Thirty-one years ago this month I embarked upon my career as an academic, becoming Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin. As I prepared to go into my very first lecture, an older colleague (from another department) suggested to me that it would not be proper for me to turn up at the lecture not wearing a gown.
I doubt there will be many people giving university lectures this academic year in Dublin or elsewhere wearing gowns. And yet, there is still something curiously formal and old-fashioned (in a pre-1960s sort of way) about academic life. I know several university departments in different institutions in which staff do not all call each other by first name, and certainly do not address the Head that way. And even where such barriers have been overcome, there can often still be something very hierarchical about interpersonal relations, even in the most politically radical departments (not that there are many of these now). It sometimes surprises me how status conscious academics can be.
I tend to think that a spirit of scholarship and inquiry does not prosper in an environment of formality. Therefore it may be useful occasionally to consider the atmosphere in universities and within the organisational units, to assess whether it is conducive to open debate and the exchange of ideas, without the restraint of interpersonal formality and the inclination to seek or offer deference.