Assessing the state of the academy

This post comes to you, if you are to believe Professor Tom Garvin of UCD writing in yesterday’s Irish Times, from a ‘grey Philistine’, one of those ‘who imagine that books are obsolete, and presumably possess none themselves.’ OK, Professor Garvin doesn’t mention me by name, and for all I know he has never even heard of me, but that is how he describes the leaders of the Irish universities today. Oh well, I think I’ll have to invite him to my office and my home so that he can inspect my books, to establish the number and the content. The latter is important because he also asserts that all the university presidents have ‘narrow intellectual outlooks’.

Before you think I have been mortally offended or am responding in a childish sulk, let me say immediately that this is not so, and that I well understand that Tom Garvin’s piece was intended as a polemic; and in any case, as he only ever mentions UCD (and bless him, he may not even know that DCU exists, perhaps believing that the name is just an example of the illiterate new management lovers having problems trying to spell ‘UCD’), his guns may be trained rather more narrowly than the noise of the bombardment might suggest.

So, leaving all that aside, what is his argument? With no disrespect to him, it is not that easy to pick it out, because in the article his accusations are, shall we say, rather varied. But I think there is a theme, and I would suggest it is this: that the value of intellectual discourse is no longer recognised either by government or, more particularly, by university leaderships; that independent thinking is not encouraged or supported; and that the humanities have been asset stripped (though I doubt he’d use that expression) in order to fund applied research in the biosciences. And along the way he takes a few shots more specifically at university presidents, as we have seen.

I mean no disrespect to Tom Garvin when I say that the personal invective used by him in this piece won’t do much good; it will tend to persuade those reading it that this is all about some internal feud in UCD and that the rest of us should just ignore it. Furthermore, some of those whose views and actions are currently affecting higher education and who really should consider the arguments raised may be tempted to conclude that this is another example of the academic community finding it hard to come to terms with a changing world. And all of that would be a pity, because there is a real point in this that needs to be discussed.

Professor Garvin argues that ‘idle curiosity’ should be at the heart of academic endeavour, or ‘the free exercise of trained curiosity by independent-minded and well-educated people’. He argues that much of today’s research is funded only if the researchers are able in advance ‘to specify what they are going to discover before the money to do the research is made available’. Taken at face value this is a seriously misleading statement, as it suggests that researchers are being required to agree to research outcomes in return for money, which if it were true would be fraudulent. It is therefore worth stating categorically that it is not true of any serious state-funded research. So let us assume that his charge is that the subject-matter of the research has to be determined in return for funding. In other words, the charge may be that open-ended, unconditional research funding is not awarded.

And this is indeed a vital question: to what extent should the modern academy accommodate people who will pursue in their own work, and encourage students to pursue, the search for knowledge outside of national priorities or areas of strategic focus? Or put another way, can higher education encompass both the strrategic pursuit of knowledge and skills, and the general search for knowledge in an open-ended and open-minded process? Tom Garvin’s view appears to be that the former is always improper, and the latter is almost lost. He may be wrong on both counts – I believe he is – but it is an important question and it merits a proper debate.

The problem with this article is that it won’t stimulate debate at all (though I’d like to think I am helping him a little here). Throwing around personal insults and somewhat exaggerated invective is unlikely to open minds or change them. The argument presented by Tom Garvin deserves some attention, but to achieve that it needs to be formulated as a contribution to debate rather than as a playground catcall. It also needs to take account of the fact that society needs contributions from universities to address a number of burning issues, whether these are social, economic or technological. It is unlikely that the taxpayer will find it congenial under current conditions to fund research or teaching that is not allowed as a matter of principle to respond to specifically identified needs.

Right now higher education is under attack from many sides. We had better present a coherent argument to the outside world.

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63 Comments on “Assessing the state of the academy”

  1. John Says:

    I don’t think having a clear goal for your research makes you anti-intellectual.

    And I don’t even think having a clear goal imposed on you by an administrator makes you, or him anti-intellectual.

    It’s unclear to me, on reflection, what the pursuit of knowledge ‘for its own sake’ could actually mean.

    • Sally Says:

      Yes. The real distinction here is between research for yourself (not rewarded) or research for someone in authority (rewarded).

  2. Vincent Says:

    It very much depend if you are in the Arts. And if you are you will understand that ignorant savage and aimless asset-stripping as you call it. The Arts, by far, call on most students but the funding that follows that person from Government does not follow them within the University.
    Something very simple like enough basic texts in the Library sufficient to cover the two-hundred reading that course. Twenty or so copies would be enough, with a job lot cost of E200, divided over the life of the course. But what did we have at NUIG, one copy for two-hundred and fifty. And not another copy in the State. Now I’m not on about something in insular Latin notation, there are few enough that require those. Nor am I on about the icing type of reading with the sprinkles, nope basic texts.
    When I chatted with one of the Assistant Librarians, she said her budget did not allow her to cover the book budget of the departments. While a follow up chat with the head of dept said his own had been cut.
    All this while millions were being hoarded for the building of ‘iconic’ structures and making certain the professional or semi-professional courses were supplied like sick priests.
    That was the view I had as an under-grad, how much harder was it for Prof’ Gavin seeing far more from his elevated position.

  3. “And this is indeed a vital question: to what extent should the modern academy accommodate people who will pursue in their own work, and encourage students to pursue, the search for knowledge outside of national priorities or areas of strategic focus?”

    This is the vital question. I think Garvin if asked (and I don’t know the man, I’m extrapolating based on the sense I get from his article) would answer that the modern academy does tolerate those people, but doesn’t allow them to rise within its ranks.

    The best example I can think of is the economist Piero Sraffa. After 2 brilliant papers, he collated and curated David Ricardo’s (a classical economist) papers, and spent 20 years writing a 100 page critique of political economy that nearly blew the whole subject up in the 1960’s.

    Sraffa was terribly shy, and an awful lecturer. Keynes, then a powerful person at Cambridge, got Sraffa a job as the Marshallian Librarian, and there he stayed, content, and productive, for the rest of his life.

    Today Sraffa would have gotten a non tenured job at a research university for the first two brilliant papers, but not much after that. Had he eked out a lectureship somewhere, that’s where he would have stayed. During his time at Cambridge, Sraffa influenced Ramsey, Keynes, Wittgenstein, Champernowne, and Turing.

    My own thinking on the issue you correctly highlight comes from two angles.

    First, those who would do the ground breaking research and collaborate and publish, etc, will do that *anyway*, because that’s how one gets promoted in good universities. Those who don’t, won’t, and I think that would be an alright system of sorts, but it would stop those in the middle of the distribution from pulling ‘up’, as it were. The move to collaborative, team-led research is on the whole a good one, because you’ll have more experienced scholars publishing with less experienced scholars, the system itself will gain experience of what a research culture looks like, and away you go. The obvious potential downside, of course, is that research becomes narrowly focused or siloed, funds get allocated in perhaps a suboptimal way, and the ‘blue sky’ research just doesn’t get done.

    Second, it’s unclear to what degree the ‘hollowing out’ has actually taken place in most Irish universities. Yes, we all have management structures, and yes, they want us to publish in good journals. But so what? We *should* be publishing in good journals! We *should* be working with younger colleagues, and trying to attract funding–that’s our job! That’s certainly how I see my job, management hierarchy or not.

    For me the danger comes in the marginal call. Say I’ve got an idea for a ground-breaking book, or I could spend that time in writing two papers that stand a good chance of getting published in 3*/4* ISI rated journals. If I’m sensitive to the incentive structure of the system, I’m going to go for option #2, because of the citations I’ll get, etc, and that will result in the ground breaking book not being written.

    It’s there I think the danger lies, but honestly, that’s much more of a hypothetical than I make it sound, because if you’re going to write ground breaking work, you’re going to do that anyway, regardless of whether there are gold stars attached to one activity over another. And maybe you’ll write the ground breaking work as a paper, etc, etc. There are interactions one has to take account of.

    It’s a very complicated argument, I don’t fully understand all of the facets of it myself to be honest–I’d welcome any ideas you had on fully describing the problem, as I see it, of effective management of a class of creative and less than creative people by means of numerical assessment of some kind.

    • Stephen, what you’ve described here is indeed a crucial but also very difficult issue. Universities press for refereed journal publication because that has league table and (potentially or actually) funding implications, and because research support is expensive and needs to be spent in a way most likely to support the institution in its competitive position. On the other hand, we all know that blue skies research, or the groundbreaking work you refer to, is critically important for the advancement of knowledge. Balancing all this is one of the most difficult tasks for universities to get right.

      Do we tend to get this right? Probably not, a lot of the time. But if the charge (by Tom Garvin) is that we should never ever attempt at all to focus research strategically, that is wholly unrealistic. Nobody (by which I mean the taxpayer or anyone else) would pay for such an approach. It just cannot be done. Also, is it really reasonable to say, for example, that we know that we want to cure cancer, but we should never organise research to achieve that aim? Surely not!

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        “Nobody (by which I mean the taxpayer or anyone else) would pay for such an approach.”

        Really? Has Harvard been informed?

      • @Ferdinand (if I may),

        Coming from a social science background, the most expensive part of my research is already paid-my salary-presumably by undergraduate fees, most of the time. Give me a laptop, a LaTeX engine, and a data set, and I’m good to go. Lasers I don’t need. When considering allocating scarce resources, in harder sciences, yes, it becomes very important to try to pick a winner, so to speak, because of these sunk costs. The problem now seems to be, from Garvin’s point of view, that picking a direction (biotech, or translational research, or whatever) implies a corresponding decrease in funding elsewhere, and of course a siloing of effort, which was the whole point of picking the direction.

        So the metric for a hard science, build-more-lasers department, where the rationale for the winner picking is clearer, might be mapped to a department of Women’s Studies, or History, or Management, with much fewer costs to individuals doing research.

        Again, I’m not against bibliometrics at all, and in fact quantitative measures of output–% of faculty with PhDs, say–can be highly indicative. My issue, and here I’m on Garvin’s side, is the potential deformation of traditional scholarly effort by an inappropriate incentive structure and/or control mechanism. I’m with Garvin in thinking the purpose of the university is ” the free exercise of trained curiosity by independent-minded and well-educated people.”

        I’m also not naive enough to think that’s all we do, and I do understand the need you identify to make decisions at the top when deciding to allocate funds, but the principle should apply, regardless.

  4. Richard Fedigan Says:

    As a former student of Tom Garvin’s ( nearly 40 years ago, and with positive memories of him) I was about to email him to lament his screed which apparently dates from last year. He has points to make so it’s a pity he doesn’t make them coherently, and with somewhat less petulance.

    Much criticism of so-called highly educated Irish graduates and the system that produces them is justified and you are correct that Tom’s outburst does nothing to answer these criticisms.

    Richard Fedigan ( Former CEO of a global business federation, Paris)

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Richard: As far as I know Tom doesn’t have an email account.

    • As I’ve also just discovered… I wanted to draw his attention to what I have written here, as it’s only fair that he should be able to reply. I think I’ll have to contact him by some other means!

  6. Sally Says:

    John and I have just discussed this on

    Comments welcome. Click on Research in the drop-down Subject list. You can remain anonymous if you wish.

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    You write: He argues that much of today’s research is funded only if the researchers are able in advance ‘to specify what they are going to discover before the money to do the research is made available’. Taken at face value this is a seriously misleading statement, as it suggests that researchers are being required to agree to research outcomes in return for money, which if it were true would be fraudulent.

    Hmm. Seems not only Prof Tom Garvin but also Prof Declan Kiberd have made almost exactly this point in recent months. I quote from the latter’s essay in the Irish Times from 13 March 2010:

    Applicants for academic fellowships were instructed to declare what the precise “outcomes” of their projected research would be, even before their work had actually begun.

    You seem to think that they cannot possibly mean what they say since that would render the research fraudulent. Surely they must be exaggerating! I’m afraid your incredulity would be more appropriately directed at the administrators who do indeed insist on precisely what Garvin and Kiberd say they insist on. In this official UCD policy document from the UCD staff manual you will find the following among the requirements for research leave on the first page: “An Application form must be completed by the staff member, approved by the Head of School and the College Principal and forwarded to UCD Personnel. This should be accompanied by a description of the research to be carried out, together with the expected outcomes” [emphasis mine]. The same page further states with regard to semestrial leave that “The leave is for clearly defined research or study purposes and the outcomes indicated” [again, my emphasis].

    So you are wrong when you say, in essence, that Garvin can’t mean what he is saying and must be referring to the requirement that the subject matter be specified in advance. For this document and many others I have seen draw a distinction between “a description of the research to be carried out” (i.e., the subject matter), on the one hand, and “the expected outcomes” on the other. And they do indeed insist that these outcomes be specified in advance. Failure to do so will result in no funded leave.

    If there’s fraud here, it’s being perpetrated by University administrators.

    • Ernie, what you are commenting on here is UCD policy and practice. I am in no position to judge that one way or another, but it would be very sloppy arguing to conclude that because UCD (you say) does this it must apply everywhere; you would need more evidence than that. Furthermore, Tom Garvin may have intended to comment on UCD policy in that particular argument, but he doesn’t say so, and what he appears to be saying that this is the approach taken by the funding agencies – which is definitely not the case. Nor, for that matter, is it true of DCU.

      As I said, while I could not in any way comment on UCD’s policies, the expression ‘expected outcomes’ could have a number of meanings, including for example the amount of time it would take to do the research and the likelihood of it resulting in a publication. Given that we all have scarce resources, that would not be unreasonable.

  8. Ernie Ball Says:

    Furthermore, I reject the tartufferie by which it is out of bounds to call philistines what they are.

    • Hm, Enrie – if I recall correctly ‘tartufferie’ is behaviour in which the person affects religious piety, hyprocritcally. Not sure how that applies here, but I’m interested!

      I’ll respond a little to your other comments later, and you make some interesting points. But on this one: how do you judge that I am a Philistine, which is what I take it you are saying?

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Hi Ferdinand,

        The ‘philistine’ comment was not directed at you but rather at some of the barely-veiled targets of Garvin’s piece.

        Although Molière’s Tartuffe himself was a hypocrite of the religious sort, Tartufferie is generally used to refer simply to hypocrisy. The definition of Tartuffe in the Petit Robert says simply “personne hypocrite” and tartufferie is defined as “conduite d’un tartufe->hypocrisie”.

        The hypocrisy here consists in insisting that we not call philistines what they are; Garvin would’ve been hypocritical indeed if what he wrote conformed to such dictates.

        • But Ernie, this is what Tom Garvin wrote: ‘A grey philistinism has established itself in our universities, under leaders who imagine that books are obsolete, and presumably possess none themselves.’ He’s referring to all the universities, and while I grant that he may have no idea who I am or that DCU exists, on the face of it that includes me. And here I’ll stick my neck out: I’ll bet I have more books than he has! Having a competition around that could be fun…

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        I think Garvin is extrapolating from the UCD experience. UCD is on the “cutting edge” (to use one of management’s pet terms) of all the new forms of “the higher bullshit,” at least in this country. That cutting edge apparently involves taking management techniques from the 1950s (extreme centralisation and hierarchical organization, management by control rather than commitment) and applying them to the institutions for which they are least appropriate and with little justification. You’d think to listen to some of these guys that the university as an institution had been some sort of spectacular failure over the last 500+ years. The self-flattery that goes along with that myopic historical perspective can only be galling to someone like Tom Garvin.

        But what he describes is hardly unique to UCD. One need only read articles like this to realise that the phenomenon of seeing universities as businesses is much more widespread. And with that view, the university is turned upside down: those running things, whether professional administrators or not, generally haven’t any notion about the history of the university as an institution. They are generally the least well placed to be able to take any kind of synoptic view of the institution. Those who are best placed are generally the ones being pushed around.

        If DCU has managed to escape these trends, well, bully. But given that tenure is an integral part of the notion of a university (but unheard of in most businesses) and given your efforts to redefine the term, one might have doubts about the matter, no matter how big your personal library. Myself, I remain agnostic on the question.

  9. Ernie Ball Says:

    @Stephen Kinsella

    If those who will do groundbreaking work will do it regardless of what sort of conditions and restrictions are put on them, then, by definition, those whose behaviour will be changed by the system currently taking shape in our universities are those who will not be doing groundbreaking work. Many of them–indeed most, I would argue–will not be making valuable contributions to scholarship of any kind. Can someone explain to me what possible great purpose is served by forcing those who have little or nothing to say that is both new and of (global scholarly) interest to publish?

    The perverse effects of this regime, from the publication of reams of “research” read by nobody and purchased (exclusively) by libraries with stretched budgets to the decrease in the signal-to-noise ratio in those libraries on any given subject have been very well documented. What needs to be examined is the entire research model of our universities, particularly with regard to the Humanities.

    And before you say that “if they have nothing of interest to say, they shouldn’t have academic jobs,” let me remind you that somebody has to teach in universities and if you require those people to be those that have new and interesting things to say you’re talking about much much smaller institutions. For there aren’t that many of them.

    But of course in contemporary Ireland, the suspicion is that academics, like all other public-sector employees, must be getting away with something. And the remedy is always the sting of the lash: make them produce! There is no room in this system for what we need more of: the sort of patient contemplation, perhaps over many years, of our human predicament. For our adminstrative systems won’t allow that.

    • Ernie, what research model for the humanities would you regard as reasonable, how would it be funded, and how would it differ from that which you believe is currently applied? I am not arguing with you, I would just be interested in your drawing this out a little.

      • To jump into the ‘hen fight’ here, a model where a highly lucrative business school cross-subsidises arts and humanities, and the medical/science/engineering faculties more or less pay their own way through teaching and research is a fairly sustainable model, I think.

  10. kevin denny Says:

    I don’t want to get involved in this hen-fight in general but since I am on leave of absence from UCD I think I know something about this “expected outcomes” business. I think its largely a misunderstanding about the word “outcomes”. The outcomes I indicated when applying were a bunch of papers looking at specific questions that I said I would write. I didn’t say what I expected to find since I don’t know and whoever assessed it didn’t require it: they are quite reasonable people obviously, in this respect anyway.
    I have applied for various other grants & fellowships and its only fair that you say what you are going to do (“write a book exploring the influence of TS Eliot on Shakespeare”). I don’t think anyone expects you to predict the results. After-all if you give money to one person that means not giving it to someone else. So the assessors need to have some idea of the significance of what you are attempting and they also need to be able to judge in retrospect whether you were successful.
    In practise you don’t always achieve everything you set out to do but you may achieve other things that you hadn’t planned (” but by the way I did prove the Riemann Hypothesis, which was nice”). Most academics are fairly sensible about these things.

    • Thanks, Kevin – I just suggested something similar…

      • kevin denny Says:

        Incidentally for 4 years I was on a committee in UCD which allocated small grants.It was a hard, fascinating but largely thankless task. I am sure we made mistakes but we did our best.
        What I found interesting was the natural scientists and humanities/social scientists like me had very different perspectives and priorities. It was very much a “two cultures” situation.
        The “hard scientists” had a strong preference for grants that paid for graduate students. I tried to explain to them once that this wasn’t appropriate in our fields. After all, I had never had a PhD student myself, I said. This remark caused shock around the table, “But who does your research?” the chairman wanted to know. “I do” I replied. I think they found this too much to comprehend. This is not to say that they were hostile to the humanities/social sciences, they were actually pretty openminded.

  11. […] Professor Tom Garvin ruffles feathers in UCD via The Irish Times. Response from Ferdinand Von Prondzynski. […]

  12. Richard Fedigan Says:

    OK You guys ( you all seem very nice)

    However, I came across your debate by accident and ‘cos I read an article in the IT by a former teacher I respected (Tom Garvin) that seemed more personal invective than an argument likely to convince the non-academic world of the value of research carried out in Irish higher institutions for taxpayers juggling very specific needs on a daily basis right now.

    As former employer of young talent and skills from around the world, Professor Prodzynski’s call for making a coherent case for the value of these contributions is far more likely to influence me to take the ultimate products of these contributions, your ( competing) graduates, as seriously as I would those from US, European and Asian higher institutions.

    Raise your sights, ladies and gentlemen. Although it’s nice watching the sun come up here in Paris, there’s not much of a market down in the ( mean) streets for “idle curiosity” funded by the Irish/European taxpayer.

    Good luck to you all.

    • John Says:

      I think Tom’s the ‘idle curiosity’ guy and Ferdinand’s the ‘objectives’ guy, n’est-ce pas?

      • Well, yes and no. ‘Idle curiosity’ can also be an objective, but like all objectives it needs some justification. In this case the justification would not be the outcome, but rather the importance of the area being researched, the availability of research materials, and so forth. I believe that blue skies research is important. What I might find less persuasive is the request: ‘just give me the money and don’t ask me too many question.’ In the end that’s as unacceptable for academics as it is for politicians.

      • I think Richard and John have hit on an important point, which needs to be made: academics are there to serve the community at large, but what they do, a lot of the time, has longer term impact than the needs of the market place right now. More importantly, there can be no predicting just which person’s idea will have the longest term significance.

        Take Alan Turing. His PhD was in mathematics from Princeton. He tried very hard to solve a deep problem in mathematics, the Entscheidungsproblem. Nobody paid for his research, bar his salary. He didn’t submit a report, or attempt to justify what he did.

        Turing’s work, in one paper in 1936-37, gave every single concept we use to describe and model computers. The benefits to every business, and every person, from technology are obvious, and I don’t think I need to justify those.

        Turing was *only* motivated by ‘idle curiosity’, and nothing else. All his biographies mark out his personality as almost childlike in his innocence. He didn’t care about anything but solving his problem.

        Now, if we hew only to looking for and sponsoring potential Turings to head off into the sunset to think stuff up, we’ll be in trouble very quickly, because we definitely need to work in universities at the coal face of business–as my colleagues in Stokes Bio at UL can attest to–but without the ability to let a Turing or two just sit there and think broad and deep thoughts, we might not have the computer today.

        I think the problem is one of balance, and recognition, that what universities do is something special–remember, without Cambridge, Princeton, and Manchester, there’d be no computer. (Actually there mightn’t be a society as we know it, because Turing’s code breaking work during WW11 almost certainly swung the balance for the allies.)

        The job of university administrators should be to cultivate environments where all the different types of academia-teaching, basic research, and applied research, are all represented.

        Now, when funding gets tight, and justifications are required for funding, then those working on basic research, or research that is not directly applicable to the market-literary criticism, or Women’s studies, say, will most likely lose out to those more ‘applied’ areas.

        The important might get driven out by the urgent, and we’d never know what we’ve missed. I think something like that is at the heart of Garvin’s argument.

        • Stephen, I actually agree with all of what you write. I think it is vital that within higher education we can keep enough space for today’s Alan Turings. That doesn’t get us past the need to pay for it. Not that many academics are likely to hit on the next great thing by working quietly on their own without more money than what pays for their salary. Some might, but for many there will be the need for equipment, or travel, or collaboration. This needs to be paid for by society – the taxpayer – and these days that means justifying it by results. The most sympathetic university leadership will still come up against that.

          Actually, I would argue that we haven’t been that bad at it. My university has several brilliant academics who have made great intellectual strides doing just what they want to do, and being allowed to get on with it. And I don’t think we’re unique. We only require justification when someone is asking for big bucks to fund what they are doing – and then it’s absolutely not unreasonable. I cannot and won’t comment on specific other universities, but overall the picture is not as bleak as that. Though it may go that way, given what is happening to funding.

  13. […] A wonderful article by Tom Garvin- Grey philistines taking over our universities And a Reply by the DCU President -Assessing the state of the academy […]

  14. Robert Browne Says:

    The number of books on your bookshelf is no indication of the breath of your interest or indeed knowledge as you may never have read them. Also, raises the the possibility that you read them but never learned anything from them. Neither, for that matter,would the weight of the books on your bookshelves prove anything. Policies and how they are being implemented is a better indicator of your claim to erudition.

    Is it my imagination or are there thinly veiled threat here not to mention snide comments. One thing that is plain is that Tom Garvin does not need “help” from Ferdinand von Prondzynski to express his observations or state a case. That is an insult.

    Changes to the destructive policies you are promulgating is what is required. There is an arrogance running through this reply and this arrogance shows exactly what Tom Garvin has described in his IT article. On the question of books this ludicrous policy must be reversed. One final point, in praise of UCD. Thank God for Morgen Kelly who always tells the truth!

  15. Ernie Ball Says:

    I’ve been asked a direct question about the research model for the humanities that I would advocate and I want to assure you that I’m not dodging it. I’ve just got a pile of essays to correct that I’ve promised for tomorrow. Hopefully this topic will still be worthy of discussion later today, despite the fact that, on the web, we all perforce have the attention spans of bumblebees. 🙂

  16. Conor Galvin Says:

    ‘Who is Morgen Kelly?’ Perhaps that would be this UCD economist?

  17. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I have a suspicion that this article was motivated by an increased demand for accountability on the part of academic departments in UCD. It is hostility to this that is prompting these charges of “anti-intellectualism”.

    We demand accountability from our politicians when it comes to expenses, because at the end of the day, the taxpayers is footing the bill. The same should be true of universities. The interest of the taxpayers must be vindicated.

    A few years ago, I was discussing the expenses system with a university academic. I was a bit taken aback by some of the expenses that were successfully claimed. I remarked that there was surely a duty to mitigate costs. The response was simply “The duty to what?”.

    • Interestingly, Kevin, my next post (tonight) will be under the heading of ‘academic autonomy and accountability’. It is however a complex issue, not least because some of the calls for accountability take no account of the impact of bureaucracy on intellectual creativity. As I said, more later.

  18. Joseph Says:

    Left my comments under Tom Garvin’s IT article on their website (name of Joseph on p.1).

  19. Jimmy Magee Says:

    I think this blog by Professor Ferdinand is a pathetic attempt to defend policies which are clearly driven by neo-liberal ideology (whether that ideology is internalised or not). This comment on the Irish Times website really summed it up:

    “Would agree with the central thrust of Tom Garvin’s article. Henry A. Giroux wrote along stronger lines in his article – The Corporate Stranglehold on Education . I think it says a great deal about our culture when Google and Intel raise the flag on the actual qualifications of our students (the long boast of the boom years which has also met its Waterloo).

    Universities are still centres of elite power rather than hubs of ‘intellectual’ culture. The snobbish and in fact, anti-knowledge that pervades the university system is a throw back to the colonial period and most especially the emergence of a dominant, privileged class after independence who Noam Chomsky refers to as the ‘High Priests of Ideology’. They are primarily interested in the maintenance of their ‘social standing’, and personal financial well being, they are not generally, as Chomsky points out time and again, ‘interested in speaking truth to power’.

    Those on inflated and quite obscene salaries willingly implement the neoliberalism/privatisation of education while all the time the so called ‘student experience’ or more precisely, basic education, declines in broad terms. Universities resemble factory assembly lines, where students are units, rolled out each year in large numbers with poorer levels of education (the exceptions prove the rule). In the meantime, the ideological and quite frankly the down-right greedy have emerged as ‘academic-management class’ within the University system, their remuneration commensurate only with their aggressive defence of same.

    The battle for minds, the battle for a vibrant knowledge culture (which leaps over the old university walls and gates into all segments of our society, especially the disadvantaged) has failed. We have an anti-knowledge, anti-truth society, with little activity in our coffee shops, homes, offices and Dail, that is why economic, financial and political crises come as a shock to the populace because they were never given a context to begin with by those ‘who should know’. The Republic and more importantly, the ideals of the Republic, suffer and are betrayed at the hands of suited Philistines (of both genders) who know the price of some things but the value of almost nothing.”

    • Jimmy, it’s almost certainly true that my blog post is pathetic, but it’s not an attempt to defend anything. My point is that Tom Garvin has raised arguable issues, but he has raised them in a way not likely to convert anyone not already sharing his views.

      As a matter of interest, what ‘neoliberal’ policy do you think I might want to defend? And what specific evidence do you have that, say, in DCU quite particularly, students are ‘units’ with ‘poorer levels of education’? Or in any other university? Insults are fun, but facts are better.

      • Jimmy Magee Says:

        But doesn’t that prove his point somewhat? He has to communicate his views in a way that is acceptable to you and others in management if it is to “convert anyone” – anyone that matters. He is expressing his views honestly and forcefully. He may not care what you think – he may not think you are worth converting.

        I wasn’t attacking DCU specifically and I don’t have any hard evidence about the standard of education in the universities, but if our Government and policymakers are anything to go by then we are in a bad way. Not to mention all those who got caught up in the property bubble through an inability to do basic maths and question media hype.

        As regards ideology it is impossible to break through the fog of internalised ideology within the space available on a blog. You’ll have to read some Noam Chomsky. I’d recommend “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.”

    • Niall Says:

      I don’t find it worrying that Google and Intel comment on the standard of education of our graduates. What I do find worrying is:

      1) The Government leaps to action when they comment but ignores similar concerns expressed by educators

      2) An offhand dismissal of their concerns by some in education

      BTW, both companies are doing well at present – not suffering adverse effects from the property crash

  20. Robert Browne Says:

    Yes, of course it is Morgan Kelly I wished to refer to and sorry for the typo. Morgan has done, not just great work, but work of consistently higher quality than the department of finance. Of course, that is putting it mildly.

    It has been the hallmark of this government to exclude economists like Mr. Kelly who’s views do not fit in with their own or who’s work shows up the quality of their analysis.

    Patrick Honohan’s appointment as Governor of the CB was an excellent choice. However, it was also made to demonstrate that the government were not serially addicted to appointing their own supporters. Confidence in the banking system was in shreds and Mr. Lenihan knew, that if there was going to be any restoration of confidence, in the sector, someone like Honohan had to be drafted in.

    Economists such as Constantin Gurdgiev or Mr. Kelly are viewed as being dangerous people per se, as they refuse to buy into or parrot the indefensible “only game in town analysis”. In a way, Professor Tom Garvin is in a similar position. Eventually, after tens of billions have been wasted, Kelly and Gurdgiev will also be drafted in to try and save the economy. However, this will not happen until things get hopelessly bad. We have an economics blog about all of this and I do not wish to deflect further attention from Professor Garvin’s excellent article in the IT.

  21. Jimmy, if he doesn’t want to convert anyone not already sharing his view, then why is he bothering at all? In that case it would be pure self-indulgence. The purpose of debate is to persuade. I am open to be persuaded, but that’s less likely to happen if it’s all couched in personal insults.

    • Jimmy Magee Says:

      For the purposes of free speech. To air his views and give those who share his views a voice and maybe start a debate. He has expressed his view honestly and forcefully and thrown in some ridicule for good measure. It proves the point made in my first post about the emergence of an “academic management class” that you seem to be saying “unless you show deference to your betters when airing your grievences, no one will listen to you”. One of Professor Garvin’s key points is that “In five years time a whole free thinking student tradition will have been lost”. A central component of this free thinking tradition is to question and challenge those with authority and power. Professor Garvin is free to challenge those with power and authority in Irish universities and he has done so. His challenge to those running Irish universities puts them on the defensive and forces them to justify some of the policies that Professor Garvin has described as “mad” and “stupid”, etc. Therefore, I think the article has done a valuable service.

      • Hey Jimmy, I’ve never asked for (and certainly never got) ‘deference’. In fact, I welcome robust debate, and here is DCU anyone and everyone is welcome to challenge me whenever they like.

        But in the end if you want to persuade you have to engage people, and insulting them doesn’t usually do that. Not insulting someone is not the same thing as showing them deference. Otherwise I’d now be showing deference to you.

  22. Conor Galvin Says:

    Perhaps the only way to be heard sometimes is to take off a shoe and either hit something (like Khrushchev) or throw it at someone (like al-Zaidi)… especially when those you want to engage are simply not in the business of listening.

    • I understand that point, Conor. I don’t think no-one is listening, however. I suppose my main disappointment with Tom Garvin was not based on what he was saying – as I indicated in my original post, these are all arguable points worth discussing – but rather that he missed the opportunity to make a reasoned case. That’s still my position.

      • Richard Fedigan Says:

        All right guys and gals,

        Jimmy and Conors’ posts and Ferdinand’s response seem to have brought us ’round in a perfect circle, or at least to the point where I came in. ( Is this an analogy of the main point at issue i.e whether debate/research is meant to have an “outcome”, whether this outcome can be anticipated or planned for, and what those paying for it – through taxes, registration fees, bursaries, sponsorships or whatever – can legitimately expect for their increasingly hard-earned euro or buck?)

        If Tom Garvin was seeking to ‘provoquer une polémique’, then it was a “good” article according to the lights of those who believe “idle curiosity” and circular debate ( caustic or otherwise)is an “outcome” worth paying for.

        For my part, I am commenting as a former student of Tom’s, but more as a former employer of graduates from Europe, North America and Asia ( and, by extension, the experience they’ve gained from the teaching, research and example of Professors like Tom and many of you.)

        In my world, where business is done in English, but also in Spanish, German, French and Mandarin, people either have the talent & skills to do business, or not.

        I am also attempting to come at this from the position of a former Irish taxpayer ( currently paying French taxes for abysmal, free, unselective, unilingual universities here) and trying to figure out how higher education can best contribute to addressing growing sustained European unemployment in the face of vigorous competition from highly motivated and pragmatic Asian competitors.

        Once again, I stumbled into your “universe” by accident and maybe I should leave you going ’round in circles!

        However, ( as I said previously) you all seem very nice and well-intentioned, if a little personally “overspirited” sometimes, so here’s my (possibly parting) shot.

        In the above context ( taxpayer-financed higher education’s role – through research and otherwise – in preparing young Irish graduates for increasingly vigorous competition from their peers around the world), it’s hard for me to disagree with Ferdinand ( whom I heard of only recently) when he contends that my old mentor, Tom Garvin “missed the opportunity to make a reasoned case”.

        With work, I was able to intuit what case he might have made, barely, but the fact remains he didn’t make it

        Sorry, but from out here in the wider world, I think Ferdinand’s right. And it’s a pity.

        Bon courage to you all.

      • John Says:

        Richard – a beautiful example of circumlocution.

    • Niall Says:

      Conor, any idea what is his objection to the ‘non-subject of teaching and learning’? Or is it just its practitioners – who hardly play a major role in shaping university policy?

      • Conor Galvin Says:

        One to put to Tom himself, I’d say, Niall.

        My sense though would be that it probably reflects the submergence of T&L at UCD into the agenda of the DRHEA and the type of appointments that followed. What should be key academic leadership roles going instead to non-academic, ‘one of us’ types etc.

  23. Jimmy Magee Says:

    Point taken on the difference between not insulting someone and deference. Nevetheless, is not fair for Prof Garvin to use ridicule in his article? Is this not a legitimate way of highlighting what he feels is the ridiculousness of some the policies being implemented. He obviously feels very strongly that these policies make no sense and his caustic style reflects this. For instance his comment “A grey philistinism has established itself in our universities, under leaders who imagine that books are obsolete and presumably possess none themselves.” This was in reference to what the UCD Vice President for Research actually said in Professor Garvin’s presence. Is it not fair in that context? I don’t see where specifically he has given serious offence to any individual. Its certainly not a deferential article but it hasn’t broken the parameters in terms of insulting people either.

  24. Gerard Horgan Says:

    I wouldn’t shoot the messenger, someone had to speak up, I am glad he did, does anyone get it 100% correct?

  25. It needs to be emphasised that universities are not uniquely plagued by this problem. Managerialism started in the private sector. It flourished in a society that had reduced thinking and management – particularly management – to a basket of easily learned and often repeated pieties. It then infected the public sector via business consultants. It is characterized by extraordinary salaries, new and extraordinary job titles, unnecessary work in the creation of new information flows, and jargon. It will be hard to eradicate because considerable numbers are now employed in a layer of waste and because their best defence is that they express themselves in the language of efficiency, innovation and management, while being destructive of all three.

    • Richard Fedigan Says:

      All right, Colum. That’s fightin’ talk. And very good too.

      May I presume you agree that the expression of independent thinking should itself be subject to a minimum standard of intellectual and linguistic rigour? ( I think the lack of these is what is causing most of the “problem” here, from the outset)

      I thought we were debating (expected “outcomes” aside) whether the value of intellectual discourse and independent thinking, particularly in the humanities, is or is not effectively and sufficiently encouraged and supported by government and, more particularly, university leaderships.

      Indeed, if we were debating this extremely pertinent issue, it is because Ferdinand ( whom I’ve never clapped eyes or ears on) parsed Tom Garvin’s rant and intuited that this is what he was trying to say (hidden in florid and fluid references to hair colour and curious idleness.)

      If this is the “problem” you’d like to address, fair enough. (No jargon so far, I hope!)

      Your comment does NOT address the issue under debate

      Do you really imagine that all, or even most, management in the world is “managerialism” whatever that is?

      Have you not noticed ineffectively managed companies going out of business every month/day?

      Of course there is waste, silly job titles and outrageous salaries. Of course some, maybe much, management is destructive.

      That said, you can’t possibly be suggesting that everything would be much better if there was NO management.

      Nobody is preventing anybody from pursuing knowledge for its own sake, anywhere.

      However, it seems to me that conscious decisions to accept salaries imply at the very least a return of something ( work, maybe) to whomsoever is paying ( with what they earned from THEIR work.)

      I believe that how best to value, manage and organise this work through fostering research in the humanities is what we’re debating.

      Maybe I was wrong?

      (Oh and do you really see no value in the creation of new information flows? Now that’s a very strange thing to hear from someone in the humanities!).

      • Richard,
        I was pointing to the fact that there is an issue that extends far beyond the universities.

        Don’t be silly. Of course I wasn’t arguing for no management. I’m trying to defend management. I use the term “managerialism” to distinguish unproductive guff from genuine management. I have indeed noticed badly managed companies going out of business but – as we know all too well – not all badly managed companies go out of business. Many survive and cost a fortune. Eventually managers and those who teach management will, if they want to retain credibility, have to distinguish what they do from what has been going on.

        Like every sane person, I am very much in favour of creating new information and information flows. I was referring to make-work, information systems created to serve managerialism.

  26. Richard Fedigan Says:

    Hey People,

    Regardless of whether there is agreement on whether “outcomes” ( as opposed to an on-going process of “idle curiosity”) can legitimately be expected by the community(s) that pay your salaries each month, (EVERY) month, is this debate getting any nearer to some consensus on, as a minimum, a description of the process whereby whatever is being WORKED on is being worked on? ( WORK, in the widest sense of the word, is presumably what is being paid for?).

    I seem to recall someone ( was it Ernie?) actually accepting the legitimacy of being asked to propose a “reasonable” research model for the humanities AND undertaking to come up with one.

    As a manager, I was a bit ( pleasantly) stunned and impressed. ( Want a job in the real world, Ernie?)

    • belfield Says:

      All worlds are real worlds, Richard. But I can see from your earlier contributions that your insights into your own world are considerably better than your insights into mine.

  27. Richard Fedigan Says:

    All worlds are real worlds, Belfield? Have you been in France recently where le Petit Nicolas ( and guitar-strumming Carla) bestride Europe ( and the world) clearly pointing the way forward from the utilitarian and outcome-focused Elysée palace? It’s comforting that the G8 and G20 will, for once, experience visionary leadership in 2011!

    Of course you are right ( and tautological?) that I know more about my world than yours. QED!

    And good on you, Colum, for your defence of “genuine” management, thereby re-focusing us on the essence of what we’re debating here.

    With that “outcome” in mind ( the “genuine” management and facilitation of intellectual discourse and independent thinking, specifically, research in the humanities), I’m betting the farm on Ernie’s promised model.

    In fact, if memory serves me, Steven Kinsella posited something about a for-profit business school cross-subsidising (research in?) the arts and humanities with medical/science and engineering covering their own costs through teaching and research.

    Maybe they could work together? Maybe that’s the answer and it doesn’t need more intellectual discourse or independent thinking?

    If so, what do we DO now? And who’ll manage it? And when? Could it be pilot tested or does it exist already?

    (Sorry, Belfield, if this is more evidence of my lack of insight into your world. Please be patient with me.)

  28. Gary Murphy Says:

    I can confirm that Tom Garvin does indeed know of DCU and he has actually even been out here on a number of occasions to give seminars to staff and students on our various politics degrees. I can also confirm that Tom Garvin has always been incredibly helpful to younger scholars in the Irish academy in the fields of history and politics. I, for instance, have had many discussions with him on the state of post-war Ireland and have benefited greatly from his insights. I do admit with some pride to having thanked him in the acknowledgements of my latest book and to also having reviewed his own work positively in a number of book reviews.

  29. Hugo Brady Brown Says:

    I think that a distinction needs to be drawn between Tom’s original article, and the official College response. Where Tom, unlike others, drew on what he actually knows, his own experience, for creditable reasons of argument, other argue differently. Professor Laffan and Mary Daly’s riposte, while also dwelling on UCD, did College no favours, while seeming merely defensively parochial.

    The risible suggestion that English BA students were having their noses pushed into creating marketing plans raised the awful spectre of B Comm students having a go at I A Richards’ Practical Criticism procedures, doubtless on some screed published by the Financial Regulator. When the finest minds in Ireland are subjected to such nonsense, someone in authority has clearly lost sight of the importance of preserving the literary intellect unsullied by the rote learning of the business planners.

    But what particularly distinguished the Laffan-Daly article was the fact that it was so comfortable with Tom’s revelation of the presence within College of a so-called ‘Confucian Institute’. Now I know little of Confucianism, but I know a lot about the Chinese government, and I know that its State Confucianism is not concerned with furthering the European Enlightenment values of democracy and individual rights. Nor with trying to localise in an Asian context the European achievement of the EU Social Chapter. Jean Monnet would certainly disapprove; Robert Schuman would see it as a contribution to the perversion of the process of creating a community of free nations.

    Despite applying to the UCD President’s Office and to one of the authors, I have thus far failed to entice either into commenting on whether or not College is hosting an organisation ill-fitted to a university in a social democracy. The presence of this entity is properly a matter of concern for all the tertiary sector in Ireland.

    Consider if College (or any university) were to give a home to either a Tibetan Centre or to a Falun Gong Centre, how hostile the manufactured response would be.

  30. […] full article is here and well worth a read. As is this reply from Ferdinand von Prondzynski, President of Dublin City University.  He writes: The problem […]

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