBook Pro; and at home I privately own a Mac Mini. In my pocket is my iPhone, and my car is wired to play (and display) my iPod. All three members of my family have iPods, and two of them also own an Apple Macintosh.

I first migrated to Apple in 1987, just as the Irish Government was negotiating the Programme for National Recovery (well, there is probably no direct causal relationship between these, but you can’t be sure). Back then I persuaded my Head of Department to let me have a Mac Plus. I then spent almost all of my personal savings on buying an Apple LaserWiter – one of the early laser printers, costing about the same as a medium size car back then, a purchase I felt I could not ask the College to make for me. I then went through a succession of Macs until 1995, when I felt that the company had lost its way. Its computers now looked like PCs, and didn’t behave as well (and of course, Steve Jobs had gone). So when Windows 95 came out, I migrated to the PC world. A colleague of mine built PCs from individual parts, and for five years I worked on his home-made computers (including one laptop which always overheated and once caused a small fire on a plane, but that’s another story).

At that time, in the late 1990s, I was Dean of a Faculty in the University of Hull. There was a pocket in the Faculty of Mac users, and with the zeal of Saul of Tarsus I persecuted them mercilessly, forcing them eventually to migrate to PCs to ensure compatibility in the Faculty’s technology. I repent of that now!

I continued on PCs in DCU from 2000, but began to look again at Macs after the arrival of OS X (and Steve Jobs was back, Hallelujah). I began to realise how much I missed Apple, and how the quality of my thinking and writing had deteriorated while I was on PCs. So in 2004 I returned to the fold, on my knees, and with the promise never to leave again. And as Umberto Eco noted when writing about the theology of the Macintosh, ‘everyone has the right to salvation’.


PS. This is not an anti-Microsoft rant – much of the software on my Macintosh is by Microsoft…

Campus-based university

July 17, 2008

Another day, another discussion about how DCU will develop physically in the future.

DCU has the smallest campus of any Irish university. The main campus has about 60 acres, and much of that space has been built upon. Most people working here will not be able to recall any time when the university did not have builders on site. But that is about to come to an end, as every available space has now more or less been used. I can add in passing that the space has been used very well, and I believe that in terms of the planning and design of our estates we have an attractive and efficient campus, with some stunningly good buildings.

We also have two other sites nearby, but one contains our sports fields (which are very important to us), and the other consists of 10 acres off a nearby road, and is too far away from the main campus to use for normal expansion purposes. It is therefore increasingly inevitable that, very soon, we shall have to plan for DCU facilities that will be established in other locations. It does not seem likely to me that these other locations will be used for undergraduate teaching purposes, but there will be a time when, perhaps, some DCU staff will be based away from the current campus, either in self-contained DCU-owned sites, or more likely, in sites shared with other organisations.

DCU, like all universities in the Republic of Ireland, is designed around the idea of a campus that contains all of the key facilities and houses the entire university community. The ‘campus experience’ is part of what we are providing for staff and students alike. Of course, such an experience makes certain assumptions about the make-up of the student body, and indeed about how faculty and staff work. As more students will in future inevitably be part-time, and as staff will find it easier to do some of their work remotely, these assumptions may become more questionable.

Higher education has changed dramatically in recent years, for demographic, cultural and technological reasons. We may need to consider again whether the traditional university campus is still necessarily the only (or even the best) way of containing and facilitating the new higher education and its partners and stakeholders. We may in that process need to look at how this has been done in some other countries where the idea of the ‘campus’ has never been part of the tradition. But we also need to ensure that the concept of the university ‘community’ is not lost in this process.


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