Tradition, deference and collegiality in universities
When I was a student in the mid-1970s, I was elected class representative and had the pleasure of attending staff meetings in my department. This was an era that still had traces of the spirit of 1968 and student revolt, and I saw my role as being one of asserting student rights and generally questioning tradition. So what struck me most immediately when I attended my first staff meeting was the extraordinary level of deference and formality. The head of the department was addressed by all staff by his surname and rank, and indeed occasionally just as ‘Professor’. When he showed a desire to speak everyone else fell absolutely silent. When he declared (as he sometimes did) that ‘I think we have now decided this issue’ (when, more often than not, there was nothing resembling agreement) everyone murmured assent, even those who moments earlier had expressed a contrary view.
When I became a lecturer a few years later my experience was similar, though it has to be said that my head of department did not particularly expect deference or formality – but he often got it anyway. Much more striking still was what happened when the head of the university – the Provost – appeared: there was a hushed silence, and it would never have occurred to anyone to address him as anything other than ‘Provost’.
Recently I attended a meeting in another university and was astounded to find these traditions still in good health: formality and deference were still much in evidence; except that now there were signs of a cynical undertone that accompanied the deference.
In my own case I strongly discourage anyone from addressing me as ‘Principal’, and indeed was equally discouraging of the address ‘President’ when I was in charge of DCU. If we are to be a real university community we should not maintain such symbols of hierarchy. In any case, formalities and rituals may also be signs of a dysfunctional organisation, in which outward deference masks inner hostility, and in which tradition hides interpersonal strife and aggression. A senior academic in an English university has pointed out that, in their own interests, university communities need to get better at recognising the legitimacy of the roles played by their members, including senior members. He then adds:
‘If that also means a little less phoney deference and a little more genuine dialogue then that might also be the sign of universities maturing into the 21st century. The alternative – an increasing polarisation that leaves us ever more vulnerable to external intervention – will make it much more challenging for us to nurture those values that brought us into academe in the first place.’
Universities need to recover their collegiality. Or perhaps more accurately, they need to discover it, because I am not convinced it was ever really there in the first place. Not really.