What to do with all this dissent?
Last month the Irish Times published an article by Tom Garvin, a recently retired professor from University College Dublin, in which he suggested that Irish universities were being destroyed by an ‘indescribable grey philistinism’. He concluded:
‘An anti-intellectual and pseudo-commercial bullying has attempted to replace intellectual freedom, a freedom that the nation itself desperately needs, whether or not it realises it.’
Actually Professor Garvin had been down this road before, in an article published in the same newspaper two years ago. And he is clearly not alone, Both then and last month his pieces were followed by letters to the editor that largely agreed with his analysis.
Nor is this just an Irish phenomenon. The website Inside Higher Ed recently reported that a professor of Georgia Southern University had circulated an email to all faculty in which he described his university as dysfunctional and as being led by administrators disconnected from academics and students. I suspect that if I trawled a little more I would find other examples of such dissent.
What does all this tell us? Actually, that’s hard to say. A lecturer from University College Dublin recently told me that such views are, as he put it, the property of an older generation of academics who find it hard to adapt. He suggested that many of these dissidents are uncomfortable not just with new management practices, but also with new technology, and sometimes with the new practice of involving students in decision-making. They are, he suggested, out of touch with a younger generation of academics.
On the other hand, in my recent role as chair of the Scottish review of higher education governance I came across a good few examples of dissent from academics who would not fit into such a category. So what do we do? One of the key requirements of a successful academy is collegiality. This cannot be a substitute for strategy and action, but it should be an accompaniment to it. Universities cannot return to some allegedly golden age of the 1970s or earlier – there wasn’t such a golden age anyway; they must deal with the financial, quality and accountability issues that they now face. But university leaders must also remember that their plans and methods must carry consent, and they must find ways of harnessing that as effectively as possible.
I don’t agree with Professor Garvin. I think he has misunderstood a good deal of what universities now have to cope with. But I believe that he, and others who think like him, should be encouraged to take their case into the heart of the university, and should be allowed to stimulate discussion and, where appropriate, re-appraisal of policy. Universities would be strengthened by this.