Will the ‘selfish intellectual’ inherit the academy?

As I have mentioned frequently in this blog, this is an age of insecurity in higher education. Faculty are unsure of where the academy is going and are unsettled by today’s odd mixture of public hostility and public indifference; funding is becoming scarcer while its sources are becoming less clear by the day; and nobody much understands how to reconcile the demands for autonomy with the demands for accountability and transparency. Public commentators on higher education are almost all doomsayers now.

It may seem a little unhelpful then to draw attention to another rather downbeat assessment, but here it is anyway. Professor Bruce Macfarlane of the University of Hong Kong has published a rather interesting article on the status and role of a ‘full professor’. As promotion to this rank depends almost entirely on published output and the generation of research income, Professor Macfarlane suggests that this rank now comes the way of only ‘those who pursue an essentially selfish intellectual agenda’, working furiously on their own credentials to the neglect or detriment of the wider academy or indeed the wider external community. Scholarly teaching, the mentoring of colleagues and the protection of professional standards cease to be compelling activities to the professoriate.

Are these fair comments? Really, I’m not convinced they are.There may be some truth in Professor Macfarlane’s analysis when he says that research outputs and income dominate a professor’s advancement criteria. But if he is suggesting that current trends stand in contrast to some professorial golden age, then I’m not so sure. The full professor of my student days and early lectureship was a very remote figure, not much given to mixing with the junior classes. He – and let’s face it, there weren’t many ‘she’s – tended to speak ex cathedra and didn’t much encourage debate. The kindly nurturing figure of Professor Macfarlane’s professorial story wasn’t one I came across much.

It’s not that I would want to encourage the idea that a careerist and money-obsessed professor would be better; but I don’t think that’s where we’ve got to. In fact, I have been able to observe in several universities how established professors of recent years have engaged with their colleagues and supported their efforts. What is true, I think, of the past as much as the present is that professors have tended to achieve their status because they helped secure the reputation and advancement of both their discipline and of their institution. Doing that today requires slightly different outputs compared with 30 years ago. But I don’t believe that today’s professor is any more ‘selfish’ than yesterday’s.

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7 Comments on “Will the ‘selfish intellectual’ inherit the academy?”


  1. It’s that time of year when the sporting metaphor of the domestique springs to mind: the cyclist whose job it is to manage, support, service, encourage, cajole, feed and protect the star talent in the team. At the end of the stage, the talent is catapulted over the line, and the domestiques cycle off quietly into the distance while the talent gives media interviews.

    Universities are filled with excellent domestiques doing lots of things from formal governance to sympathetic listening, mentoring, and making networking arrangements for their colleagues. I agree, plenty are at the professorial level, using their experience and status to make sure that advantage transfers equitably around the system.

    There are more mid career domestiques, though, and this is where the current institutional valorisation of selfishness really hits. The just-hired talent are given very strong direction via the hiring process and subsequent attraction and retention bonuses that the professorial track is only for those who are single-minded about their own research productivity. But this completely ignores that fact that there are a bunch of other much less glamorous things that need to be done by academics, because they represent academic judgment one way or another. So I think the prediction that the selfish might inherit could be right, but I don’t think it’s necessarily about the established professors themselves, so much as how they are expected to get there.

    • Jilly Says:

      I agree with every word of this. I also agree with FvP that there’s no inevitability about the process, and that (thankfully) there are many unselfish professors. But Music for Deckchair’s point rings very true nevertheless.

      And one other point – there are still (relatively) very few female professors. Isn’t it likely that these two points are linked, given that women tend to be socially trained to display less selfishness? They are then also characterised as less committed, less serious as intellectuals rather than departmental domestiques, and therefore less worthy of the highest promotions…


  2. I don’t know about the science side of my institution, but McFarlane’s perceptions are entirely accurate in my faculty. With one exception, the professors are remote and selfish. They don’t teach. They don’t supervise PhDs. They don’t organise seminars or aid colleagues looking to become researchers. With a few exceptions, they don’t buttress academic standards and police the behaviour of management as they should. All this is done – where it is done – by those colleagues seeking readerships and professorships.

  3. cormac Says:

    An interesting case study is the Institutes of Technology in Ireland, where we don’t have professorships at all. Yet I think McFarlane’s observations hold here too – those with active research programs tend to adopt a backseat role in day to day pedagogy i.e. curriculum planning for a new degree or the rollout of a new degree.

    I don’t feel very happy about this as it is definitely unfair on colleagues, but I don’t know any solutions – IoT academics can v quickly end up in a situation where there is simply no time left over for research at all!

  4. cormac Says:

    P.S. A good measure of the selfish academic vs the team player is the amount of time spent away from the college on sabbatical, summer research trips etc.
    In my case, I have to admit I do as much of this as possible – I have discovered that the further away I am from my own college the more research I get done, simply because I am not present to be be dragged into the endless admin meetings on exam results, future programs etc.
    On the other hand, a college’s reputation (and funding) does rest to some extent on the research of its academics, so such activity does have positive spinoff for the whole college community


    • I wonder if there’s a clue in the language here: “dragged into endless admin meetings … etc”. Why do admin meetings so readily fall into the grey zone between teeth-grinding and paint-drying? Why does “endless” seem exactly the right word?

      At the Faculty level I suspect this is due to inexperience among those responsible for the meetings, leading to meetings run according to the minutiae of local politics without any sense of broad intellectual purpose or curiosity or even an agenda, so there’s nothing to show up for beyond the quiet thump of heads banging on tables from time to time. But university meetings tend to involve people with more acute demands on their time, so everything has to be well organised and keep to time because the senior executive in the room has another equally critical meeting to get to. And sometimes these are the best conversations you can have all week about the higher purpose of a university.

      Cormac, could we re-engage the researchers who have bolted by reviving a sense of the admin meeting as a genuine forum, if we ran them as well as we run our best classes or research seminars? What would it take?

  5. cormac Says:

    It would take a good chairman. Faced with a bad one, it is v difficult to know what to do, without making academic enemies. How chairpersons are decided is usually not a very selective processs – it’s often based on whoever is willing to do it. A further problem is that many topics drag on for years, with no real resolution


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