Archive for April 2009

How universities are run

April 30, 2009

It seems to me that one of the big debates that should take place, both in Ireland and elsewhere, over the next few years is what model of governance and management is most appropriate for higher education institutions. There are of course many different possible models, and many points of view amongst all the stakeholders. But one might say that on the opposite ends of the spectrum are, on the one side, those who would argue that universities are communities of scholars who should direct their own affairs by consensus, presided over by a primus inter pares with mainly ceremonial functions; and on the other side, those who argue that today’s universities are modern organisations that need to be led by a strong management responsible to corporate-style governing boards, with appropriate functions and powers delegated to a series of middle managers.

No university – or none that need detain us here – is run on the basis of either of these extreme models. Most have governance and management that fall somewhere between these two positions; variations may be due to the age of institutions, their history, their purpose and strategy, their location, and any number of other factors. But it is also clear that, in some cases, their is disagreement amongst stakeholders as to whether a particular model is appropriate or workable.

In an article recently in Times Higher Education, the general secretary of the British University and College Union, Sally Hunt, argued that too many universities in the UK are run by autocratic university heads notionally reporting to ineffective governing bodies, and that decisions are regularly taken with profound effects on the academic community without proper consultation and without consent. In the article she did not particularly make it clear what type of governance she favours (beyond very general references to the accountability of university leadership to the academic community), but she is clearly unhappy with the pattern she believes she has identified in the system. Her views may be similar to some that have been expressed in Ireland about a culture of ‘managerialism’, which I have mentioned in a previous post in this blog.

Sally Hunt mentions Oxford and Cambridge as two universities that are ‘governed, at least nominally, by the academic community.’ On its own website, the University of Cambridge describes itself as a ‘self-governed community of scholars’. But then, on a separate part of the website entitled ‘how the University works’, the operation of the university is set out in all its complexity, with an admission that ‘the way in which the University governs itself can appear complex.’ The reputation and status of Cambridge (and other institutions like Oxford, Harvard and Yale) make this model acceptable to at least some bodies that deal with it (though I have heard people say that their experiences with Cambridge would stop them from working with the university in the future) – but in any case for the rest of us a more transparent and accessible system of decision-making is needed if we are to succeed. But what system?

Most universities will need to have a system of governance and management that, on the one hand, is responsive and flexible and decisive, and on the other is sensitive to the views, needs and interests of those who make up the university community. Autocratic dictatorships are unlikely to work for long, but it is equally true that chaotic and complex committee structures will turn off those who need to support and work with universities. Governing bodies will need to have members with knowledge of and experience in corporate governance and accountability, but will also need to have a composition that gives some confidence to university faculty and staff that their interests are being respected; and it will also need to be borne in mind that very large governing bodies are almost always ineffective in providing effective governance, and tend to become debating chambers that often miss the real issues of strategy and direction.

As the higher education sector is subjected once again to a strategic review, these issues deserve proper attention. It is not clear that they are receiving it, yet.


Higher education and the flow of history

April 28, 2009

A few years ago I was spending a day in a university library overseas, doing some research on an aspect of legal history on which I was writing. While looking for a particular article in a multi-disciplinary German journal I came across an autobiographical piece by an Austrian scientist whose name I no longer recall (I noted down several quotes from the article, but forgot to record the name of the author). He had been a professor in a university in Austria, and on one particular day in June 1914 he was due to deliver a farewell speech to a group of 52 graduating students. Just as he was entering the hall where the students were assembled a colleague whispered in his ear that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had been assassinated in Sarajevo. 

In this autobiographical article he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the likely terrible consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and made a short speech in Latin on educational values. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduating students, 40 would die violently during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the second world war in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the remaining surviving students would be tried for war crimes in 1945. The article I was reading was written in 1946, and an editor’s postscript noted that he died two years later at the age of 86. But in the article this professor wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But all I could do was to say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’ 

Maybe these were not platitudes. For those of us in education, while like everyone else we will witness disasters, injustices, wars, famines, corruption across the world, we must keep telling ourselves that what we do matters; and while we cannot instantly solve all these problems and right these wrongs, we are (I hope) passing on values of inquiry, tolerance, curiosity and respect. Our research will amongst other things help to shield the victimised, feed the hungry and heal the sick. In the overall flow of history higher education does make a difference. And that is why it deserves society’s support.

The final frontier

April 27, 2009

In my university, and I think in most others in Ireland, and I suspect in many universities the world over, one of the key scarce resources is space. Quite often now the key problem with any new programme, new research project, new recruitment prospect, new anything really, is that we have to work out how we can accommodate it. DCU’s campus is, in terms of acreage, the smallest in Ireland, but for almost all of the university’s life there has been relentless growth; first in particular in undergraduate numbers, more recently strongly in postgraduate and staff research. During all that time there has been almost constant construction around the campus, but now the campus is very nearly fully occupied, and as you might expect the amount of construction, while significant, has still not kept pace with growth.

As we look for ways to finance new capital projects, we also need to look very carefully at how we allocate existing buildings, and how we use the campus as a whole, particularly at times of year when students are not there. Again, campus space audits and reviews are now a feature of the national system, as we try to find a way to accommodate all those initiatives we need to support. We also need to ensure that the use of space is affordable, in terms of maintenance and energy costs.

And we are not alone. The most recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education reports that, in the United States, ‘academics will fight over money and kill over space’. We also learn how space is distributed in big public research institutions: and it might surprise some that classrooms account for only 3 per cent of space. One senior administrator is quoted as saying that the space allocation is an issue balancing efficiency and quality.

In Ireland, the risk we now run is that space and accommodation issues will become a subject for bureaucratic control by government or its agencies, with resulting loss of autonomy and an inability to respond effectively to new challenges and opportunities. On the other hand, the universities cannot expect to get support unless there is a clear policy on space issues, and this policy reflects the need both for high quality of provision and for the effective and accountable use of resources. Space allocation cannot be done in an ad hoc way, or without proper space audits, or without due consideration of the potential for resource sharing amongst institutions. In the current straitened national circumstances, these are matters to be addressed with some urgency.

Philanthropic downturn

April 27, 2009

It is well known that Ireland’s university sector would not be where it is in terms of its international standing without the contribution made by philanthropy; in particular, without the very major contribution made so generously by Chuck Feeney through his philanthropic vehicle, Atlantic Philanthropies, and some of the other significant donors from Ireland and overseas.

For all that, Ireland still lags far behind the United States in particular in terms of fundraising and donations. Some Irish universities are only just beginning to tap the potential of their alumni, and indeed it is important that relations with alumni are built up in a broader and more mutual context than just fundraising. And more generally, many of those in Ireland who have recently acquired wealth are still reluctant to distribute some of this to good causes, and as a society we have not yet properly emphasised the importance of supporting the causes which may help to secure a better future for the country. We are generous donors to the needs of the international community when there is a crisis (and long may this continue), but we are bad at ‘paying something back’ to help build a better future at home.

Nevertheless, it is important to see the benefits of philanthropy in higher education in the correct context. Three or so years ago when the debate about tuition fees in Ireland began to heat up, a few politicians who were opposing the imposition of fees but who accepted that higher education was under-funded argued that the deficit could be made up through fundraising. This is nonsense, because almost no donor will ever give money to compensate for a deficit in a university’s running costs. And in any case, right now the recession is taking its toll on philanthropy also, and even in the US, college fundraising campaigns have seen a substantial drop in their success rates over the past year as has been reported recently by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The trend, from a much lower base, is bound to be similar in Ireland.

If right now we cannot depend on philanthropic donations to solve all our financial problems, we can however take steps to ensure that in the future it can be an important aspect of our development plans and our ability to compete internationally. We can ensure that the external environment is right, and in particular that the tax regime supports donors. We can ensure that we develop the right relationships with our alumni and with potential supporters. We can ensure that we have charitable foundations or development offices that are properly established to develop the agenda. We can ensure that we have proper capital plans for our institutions in which there are opportunities for fundraising and giving. We can ensure that we have a framework of good practice and ethics that will reassure all those who work with us that fundraising is pursued in the right way and for the right reasons. And we can try to ensure that there is a national mood that emphasises the value of philanthropy.

Addicted to negativity?

April 26, 2009

Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene 5.

Another Part of the Forest.

Enter AMIENS, JAQUES, and Others
Ami.   [sings…]
Jaq.  More, more, I prithee, more.
Ami.  It will make you melancholy, Monsieur Jaques.
Jaq.  I thank it. More! I prithee, more. I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs. More! I prithee, more.

Right now it seems to me that this entire country is sucking melancholy out of absolutely everything. The news is bad in Ireland of course, but as a nation we seem determined to make it worse still. The entire national discourse is stuck in a groove, endlessly repeating pessimism, fatalism, blame, indignation, cynicism, negativity. We put on the radio or open our newspapers determined to find more of all this.

Yesterday I was talking to some visitors from the United States. They are frequent visitors to Ireland, but this was their first visit in 15 months or so. They simply could not believe the amount of negativity and pessimism they were encountering everywhere. Apart from wondering how on earth we are still managing to get out of bed in the morning, they were observing that, with such an attitude problem, we would probably make our way out of the recession two years after everyone else, by which point also we will have ably persuaded all potential investors that they should look elsewhere.

Yes, we have had a bad fall, and yes, there were reckless and crazy decisions along the way and some reprehensible people. But hey, enough already! We need to snap out of it and start looking to the future, and that’s only of benefit if we do so with a can-do spirit of optimism. We need to stop looking around for people to blame; it happened, and in some measure we were all fellow-conspirators. After all, didn’t we willingly buy the over-priced goods and services and calmly accept the inflated real estate values?

There are ways out of this mess, but all the negativity is making us focus on the past rather than plan for the future. It’s time to move on.

The nuclear dilemma

April 26, 2009

Twenty-three years ago today, the world’s worst ever nuclear accident took place at Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). On this day nuclear reactor No 4 of the power plant exploded, sending considerable amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. This produced major damage at the plant and in its vicinity, and created environmental health problems as far afield as Wales. Only 56 deaths in the Chernobyl area were directly attributed to the disaster, but over half a million people were exposed to radioactivity, and it is not yet known how many of these have suffered from cancer or other conditions as a result.

Chernobyl became a byword for the risks and dangers of nuclear power. Apart from the damage it caused directly, it seriously undermined the cause of nuclear energy and gave additional life to campaigns seeking to end its use. Two decades on, the world is having to face the fact that our traditional assumptions about energy need to be revised. We may have reached ‘peak oil’ (the moment at which new oil discovery is no longer keeping pace with the exhaustion of existing resources), and other carbon fuels (such as coal) are also being phased out. In this setting, many experts are arguing that nuclear power represents one of the key ingredients of a viable energy policy of the future.

Chernobyl may be not so much a warning about the desirability of nuclear power, but rather a reminder about the importance of the appropriate construction, maintenance and use of nuclear power plants.  In the light of the safety record of nuclear energy in other countries and the ongoing research into much higher safety levels and also the development of nuclear fusion (which when available will produce energy with almost no waste), it seems unwise to rule out this particular option now, and Ireland too should at the very least consider the possible benefits of this source of energy.

In the meantime, there are still many victims of Chernobyl alive today and still facing an uncertain future. Programmes designed to alleviate their position still deserve our support.

A whiter shade of… – well, of what exactly?

April 24, 2009

There’s a scene in the movie based on Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments, where one of the characters is discussing the Procol Harum song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, with a Roman Catholic priest. Getting to the bit in the lyrics where ‘sixteen vestal virgins [are] leaving for the coast’, both admit they have no idea what on earth that is supposed to mean. Indeed, the lyrics of the song as a whole are a mystery to most. There are, as you would expect with such things, all sorts of theories, including that it was about being high on cocaine, waking up from a dream, an interpretation of a Chaucer poem, the end of a relationship, and so forth. The songwriters themselves have never said, and my own theory is that the words have no deeper meaning at all; but who am I to know anything?

Anyway, Whiter Shade has just been declared to be (in one of those odd league tables) the ‘most played song in public places’ over the past 75 years, beating Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody into second place. And would you believe it, there is not a single Beatles song in the top 10, though they then enter big time in the 11-20 places.

Whiter Shade of Pale was a hugely enigmatic song, with its mysterious lyrics and its Bach-like opening. The band did have other hits, though none as big, and indeed they are still singing and even recording. But for many people this song was the signature tune of my generation, and it continued to be that long after those vestal virgins must have reached the coast.

Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom?

April 24, 2009

Here’s an interesting item: Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, has trained his guns at what he describes as the ‘new fashion’ of interdisciplinarity. Well, I suppose it all depends on what you consider to be ‘new’. As I argued in one of the early posts in this blog, you could say that in earlier ages almost all scholarship was interdisciplinary; and a spectacular example of an intellectual devoting himself to interdisciplinarity was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, born 362 years ago.

In fairness, I think that Thomas Docherty has a more specific target: the attempt by research funding agencies to specify certain interdisciplinary themes in their funding programmes (he uses ‘science and heritage’ as an example). But he cannot really mean – and if we read further, we find he does not mean – that academics should not cast their eyes over the boundaries of the discipline into which they were trained. In fact, he goes on to recognise that his own ‘discipline’  of English grew out of other disciplines. So what is he on about? When stripped down to its essentials, his point really is that nobody, and in particular not those with money to fund research, should be suggesting to anyone else what aspects of life they should be researching. He believes that such funding programmes are all about securing the ‘compliance with policy’ of the academic community. So the latter should determine themselves what they propose to work on. Anything else erodes or destroys academic freedom.

There are two aspects to this, and both deserve a brief analysis. The first is Thomas Docherty’s attack on interdisciplinarity; and here he is on very shaky ground. Disciplines are all artificial to some extent, and reflect an understanding of knowledge at some point in history when they secured recognition. In the early development of universities, when they were essentially off-shoots of monasteries, the only disciplines were theology (the ‘queen of sciences’), philosophy and mathematics. It was only with the Enlightenment that other subjects were added. The biggest burst of new disciplines came in the 19th century with the growth of science and engineering, and then in the 20th century various ‘new’ profession-oriented subjects claimed the discipline label. Now there is a rather charming Wikipedia page that purports to ‘list’ all of the disciplines, and for what it’s worth (not much, I think) it comes up with 42. 

All of this is highly artificial. If we believe that disciplines are such because they can lay claim to unique intellectual tools that are different in each one, then we should think again. For example, Professor Docherty’s ‘discipline’ has (perfectly properly in intellectual terms) tried out all kinds of tools borrowed from other areas, such as political science, sociology, history, philosophy etc. It seems to me that there is no magic at all in the boundaries between disciplines, and they have merit (if they have that) chiefly because in each case the academy has created some pedagogical tools that have some use in educating students, and which might not be recreated effectively if a student’s education were to meander too much between all these areas. But that is almost entirely meaningless once you are talking about highly skilled academics undertaking expert research.

The second aspect is Thomas Docherty’s dislike of a set agenda for research. In a nutshell, he doesn’t think that the taxpayer has any business directing programmes of research. If taxpayers have any particular concerns or needs that research may solve, they should sit back and wait for the academic community to get there, all in their good time. But that is wholly unsustainable. We need to see academic research as fulfilling two functions, both of them deserving of funding and support. One is to push out the boundaries undirected; and the other is to answer those questions that society urgently needs to have solved. An example of an area of research that he really doesn’t think should be specifically funded by government is the environment; but we know that there are huge issues putting the planet in peril which the research community needs to address urgently, and it seems to me to be wholly silly to suggest that the government and its agencies cannot set out a ringfenced fund for this.

It is of course always right to be vigilant to ensure that academic autonomy is protected. But to argue that this precludes government from funding interdisciplinary research is absurd. There is nothing sacred about the subject areas we now sometimes call ‘disciplines’. Our academic ancestors would have been horrified to hear that, say, ‘management’  or ‘architecture’ might be considered a discipline. So let us not think that there is anything sacred about their boundaries; or that society as a whole has no business asking us questions that cannot be answered from just within one of them; or even less, that society has no business asking our scholars any questions at all.

Finding talent

April 23, 2009

If you haven’t heard of the singer Susan Boyle – and I must confess that until yesterday I hadn’t – you really need to watch the clip on youtube which I will give you at the end of this post.

Susan Boyle is from a rural area of Scotland, and according to her own account has been an enthusiastic singer from a very young age, wanting to be a professional. And I should tell you, she has a voice that would make ice melt. Think Elaine Page (to whose style she aspires), but then think 3,000 times better. Think of one of the best popular female singers you could imagine hearing. That’s Susan Boyle. It’s not necessarily the style of music that I listen to most, but I’d make an exception here.

Susan Boyle appeared on a British television show, Britain’s Got Talent, and she wowed the audience and the judges to such an extent that they were giving her a standing ovation before she had even got to the third bar of her song. And at the end of her performance the judges declared her to be the best singer they had heard in three seasons of the show. And from there she just took off, jetting from rural Scotland to the television studios of America and almost instant celebrity status.

So what is so amazing? Well, Susan Boyle is 47 years old. She has a wholly attractive and vivacious personality, but let us say her looks are not the looks of someone whom the editors would choose for the front page of your average fashion magazine. Some have called her ‘frumpy’.

As she sang on the show that discovered her, you could see the audience just willing her on, and you could see that it was only partly because of her extraordinary voice; it was partly because in their hearts they all knew that the world doesn’t normally given the Susan Boyles a chance. So she stands in the limelight for all those who don’t have what someone decides are conventionally good looks, for all those who have talent but who come up against the superficiality and prejudices of the rest of us. And that may be the end of the story, unless we learn to give everyone the chance they deserve on the basis of who they are. I hope she lights a fire.

So here is Susan Boyle.

The academic gold standard

April 22, 2009

If you are an academic and you’ve made your way up the promotional ladder – let’s say you are a full professor – then you will have been a prolific publisher of books, monographs and refereed journal articles. And if I don’t immediately know about you, there are now various databases where I can look you up and find out what you’ve published – this is a good example. And if I need to make a judgement as to how good you are as an academic, then the information I find there will help me to make it.

As has been mentioned before in this blog, that raises a few questions about whether and how we value excellence in teaching; but let us leave that aside for now. My concern here is something different: that there may be an increasingly significant conflict between this basis of advancing someone’s academic career on the one hand, and the interests of the university on the other. It has been clear for some time that in those areas of research where the registration of intellectual property (chiefly patents) may be vital in order to protect the research and ensure that when it subsequently is exploited commercially the university gets a share of the revenues. If you publish – either before the patent is registered or in some cases at all – the commercial value of the discovery may be lost to the university for good. And just in case you are tempted to answer that all this is OK, because university research should be accessible to all, then think again: the consequence of not registering the patent is typically not that everyone can use the discovery, but rather that someone external to the university will exploit it and then register the patent themselves, thereby excluding the wider community and indeed ensuring that the financial benefits are kept in private hands. Innovation offices in universities have for some time had to struggle with these contradictions.

This has been an intractable problem in large part because the academics affected, when faced with this scenario, have to weigh up the competing claims of the university (and possibly themselves) for a share of the financial benefits of the research on the one hand, and the prospect of their career advancement on the other. That is not a dilemma we should place before them.

It seems to me that the answer to this is that we must begin to tackle much more seriously the basis on which we promote academic staff, and we may have to face up to the possibility that academic publication as the sole gold standard cannot survive as the only real basis for promotion. We must of course not compromise in our desire to have intellectual excellence and proven scholarly output as the foundation for the assessment of merit; but we may need to think again about exactly where that excellence and that output should be visible. This cannot be done by one institution acting alone, as academic reputations need to be built on a globally recognised rate of exchange; we just need to start the debate on what that should be.