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.

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8 Comments on “What to do with all this dissent?”

  1. Vince Says:

    In fairness now you might be misstating things somewhat. Don’t you think that your use of DISSENT to be indicative of your thinking.

    If I put it this way. In Ireland, our Constitution states that the citizen is Sovereign, Inalienable/Unalienable. Since this is the case then the government is administrative. If I’m reading the document correctly, there is no shirt-pin dancing about this either like with the Crown, Throne, person of the Sovereign. No, there is no cavilling about it at all. But this doesn’t prevent the minister for this that or the other coming out with the statement that they are the ‘sovereign government’.

    How could this matter ?. Well, it’s one of orientation isn’t it.

    In the case of the universities, there has never been a point when the individual scholar acted as a sole trader. Leastwise, not for a good while anyway. So it’s not as if the question is about ‘no’ management, but the style of that management. On the statement that they don’t understand the new needs/requirements, could that not be said by any drover rather than a shepherd.

    Me, I would ask if the current conformation could nurse a David Hume or a Boole. I’d have to say it wouldn’t. Couldn’t, he/she would be tied up filling the worlds journals with versions of serialized studies a bit like Charles Dickins, or Šahrzâd.


  2. @Vince. I think you’ve rather successfully made the case that the ‘golden age’ was, as the OP says, a myth. Boole, IIRC, made his name whilst working as a schoolteacher. Hume was never accepted into any university post even after he had become famous. So neither was ‘nursed’ by any university system.

    • Vince Says:

      I never said anything about a golden age. The reality was one or two a century produced anything that caused a lurch forward. But I could have picked Kant and Frege or any other pair in or out of the system that produced original substantial and incisive thought.
      But to complete your point. If not in university, then where. Who can support such contemplation.
      Well, I suppose you could have rich sources like Atlantic Philanthropies but that largesse was swallowed like baby gannets by the current system.

  3. Polly Says:

    my own response to the Garvin piece (as with a couple of similar interventions) was dismay and a degree of anger. As an academic of a younger generation than Garvin, I have many and deep concerns about the current and future direction of universities, about the rise of managerialism and the threats to academic freedom. However, to see a retired professor complaining that the phone directory has gone online rather than remaining in hard copy, as if THAT were the great threat to academia, is frustrating, as it undermines the very real concerns those of us still working in the system have.

    I do think that Garvin is representative of an old boys’ network (and I use the term ‘boys’ deliberately) who used to run universities and are resentful that those days are over. What worries me more is that the outside world will judge the rest of us by the very public platform he was given, and will then never bother to listen to the considerable concerns we have. I therefore think that Garvin has done other academics – inside and outside UCD – an enormous disservice by writing that column, and would be well advised to remember that he is now retired, and might leave the field of commentary on the workplace to those of us still in it.


    • I agree with that. The response of the non-academic world is to feel a sense of satisfaction that people in the ‘ivory towers’ are feeling the heat and being forced to get used to real life. They don’t understand the pressures many academics work under. Tom Garvin’s diatribes don’t help at all.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    Just like Vince I was also struck by the use of the word dissent in this post and, I should add, by the fact that the two examples of the American and Irish professors seem to deal with too different set of matters to make for a coherent view of the type of ‘dissent’ currently to be experienced within universities.
    The word dissent made me think of its roots in religious matters and it is rather disappointing to see that some changes are embraced with a kind of religious fervor, thus without caring much for the consent advocated at the end of the post.
    Unfortunately the religious analogy is still valid if one considers that Universities occasionally do behave like Churches towards ‘dissenters’, whose voices are too often ostracised, not to speak of how poorly they deal with serious issues like bullying etc. This brings me to the question of whether such difficulties are merely a matter of not having come up with a governance suitable for our age or instead they are the symptom of a deeper system failure.

  5. cormac Says:

    Many thanks for the link to the piece from Georgia University. I thought that article the more hard hitting of the two, and it chimes somewhat with my own experience. The theme of incoming administrators who put massive changes in place before moving onwards and upwards, while the loyal do-ers are left struggling to adjust for the remainder of their careers is one that I think university administrators should consider carefully

  6. Wendymr Says:

    Coincidentally, as I was about to start reading this entry, my eye was caught by a headline on CNN: Stop firing university presidents. The headline on the article itself isn’t quite so dramatic: Why Public University Presidents are Under Fire – and is more than tangentially related to the topic of this entry.


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