Is there such a thing as a ‘university’?

Professor Steve Hedley is Dean of the Faculty of Law in University College Cork, and a highly respected academic expert in private law. As I suspect many Irish readers of this blog will know, he is also the owner of the invaluable academic news resource, 9th Level Ireland. He has also written about management styles in universities, and in one article he suggests the following:

‘… Most departmental members have little interest in making the university run like a well-oiled machine, especially as that vision consigns them to the role of mere obedient cog. Viewed from the departmental level, both the perspectives and the loyalties are very different – which gives the university much of its character, and makes it so hard to govern. As a generality, the academics’ viewpoint and allegiance will be discipline-based rather than tied to the particular institution. Fidelity to the university as a whole may be weak, or indeed (if it conflicts with fidelity to discipline) hardly discernable at all. In principle, we might expect institutional loyalty to be stronger in Ireland than in (say) the U.K. or the U.S., given that job mobility is lower. In practice, this does not seem to be so: each academic’s detailed knowledge of the university is typically about their own department or related departments, their contact with the rest of the university being less frequent and typically purely social. Their loyalty is owed to the people they know and whose activities they understand, not to others, with whom they might occasionally compete for parking space but whom they otherwise ignore. And whatever rationality and purpose may inhere in central university processes is very probably not apparent from the point of view of typical department members. This limits the influence that central university management has, or can possibly have, on the individual departments, and hence on the university’s activities as a whole.’

The point made in the above passage is of great interest to anyone who has ever been involved in developing a university strategy. In fact, the first question that often precedes any actual strategic formulation in a university is whether an institution-wide strategy is even possible. I distinctly recall at one meeting of university presidents, when I suggested to the others that we should issue a joint statement on a matter of common concern to all of us (and, I felt, to the entire academic community), that one president argued that he could not sign any such statement, in the sense that he could not sign any joint statement, regardless of content. He could never speak on behalf of his institution, he said, because there was no such thing as a policy or position that it could adopt (as distinct from one of its constituent departments). The university did not have a sufficient corporate existence to be able to have a policy; or at least that is what most of its staff would believe.

It is indeed true that most academics believe they are part of a department or school or maybe Faculty, and part of a discipline. Their relationship with the university that employes them is often thought to be like that of an English barrister with her or his chambers: they provide accommodation and a degree of work planning, but not a corporate identity. Universities, the view might be, are communities of scholars, not corporations, and the scholars must, for the sake of their intellectual integrity, maintain a significant degree of autonomy from their institutions.

Before saying anything else, it is worth suggesting that this is not altogether an absurd position. One of the imperatives for academics through the ages has been to defend intellectual independence and to avoid being corralled into positions that are informed not by the search for truth but by the imperatives, compromises and whims of temporal power. Fidelity to the discipline provided some protection from undue influence.

Three things have made this position difficult to maintain. The first of these is that universities have moved far beyond teaching, and the demands (including the material and financial demands) of modern scholarship require a process of management. Institutions (rather than individuals) now usually compete for resources, connections and advantages, and they need to be able to plan their moves, like other organisations.

Secondly, knowledge itself has changed, and the demands that society makes on universities to solve problems in culture, society and industry require the engagement of interdisciplinary techniques and partnerships. In a university setting, disciplinary units have often felt their primary task was to defend their departments from the encroachment or financial profligacy of other departments. Now such barriers stand in the way of both teaching and research, and universities need to be able to organise themselves.

Thirdly, whether we like it or not, society (and that includes our funders) has become tired of the old academic order and has started to equate it with under-performance and inefficiency, and the taxpayer has punished universities financially in consequence; this is a trend that, if continued, has the capacity to destroy higher education altogether.

The trick – and who knows whether anyone has yet got this right – is to develop universities that respect intellectual integrity and freedom and can harness academic coordination and collaboration: knowledge organisations that are also efficient and effective. We can no longer afford to be institutions that have no institutional order. But equally we cannot just be organisations based on command structures. Overcoming this apparent conflict successfully is the holy grail of modern higher education, and a conditions for its success.

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12 Comments on “Is there such a thing as a ‘university’?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It might be something to think about, that you lot go on Strike for half a year.
    I really do not know how you’ve gotten yourselves into the position where the secondary school teachers have way way way more clout than you have. And as for the medical community – a group you should take a few lessons from -, they have control of a 25 billion purse one way or another as far as the dept of Health is concerned.
    For what it’s worth, simple greedy self interest should drive all within the academic community in the one direction. But there needs to be a different structure in place to achieve this as many within the institutions believe that management is the child of the political parties.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    ‘Overcoming this apparent conflict successfully is the holy grail of modern higher education, and a conditions for its success’ and it would make for the ‘ideal university president’, one could add, to cite a previous post. Difficult to ignore the recurrence of linguistic metaphores for unattainable goals in recent posts, always worth trying though, of course @)

  3. Jilly Says:

    There’s so much that could be said about this. I would suggest that interdisciplinarity doesn’t seem to me incompatible with academics giving their first loyalty to their (inter)disciplines. That’s just a matter of refocusing one’s loyalties to a different slice of intellectual activity.

    I would also add that universities gain enormously from academics’ loyalty to their disciplines. Aside from the invaluable emphasis it gives to quality of work, it is also the primary driver, in practice, of trans-institutional or international connections and research work, since that work tends to begin with an intellectual connection between 2 or more individual academics working in different institutions.

    I would also question the strength of the lack of loyalty to institutions as you seem to imply here. Certainly, in my own case, whilst my first loyalty is certainly to my discipline, my institution has a very strong sense indeed of ‘belonging’ to college.

    • anna notaro Says:

      I would agree with you Jilly that interdisciplinarity is not incompatible with academics giving their first loyalty to their (inter)disciplines. As for loyalty to the institution ‘university’, personally I like to think in terms of ‘affiliation’ in the original etymological sense of ‘to adopt a son’, before it became figurative (sense of adoption by a society etc’), only sometimes, especially lately, it is not always obvious who is the parent and who is the son/daughter!

    • I suppose the question for me might be whether ‘disciplines’ – which in intellectual terms are fairly random affiliations set in concrete two centuries ago – are necessarily a good basis for primary loyalties. OK, philosophy is a discipline. Is electronic engineering? Or gender studies? Or immunology? Or should we expect all academics to associate themselves with one of the three medieval disciplines?

      • anna notaro Says:

        @’whether ‘disciplines’ … are necessarily a good basis for primary loyalties’
        more specifically it is a case of being loyal to oneself, rather than to an abstract concept of ‘discipline(s)’, disciplines are only the tools each of us has found most suitable to express our creativity, imagination, our curiosity for learning, our passion for research and dissemination, they are part of ourselves, of our evolving identity..

      • Al Says:

        It may be better developed or understood if one uses the apprenticeship model where one serves ones time in or under a discipline.
        It is not just academic consumption or material, rather more like what one studied enabled ones abilities and honed ones skills.
        No,,,, way too much butter on the bread here.
        I dont buy what I just said…

  4. sapphire Says:

    Very interesting.
    “…the demands that society makes on universities to solve problems in culture, society and industry…”

    Who makes these demands?

    “…society (and that includes our funders) has become tired of the old academic order”
    What did the old academic order do wrong?

    • Society’s demands are generally communicated via governments, but they can also be made clear through professional bodies, voluntary organisations, etc.

      I don’t think the academic order ‘went wrong’. It’s just that views have changed.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    Ferdinand writes: “Universities, the view might be, are communities of scholars, not corporations, and the scholars must, for the sake of their intellectual integrity, maintain a significant degree of autonomy from their institutions.”

    The alienation you’re describing is a necessary accompaniment of the professionalisation of university management. Simon Leys has a nice anecdote in a short article about the idea of the University.

    It seems young British Minister for Education visiting an august and ancient university addressed himself to the professoriate in the following terms: “As you are all employees of the University. . . ” At which point he was interrupted by one of those present: “Excuse me, Minister, but we are not employees of the University. We are the University.”

    Universities are, as you say, communities of scholars. But they only feel the need to maintain autonomy from “the University” to the extent that this has been perverted to mean “management.” In the pre-perverted world, there was no need for them to maintain autonomy from the University because it was they.

  6. The quoted account by Prof. Hedley of the allegiances of academics is interesting, and has a degree of correspondence with reality. Most people make a career in the academy because they are passionate about their discipline, and it follows that loyalty to the discipline is high up there among their motivations. However, the picture painted of insularity, of academics unconcerned with the wider life of the university (except perhaps on a social level), is one that applies more commonly to junior academics. In my experience, those holding senior positions, and particularly leadership positions, in academic departments do take a broader view of the institution and do respect, value, defend and support the work of people outside their field. Such people are regularly involved in committee-work (to do with promotion evaluations, research thesis assessment, staffing policy, timetabling, programme development and coordination, student support) which gives them insight into the activity and achievements of colleagues in other departments, schools and faculties. At least, they are involved in this kind of work except where it has been usurped by mere administrators, a worrying trend. The main threat to the effective functioning of the universities is not the lack of cohesion and mutual sympathy of the academics, but the imposition of inappropriate business models.

  7. […] 133), though of course there are many factors which have affected the success or otherwise of the managerialist […]

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