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.