An egalitarian culture, or neglect of achievement?
It is sometimes said, with good reason, that universities are amongst the most hierarchical organisations of any in society. It may well be that in the general run of academic discourse, and in recognition of academic freedom, one opinion is as valued as another (though in fact that is arguable); but in terms of personal recognition, status, support, facilities and general terms, universities celebrate status and attach benefits to it in a way that many corporate business organisations have long left behind.
Perhaps the key to all this is the professoriate. In the British and Irish framework of university practice, very few academics make it to professorial status. Those that do are thereby recognised as having made exceptional contributions to the academy, particularly (often exclusively) in scholarly output. It is in fact sometimes claimed that professors, like football strikers, sometimes achieve celebrity status because they are selfish players, scoring off the groundwork laid down by others. Lest anyone assume that this is necessarily my view, I should add immediately that I know many professors who work selflessly in the interests of their colleagues. But I also know there are other cases.
Of course in the American tradition it is different, and all those with tenure tend to be styled professor, even those who are quite junior. This doesn’t mean that it is an egalitarian system, but it provides more status for the academic community as a whole, particularly in its dealings with the outside world. Some universities on this side of the Atlantic have been looking at this model, and the latest to do so is Trinity College Dublin, which decided to change to an ‘all-professor’ framework for academic staff at its board meeting of June 29. A lecturer will now be an ‘Assistant Professor’, a senior lecturer will be an ‘Associate Professor’, an existing Associate Professor will be a ‘Professor’, and existing professors will remain what they are.
What will this change bring about? Will it push other institutions, for reasons of comparability and to ensure that they can compete for staff, take the same decision? Should it in fact have been a sector-wide one? And will the new framework make the system less hierarchical? Will it suggest that scholarly achievement is no longer rewarded as clearly? Or will it all make no difference whatsoever?