As the university community around much of the world is placed under increasing pressures, ranging from financial pressures to the avalanche of bureaucratisation engulfing the system, some commentators are claiming to notice a more selfish attitude by academics. One American commentator, Rob Jenkins, himself a professor of English, wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
‘If ever any group of individuals should pull together, it would be college faculty in today’s unsettled (and unsettling) political landscape. Sadly, I’ve witnessed more dishonorable behavior in a single committee meeting than I’ve seen on a week’s worth of CNN news shows. When it comes to protecting their turf — their discipline, their textbook, their pet project — an alarming number of faculty members will lie, cheat, bear false witness, shout down, and intimidate their opponents. I’m not saying all faculty members are like that, or even most, but far too many fit that description.
If higher education is going to survive the current climate of budgetary “austerity” and cultural warfare, we’re going to have to rediscover, as a profession, the concept of honor. And when I talk about the profession, I mean from the top down: from presidents and chancellors to the lowliest classroom instructor. Because if we continue behaving the way we have, our narrow-mindedness and cut-throatedness, our in-fighting and self-aggrandizement — in short, our politicking — may ultimately do more damage to our cause than any external threat.’
I suspect that if there is such behaviour on the part of academics it is not particularly new. As a student I was, for a year, an elected student representative on a faculty committee and, back then, I was amazed at the occasional bouts of hostility and aggression that were hallmarks of the discussions – although typically only involving a small number of people. At another university that I experienced as a visiting academic in the 1980s I found an extraordinary culture of bullying and personal hostility amongst the faculty, alongside an absurd personality cult that some of the star academics tried to build up around themselves. So if these negative traits exist, they were there before. They only ever represented a minority culture (albeit a rather toxic one), and I don’t believe that things have got worse.
However, I do agree that what the author calls honourable behaviour should be encouraged, and that we should not make life worse for those academics who are already more likely to feel vulnerable in these times. But then again, alongside the occasional aggression and arrogance, I often find academics who go to extraordinary lengths to help and support others, whether colleagues or students. And so I don’t think I subscribe to the idea that there is less honour in the profession now than there used to be; it is just that the others are a minority that is often more noticeable. So perhaps it is the job of people like me to encourage good conduct and to ensure that it is celebrated.